This post is also available in: heעברית (Hebrew)

Terrorists plan to attack rail systems

Has Successful Terror Gone to Ground?

Terrorists have shifted their focus in recent years away from attacking airlines to attacking subway and rail systems. This, according to an analysis of terrorist attacks over a 30-year period from 1982 to 2011 by a leading security researcher.

In his study, entitled “Has Successful Terror Gone to Ground?” Professor Arnold Barnett of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Sloan School of Management, concludes that statistically significant evidence points to a growing focus of terrorist attacks against ground mass transit. The deadliest attacks against air and rail in the decade 2002-2011 were against subway and commuter rail systems, taking 200 lives apiece.

In a previous analysis for the period 1968 to 10 September 2001, the author concluded that air travel within the United States entailed a greater risk of a terrorist attack than “virtually any other activity.”

According to HomeLand Security News Wire, the new Barnett paper, which reaches a different conclusion, appeared in the online version of Risk Analysis, a publication of the Society for Risk Analysis (SRA).

Register to iHLS Israel Homeland Security

Barnett argues that “if terrorists give weight to demonstrated success,” then the vulnerabilities illustrated by recent rail bombings from Great Britain to Sri Lanka could be precursors to further attacks.

Given that there is little evidence that attacks on rail systems can be thwarted while in progress, the greater terrorist interest in railroads “heightens the urgency” of intercepting terror plots in advance. Barnett reached this conclusion by noting that a planned 2009 New York subway attack was thwarted by good intelligence work, rather than by security measures at Times Square or Grand Central Station.

In his analysis, Barnett excluded the 2,765 ground deaths suffered during the 9/11 terrorist attack against the United States. The reason is that his analysis focused on risks to air and rail passengers. The 9/11 casualties would have overwhelmingly dominated the analysis had they been included, raising the danger that the understandable preoccupation with the 9/11 calamity would “obscure less extreme patterns related to acts of terror.” Identifying such patterns was the main point of the article, the author notes.