Surface Transport & Terror Threats: An Overview

October 27, 2021

By Deepti Govind

Transportation is known to be a “coveted” target among terror actors worldwide, even though certain modes have become increasingly — and thankfully — extremely hard targets to crack. Aviation, of course, is the first mode of transport that comes to mind when we think about terror threats. However, it’s also the industry that has taken the most stringent security measures, especially since the 9/11 attacks, and has consequently become the toughest target. But the amount of public and media attention over terror threats to aviation has, perhaps, somewhat overshadowed the very real threat to surface transportation, which has also come under attack by terrorists across the world.

For instance, on March 11, 2004, 10 bombs on four commuter trains at three stations in Spain’s Madrid killed 193 people and wounded more than 1,800. Two days later, terror group Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the carnage. Cut to July 11 2006: Seven blasts ripped through suburban trains in India’s western city of Mumbai during the evening rush hour, killing 189 people and injuring more than 800. Mumbai’s suburban train system is one of the busiest in the world and, in 2015, a BBC report said it ferried over eight million commuters a day.

To be sure, terrorist attacks on passenger rail are statistically rare events in economically advanced countries, according to a paper published by the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) and San Jose State University in June 2020. But the interest from terror actors over transportation as a target remains, and that includes surface transport, of which, in turn, rail appears to be the preferred target. An MTI article from 2016 said attacks on surface transportation by terror actors had increased worldwide.

When the MTI article was published, its internal database showed that between 1970 and the end of 2015, only about 11% of attacks on surface transportation in the world occurred in Western Europe, Canada, and the United States. Worldwide, though, attacks with 25 or more fatalities on buses, trains, and passenger ferries grew from only four between 1975 and 1985 to 39 between 2005 and 2015, the MTI article added. Still, the threat has not entirely disappeared. In March 2020, for instance, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) implemented a new rule that requires rail employees in higher-risk freight rail operations be trained to watch for terrorist-related threats.

In this piece, we explore why surface transportation has been a terror target, and how terror groups view it while planning their attacks. In future pieces, we will explore whether the attacks are sophisticated in nature or if the reason behind their proliferation is that they’re relatively “easier” to carry out, and what authorities are doing to combat these threats in the United States.

Why Surface Transportation, And How?

There could be several reasons why terror actors may choose to target surface transportation — whether trains, metros, subways, buses, or even trucks and other freight carriers. One, per the MTI, is that public surface transportation “offer terrorists easy access and crowds of people, making them especially attractive to terrorists seeking high body counts.” The fact that aviation has become a tough target to attack could also be playing a role in terror actors turning their view towards surface transportation instead.

Then there is the fact that terror actors need not use really sophisticated methods to carry out attacks on surface transportation. For instance, stabbings in public transport or vehicle rammings do not require as much planning, equipment, or coordination as carrying out an attack on an airplane or at an airport. Still, that doesn’t mean these attacks aren’t just as deadly. At the end of the day, lives are lost or people are injured no matter the level of planning and sophistication involved in carrying out terror attacks.

When it comes to surface transportation, often the weapons — a knife, a vehicle — could be more readily accessible. But there are efforts being taken to prevent these kinds of attacks, too. Last week, the U.S. House passed legislation designed to make it harder for terrorists to rent cars and trucks to use to carry out attacks. The bill was named after Darren Drake of New Milford, one of eight people killed in a 2017 terrorist attack in New York City when Sayfullo Saipov, an Uzbek national who gave a Paterson address to authorities, used a rented truck to mow down people on a Manhattan bike path.

Another factor that makes surface transportation relatively more “convenient” for terror attacks could be the immense challenges that come with protecting every stretch of it. For instance, according to an article in Homeland Security Today from March 2019, the Al Qaeda’s “Inspire” magazine itself spells out why the rail industry makes for an “attractive” target.

“America’s railroads are estimated to be a 1/3 of the world’s railway. So how can they protect 240,000 km of railroad … it is practically impossible. The same goes to Britain, with 18,500 km and France, with 29,473 km. It is a daunting and almost impossible task to protect the long railroad length, and yet one of the easiest to target,” Al Qaeda’s “Lone Jihad Guidance Team” wrote, per the Homeland Security Today article.

That issue of Al Qaeda’s magazine goes on to stress that carrying out attacks on train tracks would be preferable to attacking cars or train stations. Another reason behind that is that both Al Qaeda and Islamic State have been highlighting terror attack methods that eschew suicide and leave the jihadist alive to conduct another attack, the Homeland Security Today article added. Al Qaeda is particularly interested in America’s high-speed routes and in complex “dual operations.” A complex dual operation, per that article, would be terror actors attacking a train hauling hazardous materials through a well-populated area.

These magazines even come with step-by-step instructions that show jihadists how to make a “derailment tool” to clamp onto a track composed of concrete, rebar, sheet metal and rubber. Luckily, a Department of Homeland Security official told Homeland Security Today that the tool was assessed as not strong enough to be able to take a train off the tracks. Even so, there have been attempts by terror actors based on the instructions circulated in these magazines.

In 2017, Akayed Ullah set off a pipe bomb during rush hour in the Times Square subway station. That has been called an “ISIS-inspired bombing” and Ullah used Christmas tree light fragments to ignite the explosion. He later claimed he had only wanted to kill himself and was not acting on behalf of the Islamic State group, per a BBC article. There were no deaths in the bombing, but four people were injured. The explosion also forced the closure of the station as well as the busy Port Authority Bus Terminal.

As the global effort to combat terror activities continues to strengthen, and intelligence-sharing between law enforcement agencies and nations continues, terror actors may continue to be “forced” to resort to relatively easier attacks that can be carried out with more readily accessible weapons, such as truck rammings, stabbings on various modes of transport, mass shootings at transport stations, and so on. However, like aviation, it’s only a matter of time before security methods continue to advance across surface transportation modes too, making those harder targets as well.

This is the first piece in a mini series that Biometrica will be exploring on terror threats to surface transportation.