Before the terrorist attacks in Madrid on 11 March, it was Moscow’s Avtozavodskaya station on 6 February that suffered at the hands of terrorists. Prior to that, mass casualty disaster hit Daegu, South Korea, on 18 February 2003 when 130 commuters were incinerated at the hand of one man equipped with a flammable liquid and the inclination to wreak havoc.
Perhaps the most infamous atrocity of this type was the rush-hour sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 that killed dozens and injured thousands. Most recently, improvised explosive devices have been discovered on French and Spanish rail lines. The US Department of Homeland Security has taken the step of issuing an alert, warning of the possible dangers to the US rail system. As these few examples indicate, it is no longer an option to deny that mass transit systems, commuter rails and subway systems are vulnerable, exposed and strategic targets.
The terrorist threat has now become a reality for the world’s commuters travelling on urban mass transit systems. Only since Madrid, however, has the terrorist threat to commuter rail systems come to be considered as the newest battleground between civilians and those intent on inducing indiscriminate chaos.
As Western societies proceed with ‘hardening’ their societies and their infrastructures in an attempt to defeat the ever-changing terrorist threat, official installations such as government offices, military installations, embassies and symbols of liberal democratic governance have become unappealing targets for terrorists. An obvious result has been that terrorists have been driven to target lesser-fortified targets. It is a maxim of security planning that terrorists, like electricity, naturally seek the path of least resistance. In this case, those paths lead directly to underprotected and unsuspecting civilians.
The current incarnation of terrorist action places an obscene value on inflicting mass casualties purely for violence’s sake. Witness the 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; the 11 September 2001 attacks; the nightclub bombings in Bali; the attempt to shoot down an Israeli airliner in Mombasa; the May and September 2003 Riyadh operations; and the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the spate of attacks on civilians in post-Saddam Iraq.
Today, violence is not only the means to an end but an end in itself. Modern terrorists - Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and assorted bin Laden-inspired organisations - are not interested in dialogue or negotiation. There is nothing Western society can offer these perpetrators, who are interested solely in the destruction of the liberal democratic system.
Moreover, these organisations and perpetrators, despite the setbacks they have suffered in the US-led global war on terrorism, continue to learn and adapt. Al-Qaeda and its allies place enormous value upon striking economic targets. They are determined to damage and destroy economies, not only the systems that those economies sustain.
Evolution of terrorist tactics
In part, this desire on the part of Al-Qaeda to attack high-value economic targets is an evolution of the tactics perfected by the Filipino Abu Sayyaf and, more brutally, Egypt’s Islamic Jihad and Islamic Group (which have been subsumed into the larger Al-Qaeda structure). The foiled operations on the massive Saudi oil facility at Ras Tanura, the attacks on the tanker Limburg off the coast of Yemen and the 11 September asaults are proof positive of this rationale. There is little to suggest that this tactic of attacking high-value economic targets will decrease in importance.
Similarly, mass-casualty events have become the stock and trade of these organisations. A significant portion of Al-Qaeda’s operational strategy has been to inflict maximum damage. This not only generates significant media attention but also forces those affected by terrorism to take notice of Al-Qaeda and treat it with the deference to which the organisation believes it is entitled.
There are few targets as tempting as civilian mass transit systems for terrorists determined to inflict considerable damage on open societies. Not only are these systems - by their very nature - almost indefensible, they serve as the arteries of modern Western societies. From London, New York, Washington and Paris to Cairo, Tehran, Seoul and Tokyo, commuter mass transit systems are ubiquitous and essential. Modern cities are built around mass transit systems; and, by necessity, housing, business, shopping, cultural and entertainment venues surround and support these systems.
Furthermore, commuter rail lines and mass transit systems link local communities to airports, ports and major urban areas. In a sense, therefore, they join the local to the international and bring the world into regional environs.
Targeting commuter systems can cause astronomical economic damage - first through the attack itself and then as a result of the psychological fear engendered by such an atrocity. In a co-ordinated attack, the possibility exists not only to damage portions of the system but also to bring down the system itself.
Making mass transit secure
Mass transit systems - especially subways - pose unique and daunting challenges to security planners. By their nature, such systems need to move rapidly and their design dictates that large numbers of travellers move in a compressed period of time. This presents a serious challenge to those in the security field who seek to ‘harden’ these systems: security must be enhanced while preserving the very function of rapid transit. Unlike airports, subway passengers cannot be required to arrive for security screening hours in advance. Such measures would doom mass transit, commuter rail and subway systems.
Moreover, subways and associated systems present a very tempting target. Large numbers of people travel in confined spaces at regular intervals, often either moving underground or elevated above street level. This last fact makes rescue and recovery more complicated, for emergency access is often located in awkward areas.
In the case of enclosed stations, this can have the effect of magnifying explosions and adding further complications in the event of a chemical, biological, or radiological release. Some tunnel systems have the potential, through airflow patterns, to increase the dissemination of such agents; several decades ago the US government discovered through stimulant testing that infectious agents can even contaminate areas outside subway entrances.
The threat is present and the need to drastically improve security cannot be overstated. While there is little scope for pre-emptive screening, steps can be taken to improve security on commuter and subway systems. A more robust and visible security presence is needed, administered from a central and secure location. There must be more uniformed and plainclothed officers.
Such tactics may also reduce the likelihood of a possible attack by projecting an active security presence. While this need not be an overwhelming security presence, passengers - and potential attackers - must be made to feel aware of security personnel.
Also, system staff must be trained to know how to react in the event of an emergency and should be regularly tested. Likewise, passengers must know what to do, where to seek shelter and how to evacuate safely in the event of an attack. As passengers are the first line of defence in this situation, there must be an open, frank and clear dialogue with the public. They need to know that a plan is in place to deal with emergencies, as well as how they fit in that plan.
Such public awareness programmes can put passengers at ease and can educate them as to how to act when and if the occasion arises. In a sense, a large portion of rail and commuter security is dependent upon educated and aware passengers.
More exits, rehearsed evacuation procedures and improved lighting systems can not only increase safety but also public confidence. Chemical and biological agent sensors must become commonplace. Other measures - such as random baggage inspections, more numerous and noticeable CCTV fixtures, the removal of all waste receptacles and the installation of mesh seating in stations to increase visibility - may lessen the likelihood of a terrorist strike on our public transport systems.
In future, it may prove beneficial to push out and expand the security boundaries to the exterior of stations to preserve safety in the interior; however, it seems the public may not yet be prepared for such measures.
As long as travellers continue to seek the benefits of mass transit, securing those systems will always be a difficult balancing act. Until passengers are prepared to sacrifice the convenience offered by rapid transit, true security will remain elusive. Nonetheless, rail systems and subways do not need to be as vulnerable as they have been.
Total security will always remain a myth; but a robust security system can make mass transit systems less appealing targets and also mitigate the effects of a terror strike. The option to dissuade and reduce the appeal factor of these commuter systems for terrorists intent on mass murder can be implemented at short notice.
There does not need to be another catastrophe before we begin to seriously evaluate the threats to mass transit and take steps to reduce our vulnerability.
Christopher Boucek is editor of RUSI/Jane’s Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor and has written widely on mass transportation security