Al-Qaeda and the Threat to Mass Surface Transportation

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 9

The March 2004 attack on commuter trains in Madrid and the three simultaneous bombings on the London underground in July 2005, which collectively killed 243 people, dramatically underscored the acute terrorist threat to mass surface transportation (MST) in the contemporary era. According to the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) in San Jose, California, MST was the target of more than 195 terrorist attacks from 1997 through 2000. Of the 84 incidents resulting in fatalities, nearly a quarter involved ten or more deaths. Similarly revealing are statistics provided by the Brookings Institution in Washington DC, which show that between 1991 and 2001 a full 42 percent of terrorist strikes worldwide were directed against mass transit. The high incidence of attacks against MST reflect both its inherent attractiveness as a “soft” target of opportunity and the problematic nature of safeguarding this particular mode of transportation—both of which are likely to have particular salience to the organizational and operational dynamics of jihadis.

MST and Terrorism

The attractiveness of MST as a terrorist target essentially stems from four factors. First, mass transit systems, by definition, cater for high volumes of passengers who are typically crammed into narrow, confined spaces. Such venues provide a civilian-centric setting of the sort that might yield a substantial body count if decisively struck. Second, MST is designed to move large numbers of people quickly and efficiently, which necessarily means that protective measures must minimize the disruptive impact of security on people who use this mode of transport. This openness, while allowing for passenger convenience, also means that mass transit remains exceptionally susceptible to covert penetration as security officials are largely unable to enact a definitive regimen of entry/exit surveillance (author interviews, security officials, Canberra, Australia, February). Third, because train and subway cars are enclosed, they necessarily serve to amplify resulting shock waves emanating from explosions. Stated differently, bombing these targets does not require the enormous payload—and associated logistical deployment problems—that is typically used to destroy buildings or more open spaces (author interview, Explosive Ordinance Response Team (EORT), Brisbane, Australia, February). Finally, attacks against MST have the potential to affect wider components of a country’s critical infrastructure system as in many cases underground urban transit links are also employed to house major power and communication cables. While this is convenient and cost-effective—in the sense that there is no need to dig a lattice of multiple tunnels—such co-location necessarily exacerbates the probability that a single strike will impact across several networks that are vital to a city’s overall functioning (Clive Williams, presentation made before the Australian Urban Transit Security Conference, Melbourne, November 14, 2005).

Exacerbating the vulnerability of MST is the problematic nature of instituting concerted safety measures for this particular mode of transport. Three in particular stand out:

∙ The culture of mass transportation, which frequently works against effective crisis management to mitigate casualties. This is particularly true in terms of issuing an order to shut down the operations of a system, which even in instances when a terrorist attack is not confirmed may be the safest thing to do (comments made by Brian Jenkins during the National Transportation Security Summit, Washington DC, October 30, 2001).

∙ Direct and indirect financial considerations:

a) On a direct level, installing security improvements for mass transit is likely to prove quite expensive. One agency in the U.S., for instance, estimated that introducing intrusion alarms and passive infra-red night-imaging sensors would cost a quarter billion dollars. A General Accounting Office (GAO) survey of transit agencies in 2002 similarly found that identified security improvements would exceed $711 million (General Accounting Office Report GAO-02-1075T, September 18, 2002). Unlike aviation transportation, these costs cannot be offset through add-ons to standing fares (which could amount to between $2 and $4 dollars per ticket) without putting it beyond the range of the paying public.

b) Indirectly, problems arise out of the competitive nature of MST, which as noted above, resides in its accessibility and convenience. To retain this comparative advantage and minimize the associated risk of people choosing to travel by alternative means (such as cars), transit authorities must therefore offer an efficient and quality service. Security measures that limit accessibility and create delays obviously do not satisfy this requirement (author interviews, transit and security officials, Canberra, Australia, February).

∙ Streamlining collaboration between the numerous agencies and departments tasked with safeguarding MST from terrorism and other crimes. Depending on the state concerned, these parties could include police and intelligence authorities, transportation and government officials, owner-operators and contract security companies. Frequently, these various actors transcend national/federal, state and local jurisdictions creating a mosaic of stakeholders with their own interests, priorities and concerns. Effective coordination is, thus, often a major problem, particularly in terms of information dissemination, early response and overall consequence management.

MST and the Evolving Nature of the al-Qaeda Network

In the years since 9/11, al-Qaeda’s functional latitude to emphasize assaults against hard targets has progressively atrophied due to setbacks it has suffered in the context of the global war on terrorism. More specifically, because the group is no longer able to exert clear command and control over international attacks, it has necessarily been required to switch prioritization away from centrally-controlled strategic assaults executed by an inner core of jihadist activists toward more tactically-oriented strikes undertaken by affiliated cells (and sometimes individuals) as and when opportunities arise. This forced organizational devolution has been mirrored in an operational pattern that gives overwhelming precedence to attacks that are cheap, easy to execute, offer a high probability of success and whose consequences can be accurately predicted. The focus has, therefore, tended to be on soft, civilian-centric venues that can be hit recurrently with minimal outside support and logistical assistance but that still retain a realistic potential to result in a large number of casualties and accompanying social disruption.

Surface transportation represents an ideal venue for these types of attacks. As noted, trains, buses and metro systems, simply by virtue of their openness and large user-base, are soft targets in the full sense of the term, offering terrorists a high degree of anonymity, few obstacles to movement and a highly visible victim set that can be decisively struck with minimal resources. In short, MST makes for a good “killing field,” inflicting the type of collective punishment that can be readily levered to build morale, mobilize additional recruits and supporters and positively sway “fence sitters.” Moreover, because of their greater ease of management, strikes against surface transportation fit well with the operational capabilities of local affiliates—as was demonstrated so graphically in Madrid and London.

Mitigation Measures

How can MST be safeguarded from terrorist attacks? In the short term, there are several pragmatic, cost-effective measures that could be taken, including:

∙ Removing all luggage lockers and trash cans from stations;

∙ Augmenting and randomizing police and security patrols;

∙ Regulating vehicular access to potentially sensitive areas (such as loading docks that may be co-located within station perimeters);

∙ Conducting regular table top exercises and “real-life” simulations to develop, test and refine emergency drill procedures;

∙ Paying greater attention to security at suburban stations, which often represent highly vulnerable “jump-off” points for covert entry into MST systems and perpetrating attacks further “down the line”;

∙ Retrofitting trains to help dissipate bomb blasts;

∙ Ensuring that an effective inter-agency crisis communication structure is not only in place but is also well understood and institutionalized by all parties concerned;

∙ Emphasizing the need for passengers to be aware of their surroundings and attuned to the critical importance of quickly reporting anything out of the ordinary.

Over the longer term, new generation inspection devices might be considered such as fused, multi-threat people screening portals, integrated baggage checks and “smart” video surveillance systems that are capable of facial recognition. Investments in these types of technologies, however, must always be considered in light of what can be reasonably achieved in terms of safeguarding MST and at what expense. Attempting to institute 100 percent security is neither possible nor feasible given the nature and purpose of mass surface transport and the highly open environment in which it operates. Rather, the objective should be the development of a set of counter-terrorist tools to manage risks within acceptable boundaries—measured in relation to both passenger convenience and overall running costs.