The sheer number of militant suspects combined with a widening field of potential targets have presented European officials with what they concede is a nearly insurmountable surveillance task.
Two days after a young Moroccan man was thwarted from an apparent plan to cause carnage on a Paris-bound express train, European officials confronted the deepening quandary of what additional steps they could take in the face of such attacks on soft targets, short of paralyzing public spaces or even more intrusive surveillance.
Enhanced security and surveillance measures had already filtered out the young man, Ayoub El-Khazzani, 26. But by now, he was one of thousands of Europeans who had come on the radar of authorities as potential threats after traveling to Syria.
The sheer number of militant suspects combined with a widening field of potential targets have presented European officials with what they concede is a nearly insurmountable surveillance task. The scale of the challenge, security experts fear, may leave the Continent entering a new climate of uncertainty, with added risk attached to seemingly mundane endeavors, like taking a train.
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In fact, the authorities in at least two countries knew quite a lot about El-Khazzani before he surged into notoriety Friday. He was on a French list as a security threat, and Spanish officials told news media there that he had traveled to Syria — not in itself an offense, unless he went there for jihad.
Had he been living in France, a tough new surveillance law, approved at the end of July by France’s constitutional council, would have likely turned up even more on him.
Yet with all that the authorities already knew, El-Khazzani managed to board unhindered the heavily traveled Amsterdam-to-Paris high-speed train with a sack of weaponry, probably in Belgium, and was ready to inflict serious damage, with dozens of rounds of ammunition, an AK-47, an automatic pistol and a box cutter. If not for the fortuitous presence of three Americans, and the help of a British and a French passenger, in the train car, many could have died.
The three Americans described the attack at a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Paris on Sunday. On Monday, they are to be presented with the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honor, by President François Hollande.
“We are now faced with unpredictable terrorism,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, a French security consultant and terrorism expert. “Terrorists henceforth will be choosing soft targets, those where there is little security,” said Brisard. “And that’s why he chose a train, because there is little security.”
On Sunday, French anti-terrorism officials were continuing to interrogate the suspect. A lawyer who has spoken with him insisted to French news media the man was “bewildered” by accusations of terrorism, saying he merely wanted to rob the passengers.
The shortcomings of the French security list were highlighted Sunday by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front Party here. Le Pen called for the expulsion from France of terrorism suspects on the security-threat list, saying there were “serious weaknesses” with the system. Some anti-terrorism experts agreed that control of the movements of suspect individuals with residency permits across European borders — including those on lists — was weak. And that played into the inherent weaknesses in controlling rail passengers, they said.
Because of the European Union’s borderless frontiers, there are no “systematic controls on Europeans” or those holding resident cards, “only on foreigners,” Brisard said. And that is “the real problem,” he said.
With determined jihadists, 40 million passengers daily and 100,000 trains, securing Europe’s rail networks is a challenge unlikely to be met anytime soon, if ever, according to security experts.
The problem is that train stations — 3,000 of them in France alone — are open spaces, largely uncontrolled, where nonpassengers can mingle freely with those getting on board. Baggage is checked in only a few places, and for a very few trains — for the cross-Channel Eurostar, and for some trains in Spain after the terrorist attacks there that killed around 200 people in 2004.
Europe’s trains and stations, and thousands of miles of train tracks are very different from the tightly controlled space of airports, the security experts said. And trains are on the way to becoming the logical soft target of choice, they said.
“Among the soft targets, the rail system will be a major one, because today they are so unprotected,” said Bertrand Monnet, a French terrorism and risk expert. For terrorists, “for years their symbolic target was air transport, but that has become very difficult.” Trains are “an evident target,” he said.
“Millions of people would say, ‘It could have been me,’ ” Monnet said. “The question was not whether, but when.”
The half-dozen big train stations in Paris are like villages, with a constant stream of unchecked humanity pouring through them every day. Decades old, they were designed with none of today’s security problems in mind. Sporadic patrols by armed soldiers constitute a check, but a very limited one, say the experts. One million passengers a day take the French high-speed train alone, and 3 million take the suburban train network.
“Access to the platforms over the whole network, to train stations, these are open spaces. It’s not like airports,” said Marc Ivaldi, a European transport expert at the Institute of Industrial Economics, in Toulouse, France.
“Even if you are not traveling, you have access. It is a huge space, and one that is very difficult to make secure,” Ivaldi said. “You could put cameras in, but you can’t imagine a system like airports.”
To install airport-style, metal-detector gates in train stations “would totally block the flow” of rail traffic, said Brisard.
“You are dealing very much with a popular expectation that you can go to the station and get and go wherever it is you need to be quickly and without too much hassle,” said Christopher Irwin, vice chairman of the European Passengers’ Federation, a passenger-advocacy group based in Belgium.
Adding new security checkpoints and additional layers of passenger and baggage screening, experts said, would not only extend travel time, but would also stretch the physical capacity of urban train stations.
“You can try screening everyone, but that is unlikely to be sustainable,” Irwin said. “You probably couldn’t keep the transport system working if you did that. Stations simply haven’t got the space to accommodate the queuing that would be required.”
Until now, the only train services in Europe that systematically screen passengers and their luggage are the Eurostar, which connects Britain with France and Belgium, as well as some high-speed lines in Spain. Elsewhere, security systems operate on a more random — and often less visible — basis, relying on networks of surveillance cameras, uniformed or undercover police officers and bomb-sniffing dogs.
The most plausible scenario is some return to the situation in France in the mid-1990s after Islamist attacks on trains and train stations. For a brief period military personnel patrolled inside the trains and baggage was checked. Brisard noted that such patrols have, potentially, a much more dissuasive effect than the mere sight of armed soldiers in stations.