How can cities protect metro systems from terrorism?

Wreaths of flowers on the ground near the Maalbeek subway station in Brussels after a 2016 terrorist attack. Image: Getty.

Since the start of the millennium, hundreds of passengers have been killed and thousands injured by bombings on metro rail systems. These systems are particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a weakness which has been exploited by more than 150 terrorist organisations – ranging from ultra-left extremists to religious fanatics – to target commuters in 64 different countries over the past four decades.

Madrid’s Cercanias commuter train system was hit in 2004, London’s Underground in 2005, Mumbai’s suburban rail network in 2008 and Moscow’s metro in 2010. More recently, bombings took place in Brussels in 2016 and again on the London Underground at Parsons’ Green Station in September 2017.

There are certain factors which make metro rail systems particularly vulnerable to attacks like these – but there are also several measures that authorities can take to make them safer.

Security measures are weak at most train stations – and there’s a high concentration of people. This makes them prime targets for terrorists looking to carry out mass casualty attacks using IEDs. IEDs have been a weapon of choice for three main reasons: they’re easy to acquire, there’s a low risk of detection and the potential impact is huge.

IEDs are relatively inexpensive to build, and the internet has emerged as a valuable source for terrorists to share detailed instructions on how to assemble a wide range of bombs. Once put together, IEDs can be smuggled onto packed commuter trains to cause mass casualties.

Installing airport-style security checks at train stations could prevent attackers armed with IEDs from entering. But this presents obvious difficulties: metro rail systems are designed to be used by millions of passengers every day. People would resent long waits in security queues multiple times a day to complete their commute.

Mad rush, Manila. Image: FotoGrazio/Flickr/creative commons.

Owing to their function, metro rail projects are conceived as open architecture systems. This means that, in the design phase, emphasis is placed on facilitating the movement of passengers. Every care is taken to minimise the presence of bottlenecks (other than those created by shops and fare collection gates) that can inhibit movement, cause delays and create safety concerns, brought about by overcrowding. This open design makes it easier for terrorists to enter, plant explosive devices hidden in bags or backpacks and make their escape afterwards.

Metro rail systems are also vulnerable because of the inherent predictability in the way they operate. It is easy for terrorists to work out when trains are most crowded, in order to cause a large number of casualties. This may explain why the attacks on the London Underground in 2005 and 2017 both took place during the rush hour.

A stronger response

The response of security agencies to this threat has varied around the world. In London, the emphasis is on covert measures. Police rely on intelligence-led operations to disrupt plots at the planning stage, while a vast network of CCTV cameras is used for surveillance to identify suspicious behaviour.

At the other end of the spectrum, security personnel in Beijing, Delhi and Moscow scan every bag for explosives and pat down every passenger before they can start their commute. This approach comes at a cost, as waiting times in security queues can stretch up to 20 minutes during the rush hour.

Across the world, it’s becoming increasingly common for railway companies and police to rely on ordinary railway employees such as train drivers, station managers and platform managers to perform a security role by identifying suspicious objects and individuals and reporting them to authorities.

Training railway staff in a security role can lead to “target hardening”: in other words, it increases the effort required on part of terrorists to attack metro rail systems and raising their chances of getting caught. The challenge for rail companies has been that the security role creates an additional burden for staff, which could lead to errors in both the security checks and their conventional role.

Innovative technology and design solutions are also being tested, to better secure metro rail systems against terrorist attacks. For example, provisions are made at the design stage of stations to include potential checkpoints, where baggage scanners can be installed to check passengers when police receive specific warnings.

The ConversationThere are nearly 200 operational metro rail systems worldwide – and new ones are under construction at a rapid pace . They provide a fast, affordable and environmentally friendly means of transport to large sections of population and have become an essential feature of cities across the world. Now, security agencies, railway operators and engineering companies must come together to protect these systems – and the people who use them – from the threat of terrorism.

Kartikeya Tripathi, Teaching Fellow, Security and Crime Science, UCL and Hervé Borrion, Associate Professor in Security and Crime Science, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The history of Brick Lane Mosque tells the story of the East End’s immigrant past

Brick Lane Mosque. Image: Lemur12.

There’s a mosque a short walk from Whitechapel station on Brick Lane, one of the many that serve the large Bengali population who live in the East End. Originally called the London Great Mosque (“Jamme Masjid” in Bengali), it is now known only as the Brick Lane Mosque, following the building of much larger Islamic centres around London, such as one nearby on Whitechapel Road.

High above the separate entrances for men and women on a stone sundial are carved the Latin words “Umbra Sumus”. These words and the date above them betray the long history of the building that has stood unassumingly on the corner of Fournier Street and Brick Lane for almost 250 years. A building housing the religions of the successive waves of immigrants, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim, who have defined the East End and London itself for hundreds of years.

The building was originally built in 1743 as a church by the French Huguenots who settled in London after fleeing religious persecution in France. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes, by the French King Louis XIV in 1685, saw the rolling back of hard won civil rights for Protestant religious minorities and their subsequent emigration from France. Those that came to London settled in the Brick Lane area and a thriving weaving industry developed. When this declined due to industrialisation in the north of England, the Huguenots moved West, contributing to the large French population in Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hammersmith, and Fulham. So their church on Brick Lane fell out of use.

The poverty of the area, as well as its proximity to the London docklands, meant that it remained the starting point for the historic stream of immigrants to the city. Following the Huguenots, Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe and Russia settled in the area during the 19th century.

Earlier the building on the corner of Fournier Street had briefly been used as a mission for the evangelical Society for Propagating Christianity among the Jews, an indigenous attempt to convert the immigrant community to the native religion. This was a short-lived and unsuccessful endeavour and the building soon became the main point of worship for the Jewish community, the “Great Synagogue”. Just as the Huguenots left before them, the new residents of Brick Lane and its surrounding area eventually moved out of the East End towards the leafy suburbs of North London.

Only four of the 150 synagogues that were built in Tower Hamlets remain today and the Great Synagogue on Brick Lane was one of those lost to history. The building was repurposed as a mosque for the Bengalis who inherited this part of London from the Jewish community. The current residents of Brick Lane mostly immigrated from Bangladesh after the country gained its independence from British colonial rule in 1947. Seeking work or fleeing the terrible war for secession from West Pakistan, which saw the creation of the modern state of Bangladesh, the ethnically Bengali community in Tower Hamlets grew rapidly in the second half of the 20th Century and now make up 32 per cent of the borough's total population.

Immigrants from across the world have thrived in the East End in spite of intense poverty and racism from those who came before. It was Jewish immigrants who stood against Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists on Cable Street. Next door to the nearby East London Mosque on Whitechapel Road you can find Altab Ali Park, named after a young Bengali man who was murdered in a racially motivated attack during racial tension in the East End.

The pain and success of those who have lived in the East End is written on the streets of London, in the architecture, monuments, shops and lasting communities now scattered across the city. Each wave of immigrants leaving a shadow of themselves on the city long after they have gone and their children have become Londoners. Umbra Sumus means “We are shadows”; prophetic words carved in a long-dead language, by people who themselves died long ago.