Europe’s Vulnerable Trains

On August 21st, a 25-year-old Moroccan, Ayoub El Khazzani, boarded the Amsterdam-to-Paris Thalys train in Brussels with a first-class ticket. With the very impressive arsenal he had brought on board, he was preparing to massacre scores of people. If it had not been for courageous passengers that stopped him, the death toll could have been very high. This latest foiled terror attack has shed light once again on the vulnerabilities of the transport system.

Since the Islamic State threatened the West last September, it should have been a priority to rethink our security approach, especially in train and stations, where security is far more lax compared to airports.

Transport and interior ministers from the European Union met on August 29th in Paris to discuss which measures to implement to try to alleviate the security lapses. (In Europe governments are responsible for directing train lines, which are in most countries government-owned.) The ministers decided to have multinational patrols and tickets with passengers’ names on major continental trains. They also called for increased checks on passengers and baggage at major train stations, and for the EU to tighten gun laws.

Fortunately, except for the March 11, 2004, Madrid train bombings, no major terror attacks against trains took place before last week’s. It is mindboggling that jihadists have not tried in the past 11 years to target trains since they are such easy targets. The modus operandi of an attack on a train is simple enough, as proved by the latest attempt on the Thalys. This is the nightmarish scenario of transport industry: a gunman, or several gunmen, get easily on the train with any number of weapons—machine guns, grenades—and kill passengers. What measures could be implemented to improve the security?

As of now, airport-like security with metal detectors exists on the Eurostar trains between London and Paris, London and Brussels, and London and Lille, France, and works reasonably well. This could be extended to major international train lines such as Thalys. After the Madrid attacks, Spain was the only country that put in place airport-like security measures, but solely on long-distance trains (ironically, the attacks had taken place on short-haul suburban trains). Italy, a credible target of jihadists given the Islamic State’s many references to taking Rome, has since May added security checks in certain major stations before boarding trains. Another measure that could possibly work and be less intrusive would be to have undercover train marshals, like on planes in the US.

After the Thalys attack, France and Belgium said they had dramatically beefed up security in stations and in particular on the Thalys. Interestingly enough, three days after the attack on the Thalys train and the increased security measures, a Belgian journalist from La Dernière Heure proved nothing had changed: to test security on Thalys, he had a fake machine gun sticking out of his bag along with a 20-cm knife while he was going through the station in Brussels. He even spoke to soldiers on the platform who were supposed to be protecting the station. Nobody stopped him. Once on Thalys, he left his bag on his seat unattended for eight minutes. Apparently no one reported him. This experience shows that more effective measures will be needed to secure as much as possible stations and trains.

But like airport security nearly 14 years after 9/11, this might just be a placebo. Indeed, recent revelations of security lapses at US airports are very scary. It is one thing to assess that the TSA is not perfect; it is another one to realize it is a disaster. TSA detected only three of 70 fake bombs carried by undercover agents, which means that there could have been 67 terror attacks in US on planes if the bombs were real. Another example of basic security lapses took place in a country that has been hit hard by terrorism very recently: Tunisia. It seems that what triggered the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advisory change on Tunisia in July wasn’t only the Sousse attack where 30 UK citizens died but the fact that a Scotland Yard agent’s weapon went undetected at Tunis Airport.

Last but not least, walking is also becoming dangerous. Late last year, the Islamic State specifically called for their followers in the West to use their cars as weapons to kill as many infidels as possible. In October in Quebec, a follower rammed his car into two military personnel, killing one. Then in France there were two attacks in two days. In the first attack, in Dijon on December 21st, a man drove his car into passers-by yelling “Allahu Akbar,” injuring 13 people. The next day, in the second attack, a driver rammed his van in a crowd at the Christmas market in Nantes, injuring at least 10 people. In June, there was another similar attack, this time in Graz, Austria. An Austrian of Bosnian descent that seemed to be an Islamic radical rammed his car into a crowd then got out and started knifing people randomly: three people were killed and another 50 injured. Some of these attacks were not classified as terrorist, but before the Islamic State called followers in the West to use cars to kill infidels, how common was it for “deranged” people to run cars into pedestrians?

In the past, jihadists have always tried to re-hit targets they missed the first time around. The Thalys train may not be an exception. Sadly, one difference between jihadists and politicians is that jihadists usually make good on their promises.

Olivier Guitta is the managing director of GlobalStrat, a security and geopolitical risk consulting firm for corporations and governments. Follow him on Twitter: @OlivierGuitta.

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