Posts Tagged ‘public transport’

A short piece for the Telegraph in the wake of yesterday’s incident at Parsons Green underground station in London. Spoke to the BBC, Washington Post and Sun in its wake. Am sure there will be more on this plot in due course, still not clear exactly what took place.

After the Parsons Green tube bombing, what can we do to protect our public transport network?

Public transport by its nature has to be open. This makes it user-friendly to the audience for which it is intended: commuters, travelers, and ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, it also leaves it exposed to people eager to do us harm.

The latest attack on London’s transport system, on a Tube train at Parson’s Green station, is a reminder of this, and it raises uneasy questions about what can be done to protect us all as we go about our business. It also raises further questions about the nature of threat that we face and how we have to adapt to this seemingly low spattering of terrorist incidents which have now become the depressing norm.

It is still too early to understand the motivations of the bomber. With no indication of any ideological goal, nor any claim of responsibility, it is impossible to know at this stage. But it is possible to look back across the recent past and see an increasingly diffuse and confusing threat picture. This year alone, we have four successful attacks – three Islamist and one inspired by the far Right. They are bracketed by seemingly damaged Damon Smith, who left a bomb on the Jubilee line in October 2016 and an aspirant violent Islamist who drove to Buckingham Palace with a samurai sword last month.

Outside the Manchester bombing, the devices and weapons have been rudimentary, using household items to launch random attacks. The individuals are often known to authorities, but in some cases come from nowhere. But they are consistent in their intent to strike fear into the public.

Public transport is an obvious target for this. They are arteries of our cities; they get us all where we want to go. To strike at them is to hit the hearts of our cities and societies and damage the economy that underpins everything.

And this very fluidity is what makes it so hard to protect them. To erect airport-style security at every railway station would not only increase costs and times substantially, but would become a physical impediment at their height of the rush hour, which would create large crowds of people outside stations. Those crowds would in themselves become tempting targets for any bomber or shooter.

In addition there is the perennial question of where one would draw the boundaries of this security bubble. The public transport system of London alone is hugely complex and sprawling. If if we follow the logic of the threat picture becoming more diffuse and scattered, we also raise the issue of which public transport system around the country should not be subject to the same sorts of security blanket. A long-distance service from Euston to Glasgow or a tram on the Manchester metro is just as vulnerable in principle as the Tube.

The answer, as ever, lies in a response that reflects the threat picture. There are numerous public awareness campaigns active aimed at getting the public to be watchful to the potential threats, and these appear to be delivering some success. Damon Smith’s device was picked up by alert passengers. This message needs to continue to be driven home.

Beyond this, the authorities need to continue to play their role in disrupting networks, staying on top of a confusing threat picture and responding as quickly as possible to events that take place. The situation nowadays is such that it is almost impossible to guarantee complete security, but by maintaining a tight lid on the threat we are fortunately only seeing relatively limited impact events getting through. This, atop a public awareness of what is going, on is the likely medium term answer to the severe threat Britain now faces.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the defence think tank Rusi

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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.

London’s public transport remains a highly alluring target for terrorists – we must all be vigilant

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.

Police vans
Police arresteded a 19-year-old man on suspicion of terrorism offences after a suspect device was found

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.