Al Qaeda’s interest in the mechanisms by which trains may be de-railed may be a story line for mainstream journalists, eager for a headline, but in all honesty, it is hardly a surprise. Its announcement on 13th August that its follower and acolytes should consider the many ways by which trains might be de-railed is an obvious extension of what has gone before. As airports become more secure it was always clear that Al Qaeda would move onto new mass-transportation systems as a target to create their desired mass-casualty attacks.

It is not as if attacking trains is something which Al Qaeda has some past experiences. The attack on the four trains outside Madrid in 2004 saw nearly two hundred people killed. A final death toll that could have been so much greater if the trains on which the bombs had been planted had run on schedule. By running late, the bombs exploded outside the railway stations. This reduced the fatality count.  Ironically had the trains run to schedule the death-toll would have been significantly higher.

Trains and railway stations have also featured in a number of other attacks. In Mumbai in 2008 one the teams targeted the main railway station. The Indian railway network had also been attacked before by terrorists using bombs. The worst example in terms of death toll was on 11 July 2006 when attacks on seven trains saw two hundred and nine people killed and over seven hundred injured.

The London attack in 2005 was conducted against the capital’s underground network. In Brussels, their Metro system was also targeted. Attacks have also been thwarted by passengers of people carrying knives and guns. Whilst those on-board attacks have failed it makes complete sense to explore what might happen if an attack might de-rail the train. Something that any inspection in history, looking for example at the results of the accidents in Selby, Hatfield and Potters Bar illustrate what can happen. Given the right circumstances the death toll can be significant.

Notwithstanding accidents on the railway other attacks have been based on more sophisticated devices. In New York a plan to deploy a cyanide bomb on the Subway was called off at the last moment by Dr Zawahiri. He reasons for doing this remain shrouded in mystery. Perhaps the most famous terrorist attack of all in Tokyo which saw small quantities of highly diluted sarin deployed on five trains and resulted in twelve people dying immediately – some of those employees on the stations – remains iconic.

The article advocating derailment as a tactic of terrorism, which appeared in the seventeenth edition of its well-known, multi-language, Inspire Magazine is unusually long. It spans eighteen pages. Approximately twenty percent of the total publication. That is very unusual in terms of length and shows the emphasis that the organisation is placing on the tactic. It also comes at a time when the last edition of Inspire was published in November 2016. That interval of nine months reflects the problems the organisation is having at the current time.

Whoever wrote the article makes it clear that the United Kingdom, The United States and France are the key targets. With America’s railroads estimated to comprise two-thirds over the total railway track in the world it represents a target that is easy to attack. The United Kingdom has 18,500km of track. In France that figure is 29,743km.  The really scary part of this is the speed with which some trains now travel. Imagine a derailment of a high-speed train and its potential impact. As Inspire is also quick to point out this does not have to be a suicide operation. Whoever undertakes the operation can escape and plan another attack.

The railway system in western countries is essentially a soft target. Thousands of commuters, travel by train to work every day. Despite efforts by the train operating companies to maintain the public’s awareness of the potential for bombs to be placed on trains it is quite normal to see people tuned out listening to music rather than maintain vigilance about what is happening in their local surroundings.

Its emergence into the social media world in early August shows that despite the efforts of the international community Al Qaeda is still vying to be recognised as a mainstream organisation and has not been side-lined by all the attention that is focused on so-called Islamic State (IS). An organisation that is quickly becoming one whose name and capability are diverging. 

Its loss of territory in Iraq and in Syria is completely undermining its claim to be a state. But as the attack in Barcelona confirms it still has a potent capability to inspire attacks across Western Europe. With reporting suggesting at least thirteen people have been killed IS still retains the ability to motivate people to conduct random attacks. This is something that Al Qaeda can dream of at the moment. That is a situation they have to change.

The time is right for Al Qaeda to make a play. To seize the initiative and move back onto the world stage from its relative obscurity. For some time now they have been playing second-fiddle to IS. A position that their leader, Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri will not enjoy. From leading the international Muslim movement, he has been relegated to being an also-ran. A person whose messages and narratives go largely unreported. Al Qaeda’s efforts to conduct attacks in places like Somalia, Yemen and in west Africa get brief mentions in the western media.

As a result of this Dr Zawahiri needs a spectacular badly as Al Qaeda has been haemorrhaging support to IS. Over forty organisations previously loyal to Al Qaeda have now defected to IS.  That loss of support has to be stopped. A major attack on a railway system would help stem that tide.

To re-establish the Al Qaeda brand on the world stage he needs a spectacular event. An attack that saw a goods train carrying chemicals de-railed as it goes through a major city would be just such an event. It would have the potential to create a huge problem for the Fire and Rescue Services if such an attack took place in the United Kingdom. While trains carrying nuclear waste and material are hardening to such a derailment, standard trucks carrying toxic chemicals are a very different manner.

While discussing specific tactics in such a publication is perhaps less than a sensible idea, one does not wish to help the bad guys, the idea of a small bomb going off on one of the trucks of a goods train as it passed through a major railway hub, such as the newly opened Birmingham New Street, would have spectacular consequences. If that train were pulling wagons loaded with chemicals it could be even worse.

It seems that far from being consigned to the dustbin of history Al Qaeda is determined to raise its game. For the general public in Western Europe this can only mean more death and destruction. For the emergency services, it points to the need to be prepared for even greater attacks with even more loss of life.