The improvised device exploded with a bang and a flash of light, on a busy London subway carriage last Friday morning. Passengers evacuated the train and cleared the station swiftly, but although the bomb failed to go off as intended, thirty people were injured.
Attacks on public transport are seen as ‘soft options’ by security experts. And concerns have been heightened since the latest edition of Al-Qaeda’s ‘Inspire’ magazine had a cover story about how to specifically target train infrastructure.
Over more than a dozen pages, Al-Qaeda writers lay out strategies and justifications for attacking trains, train tracks, and stations.
“The threat posed by radical Islamist terrorism in Europe is high, and the threat of attacks will remain strong also in the near future” says Verna Leinonen from the Finnish Security Intelligence Service SUPO.
“Radical Islamist propaganda has been encouraging its supporters to mount terrorist attacks on so called soft targets, such as public transportation. Lately, there have been instructions on how to derail trains” she confirms.
Five months ago, a suicide bomber in St. Petersburg killed 14 people and left 50 more injured on a train as it travelled between two stations.
There are five services every day between Helsinki and Russia, which connect directly to metro stations and local networks. So how safe are Finland’s trains?
Previous attacks on Russia’s transport system include suicide bombers at a Volgograd station and trolleybus in 2013; a bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport in 2011; two female suicide bombers on Moscow’s metro in 2010; a train blast on the express service from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 2009; and another bombing in 2007 on the same line that derailed a train.
SUPO says they have “no information on concrete threats posed to train travel between Finland and Russia”, but security on Russia’s transport networks would seem to be a weak point of connection to Finland.
There are currently no security checks for passengers getting on the Allegro trains in Helsinki, which speed through the Finnish countryside with minimal stops, over the border into Russia, and arrive at St. Petersburg less than four hours later. It’s the same for the nightly Tolstoi train between Helsinki and Moscow – no security checks on the Finnish side.
Coming in the other direction, the Russians have metal detectors, but Finnish passengers who have taken the journey from St. Petersburg say the checks are cursory at best, and authorities seem to be more interested in checking for smuggled contraband rather than any possible threats to train security.
“If we speak about the situation in Finland and Russia, it’s at least a little bit different” says Pekka Ahola, Head of Security for Finland’s train monopoly VR.
“Fortunately, attacks like Turku are rare. The situation in Russia is different, due to the fact that Russia plays a very big role in world politics, and it can create some greater threats against train transportation than in Finland” says Ahola.
Ahola argues that if there would be extra security checks on long-distance international trains to Russia, then why not also on commuter trains as well?
“Why would we focus on Pendolino or Allegro trains with 300 people on board, but meanwhile we do not check commuter trains, with one unit going to the airport with 550 people on board?” he questions.
Journey Threats En Route
Al-Qaeda’s ‘Inspire’ magazine devotes considerable space to explaining how attackers could derail a train, by tampering with the tracks.
From a security perspective, there might be checks before passengers get on board, but Finland can’t ever hope to adequately secure a network of tracks that runs for thousands of kilometres.
In some other European countries like Germany, they run an empty ‘zero train’ on the tracks at the start of each day to check for any damage. It happens also on Helsinki’s metro lines. But such a system would be impractical for VR, says security chief Pekka Ahola. Besides, if a ‘zero train’ goes once in the morning on the line east towards Russia, the track or crossings could easily be tampered with after that.
Lone Wolf Attacks
Another security headache is the prospect of so-called ‘lone wolf’ attacks carried out by a passenger already on the train. An attack like this happened on a Paris to Amsterdam train in August 2015. Such attacks are almost impossible to predict or stop.
“How do you effectively secure a train, a boat or a plane?” asks Scottish security analyst Andrew Brown.
“For the authorities it’s an absolute nightmare […] how do you balance peoples’ freedom and right to move, against state intrusion?” he says.
Brown is a partner at A.Kain & Partners a company that specialises in security and risk management. His expertise in hostage negotiations has lead him to work with law enforcement agencies all around the world developing strategies to deal with lone wolf attacks.
“The biggest challenge for the public on any form of transport is observation. When you see something wrong, guaranteed it is wrong” he says.
“To a certain extent we’re already on the back foot. Terrrorists I’ve encountered are very well trained and very well equipped, and they’re not hamstrung by the constrictions of military or government” says Brown.
“If you think about accidents when trains are derailed, think of the consequences of that. Their strategy is mass casualties”.
VR Security Measures
VR’s Head of Security Pekka Ahola is cautious about divulging specifics of the company’s contingency plans in the event of a lone wolf train attack.
“It will depend on how aware the train personnel are about the incident. We have some procedures for these kind of attacks, and it’s not armed resistance, but they try to save as many passengers as they can” he explains.
In the event of an attack from within the train, if it was travelling between two stations, it would either continue to the next stop to get passengers off, or go back to the last station, depending which is closest.
And VR is also liaising on a weekly basis with SUPO.
“It’s just to keep this security picture clear, what kind of threats we have, do we have to increase some sort of security measure” says Ahola.
“But it’s pretty difficult for train operators because we only have unarmed guards. That’s all we can use”.