Passenger Train Security – Strategizing Against Future Attacks

Prior to his death in May 2011, Osama bin Laden planned attacks on rolling stock trains in America, and al Qaeda franchises have aimed to do the same on passenger trains. Rail assets are definitely within the jihadi terrorists’ target set, and increased train security is obviously paramount. To increase rail security, it is vital to understand past train attacks to ascertain terrorist targeting, tactics, techniques, procedures (TTPs), and motivations. Accordingly, here are overviews of four major passenger train attacks that help illustrate the threat.

The 2004 Madrid Bombings

The Madrid train bombings happened on March 11, 2004. Up to 12 terrorists hid 13 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on four passenger trains. Ten devices exploded in the morning rush hour between 7:30 and 8:00 a.m., killing 191 and wounding 1,741. The carriages suffered catastrophic structural damage. Several IEDs went off as trains were arriving at Madrid’s main Atocha train station, which increased the casualty count. In some carriages, terrorists placed their IEDs near the doors where passengers tend to congregate, which again increased the casualty count. Track bed damage at each detonation site was substantial. The carnage triggered an immediate shutdown of all trains in Madrid.

The Madrid train bombers made their IEDs out of the mining explosive Goma 2 Eco, which has a velocity of detonation (VOD) of about 19,000 feet per second (FPS). In comparison, the 5.56mm bullet fired by most U.S. servicemen from the M-4 carbine travels at about 3,000 FPS. The bombers used cell phone alarm clocks as triggers, packed their IEDs with nails and screws for shrapnel, and hid the devices in backpacks and/or duffel bags after extensive reconnoitering.

The group responsible for the bombings was the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group (MICG), an al Qaeda (AQ) inspired franchise. Twenty-one operatives from Spain, Morocco, Syria, Lebanon and Algeria participated. AQ spokesperson Abu Dujana al Afghani, presumably speaking for MICG, said the attacks were designed to punish Spain for its participation in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. After admonishing Madrid for allying with the Bush administration, al Afghani warned: “If you do not cease your unjust murdering of Muslims, which you call the war on terror, we will destroy your homes and cause your blood to flow like rivers. We are prepared to fill your hearts with terror.” Spain complied and withdrew from Iraq, but it currently has forces in Afghanistan.

The 2005 London Bombings

The London train bombings happened on July 7, 2005. Four terrorists carried out suicide bombings, three against The Tube — London’s underground metro rail — and one against a public bus. The latter bomber presumably missed his train, and being dedicated and flexible, he simply switched targets on his own recognizance. All the attacks happened during the morning rush hour in quick succession at 8:50 a.m., about 50 seconds apart. The bus suicide bomber attacked near 10:00 a.m. In all, the blasts killed 52 and wounded 770, shut down The Tube for a day, damaged telecommunications infrastructure and hurt its structural integrity. Like Madrid, terrorists placed their IEDs near the doors of passenger carriages to kill as many civilians as possible.

The 7/7 bombers made their IEDs out of triacetone triperoxide (TATP) using locally purchased substances.Jihadists also call TATP, “Mother of Satan.” It is highly unstable and has a VOD of 17,000 FPS. CCTV video footage showed the bombers reconnoitering their targets beforehand. Investigators believe the terrorists hid their bombs in backpacks that each of them wore, and they detonated them manually.

The group responsible was not a formally “named” terror group. It was instead, an independent, AQ-inspired cell. Three bombers were Pakistan-born British citizens, and one was born in Jamaica. The apparent ringleader of the cell was Siddeque Khan. He made a video message saying the bombings were revenge against the people of the UK for electing a government that was murdering Muslims, globally. He saw himself as a soldier of God and believed it was his responsibility to carry out such attacks. Specifically, Khan said: “I myself, I myself, I make dua (pray) to Allah ... to raise me amongst those whom I love like the prophets, the messengers, the martyrs and today’s heroes like our beloved Sheikh Osama Bin Laden, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahri and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and all the other brothers and sisters that are fighting in the ... of this cause.” Zawahri later said the attacks had been an AQ operation.

The 2006 Mumbai Bombings

The Mumbai bombings happened on July 11, 2006. A select group of a 23-person terror cell placed eight IEDs on seven trains of the Western Railway of the Mumbai Suburban Railway system. During the 6:30 p.m. rush hour, all but one of the devices detonated in first class carriages within about 15 minutes of each other — just as they were arriving at various stations. The blasts killed as many as 228, wounded up to 890 and caused catastrophic carriage damage. The impact of the bombings caused severe physical damage to the affected passenger cars with blown-out doors, windows and roofs. The blasts also damaged train station platforms. The entire Mumbai rail system shut down for a day, stranding hundreds of thousands.

The Mumbai train bombers made their IEDs out of RDX, ammonium nitrate, and petroleum hydrocarbon oil. RDX is a stable military-grade explosive with a VOD of 20,000 fps and higher. Pure ammonium nitrate can be used as an explosive enhancer that increases VOD. When mixed with fuel oil, ammonium nitrate can achieve significant blast effects as an ANFO compound (ammonium nitrate fuel oil). Officials say the terrorists smuggled the RDX into India from Pakistan. The bomb makers packed about 2.5 pounds explosives into each IED, used pressure cookers as casings and quartz timers as triggers. The plotters then concealed the IEDs in bags or wrapped them in newspapers. One terrorist died in the explosions. More than likely, he failed to disembark from his target train soon enough. Authorities figure six of the terrorists reconnoitered their targets beforehand.

Indian officials accuse the Pakistani-based Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT, “Army of the Pure”), and the domestic Students’ Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) of carrying out the attacks. LeT, an alleged Pakistani-Inter Services Intelligence sponsored organization, has traditionally fought India over the Kashimir dispute, and SIMI has AQ-like goals; it wants a Salafi-jihadi Caliphate-run society in India and beyond.

Initial investigations said of the 23 terrorists involved, 13 were Indian and 10 were Pakistani. At trial in August 2007, the bombers claimed innocence and also did not recognize the court’s authority because it was not a sharia legal system. In 2009, the radical Islamic terrorist Sadiq Sheikh of Indian Mujahideen’s (IM) claimed responsibility for the Mumbai train attacks. Indian investigators dismissed the confession as a plot to confuse and embarrass the government. Some assert the IM is simply a cover organization for LeT and SIMI operations.

The 2010 Moscow Bombings

The Moscow bombings happened on March 29, 2010. Two female suicide bombers set off their IEDs on two passenger carriages on the Sokolnicheskaya and Tagansko-Krasnopresnenskaya lines of the Moscow Metro rail system as they were stopped at Lubyanka and Park Kultury stations. The Lubyanka IED went off at 7:56 a.m., and the Park Kultury bomb went off at 8:38 a.m., both during morning rush hour. The blasts killed at least 40 and wounded more than 70. The bombers detonated their devices as passengers were boarding, which increased the casualty count. More, the Lubyanka blast happened underneath the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) headquarters, an obvious political message. Damage to the carriages was substantial, but not so to the structural integrity of the platforms and track. This was the seventh significant attack on Moscow’s metro system since 1996.

The Moscow bombers used suicide belts with up to 14 ounces of RDX, again with a VOD of more than 20,000 fps. They used screws and pieces of iron rods as shrapnel. Detonations appear to have been manual. The precise timing indicates the terrorists themselves detonated their own devices. The belt aspect of the IEDs ensured they would detonate about 3 feet off the floor, increasing the effects of the blasts against passengers. The two bombers were escorted to their targets by female chaperones. They were moreover driven to the target area by a male driver, and intelligence reports indicate yet another male supervised the entire operation.

Doku Umarov, “Emir of the Caucasus Emirate,” took responsibility for the attacks. Founded in 2007, the Caucus Emirate is a rebel government in Chechnya. It wages war against Russia to remove it from governing the Caucasus. Doku aims to establish an Islamic Emirate, and this plus his ordering the assassination of a priest in 2009 for insulting Islam causes Stratfor to believe the Caucus Emirate is a jihadist group. Doku announced to Russian citizens after the attack: “I promise you that the war will come to your streets and you will feel it in your lives, feel it on your own skin.” Shamsuddin Botokayov, spokesperson for the group, claims Russia carried out similar operations against civilians in Chechnya, and the Moscow attacks were revenge. He moreover said such attacks would continue and increase in ferocity as long as Russia remained in the region.


There is multiple targeting, TTP, and motivational commonalities amongst the train attacks in Madrid, London, Mumbai and Moscow. First, regarding targeting, in each of these cases, terrorists struck major cities with substantial metro rail networks. These networks were spread out, hard to protect, had lax security and were packed with tens of thousands of people. They were moreover politically, economically and socially significant. In short, they were ideal soft targets where the impact of mass civiliancasualties, shock value and government embarrassment would be high. Accordingly, all U.S. cities that have metro systems should consider the possibility of a terror strike, especially when combined with the fact UBL had strategized attacking urban targets other than New York and Washington, D.C. These aims shatter a myth that some city and transit officials hold – since they are not a high value political or economic target such as New York City or Washington, D.C., they are not on the jihadi target list. They are incorrect.

Second, terrorist TTPs in each case utilized economy of force. The chart below illustrates the point. In terrorist terms, these are (unfortunately) excellent kill and wounding ratios compared to the numbers of IEDs used, operatives deployed and costs of homemade IEDs. In the U.S., like results could certainly be achieved, just as UBL speculated.

Third, terrorist TTPs in all four cases were meticulously designed to result in high casualty counts. The timing of all these attacks happened in morning or afternoon rush hours when people capacity on the trains was highest. And most detonations were synchronized as trains were approaching or stopping at platforms. IED placement was designed to catch as many civilians in blasts as possible. And in all cases, terrorists used explosives with VODs near 20,000 fps, which in technical terms means, “high shattering power.” Explosives with VODs at these rates are designed to “cut” rock and steel with ease. Against humans, they are devastating. Any such attack on America would likely be planned similarly with spectacular casualty counts as the key goal. TATP ingredients are commonly available in America, and considering the mass amounts of undetected, illicit narcotics trafficked into the U.S. on a regular basis, terror groups could likely smuggle in commercial grade explosives if they could not steal them from domestic caches.

Fourth, TTP intelligence and planning was effective and professional. In every case reported except Moscow, the terrorists reconnoitered their targets. Terrorists knew where to get on the trains, and, for the most part, where to detonate for maximum effect. And in Moscow, the detonation under FSB headquarters and the fact that the bombers were escorted by a small squad of operators, indicates preparation and, therefore, reconnaissance.

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