Short piece for the Telegraph after last week’s bomb scares on the London underground looking at the transport system as a target. The case is turning out to be quite an interesting one.
As a child in London in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of the most reliable excuses for being late for school was a bomb scare on the underground.
Inevitably, it usually proved to be an abandoned bag of some sort, though occasionally these were viable IRA devices. In 2005, the full potential horror of bombs on London’s public transport system was realised in the form of the July 7 bombings which killed 52.
Since then, London’s transport system has been largely spared. Muhidin Mire’s attempted murder of Lyle Zimmerman at Leytonstone tube station last December stands out as an exception, but even so was more vicious assault than sophisticated terrorist plot.
It is still unclear how rudimentary the device at the heart of this week’s bomb scare on the tube was, but the viability of the device and the incident highlights how London’s public transport system remains a consistent target for those who set out to do harm to fellow citizens.
London’s public transport is an obvious target for terrorists. Given the difficulty and expense of driving around the city, tubes trains and buses cater to a broad cross-section of society.
A quick glance at the roster of victims from the London bombings of 2005 highlights this reality, and shows how a strike on the tube can be a strike at the city itself.
Furthermore, by its very nature the tube has to be open, as otherwise its usefulness would be lost. But this openness leaves it vulnerable.
Finally, terrorist groups are fixated on not only murdering, but also damaging economies. A strike on the tube and the ensuing impediment to daily life and trade can have an vast economic consequence.
This helps explain in part why public transport systems are consistent targets for terrorists. The Madrid bombings of 2004, and the subsequent London bombings of 2005 are two obvious examples of success, while Najibullah Zazi’s disrupted plot to target the New York subway system in 2009 or the thoughts of Dhiren Barot, the British terrorist currently serving life, about targeting the Heathrow Express, show how it features fairly high on terrorist targeting packages. But it has been some time since there was a successful attack, especially in the UK. This is in part due to the vigilance and intelligence work of British authorities, but also due to an evolution of the terrorist threat.
In recent times terrorists appear to have decided to broaden out quite considerably the nature of targets that they want to hit. For the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil) or its followers, high profile individuals, security officers in civilian attire, sports events, random public venues and religious venues have all now also become – potentially easier – targets than public transport.
In some countries, like China, authorities have even gone so far as to install airport style security checks on bags in public transport, though London seems far off from this.
Even so, public transport remains a highly alluring target for its widespread social, and economic, impact. And in this latest case, timing may be a crucial factor.
If this is the work of an Islamic extremist linked to Isil, we may see the attack described as retaliation for the advance on Isil’s Iraqi capital of Mosul, though it would be slightly strange for them to have waited until this moment to strike.
Nevertheless, Government agencies will certainly be alive to that possibility. So while vigilance by us all has to become the norm, there will certainly be extra security – both overt and covert – on the tube today.