Traveling soon? Suicide bombings against trains and buses lethal, but few in number
November 18, 2014
• Understanding the facts behind the nightly news videos
• “Only 138 suicide attacks have occurred since 1970, far fewer than most people would think”
To the casual observer, it would appear that suicide attacks on buses and trains are great and growing in number and severity. The facts are telling a different but still disquieting story, say two security experts from the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University.
While suicide attacks make up only a small percentage of all attacks, they account for a disproportionate share of the total fatalities, says Mineta Transportation Institute security expert Bruce Butterworth. Suicide bombings account for fewer than 6 percent of all terrorist attacks on buses, but they account for just over 16 percent of the fatalities. Suicide bombings account for 1.6 percent of the attacks on trains and train stations (including subways), but they account for nearly 11 percent of the deaths, says MTI.
These statistics derive from continuing research performed by Mr. Butterworth and fellow Mineta Transportation Institute security expert Brian Michael Jenkins on attacks against public surface transportation, using MTI’s database of 4,068 attacks beginning with Jan. 1, 1970 through Oct. 31, 2014.
This includes 2,031 attacks against passenger buses and stations, 1,089 attacks against trains and stations, 583 attacks against rail tracks, 322 attacks against highway infrastructure such as bridges, and 36 attacks against passenger ferries.
Of the total, 2,945 were bombings, and 138 were suicide attacks. These suicide attacks accounted for 1,388 fatalities, or 14 percent of all fatalities and nearly 20 percent of those caused by bombings.
Suicide attacks on trains and train stations (18 of 1,089 total attacks, of which 858 were bombings) account for 384 fatalities, which translates to nearly 11 percent of the total fatalities in attacks on train targets and just over 14 percent of the total fatalities from bombings. All suicide attacks were bombings.
Suicide attacks on buses and bus stations (115 out of 2,031 total attacks, of which 1,217 were bombings) account for 1,003 fatalities or just over 16 percent of fatalities in all attacks and 25.5 percent of those resulting from bombings. As with bus targets, all suicide attacks were bombings.
Suicide attacks have become more lethal, while non-suicide attacks less so, MTI says.
Since 1970, the percentage of suicide attacks has been increasing, according to the MTI experts. This conforms to a broader trend in terrorism toward the increasing use of suicide bombings. However, since 1992, that percentage decreases slightly.
“This is due not to a decline in the total number of suicide attacks per year, but to the greater increase in the total number of non-suicide attacks,” says Mr. Butterworth. “Although impossible to prove either way, it is possible that this is a function of data collection, which has improved in its ability to capture more low level events that were missed in the decades before the data collection began.” (MTI began its data collection in 1997.)
The lethality of suicide attacks has been increasing steadily while non-suicide lethality has been decreasing. The experts’ analysis shows a high rate of increase for attacks with either up to five or up to ten fatalities each.
Their analysis also shows that 83 percent of all suicide attacks are against bus targets, a far higher percentage than for non-suicide attacks (30 percent). Much of this is due to bombings in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, many in the terrorist campaign that accompanied the Second Intifada, MTI says. These attacks account for 50 percent of all suicide attacks on buses and bus stations and 44 percent of all suicide bus attack fatalities.
Train attacks offer higher body counts
“However, the most lethal suicide attacks have been against passenger trains, followed by attacks on bus stations and bus stops, which are less than half as lethal,” Mr. Jenkins says. “In part, this reflects terrorist strategy as well as the nature of the target. Terrorists can hope to achieve high body counts by carrying out suicide attacks, by carrying out attacks involving the detonation of multiple explosive devices, or by derailing speeding passenger trains. Derailing trains is a daunting task in which terrorists have only occasionally succeeded. However, we should point out that in developing countries like Cambodia and Angola, terrorists have achieved very high body counts by using a combination of bombs and assault weapons, which sometimes include derailments.”
According to Mr. Jenkins, the choice in most countries is usually between suicide bombers and multiple bombs in non-suicide attacks. “Suicide bombers, as we see here, are lethal,” he says, “but multiple bombs can rack up very high body counts as we have seen in the attack on the commuter trains in Madrid in 2004, which killed 191 people, and in Mumbai in 2007, which killed 207 people. Suicide bombers are a rare commodity, individually lethal but not easy to recruit in groups. Planting multiple bombs also requires a group, but volunteering for a suicide mission is not a pre-requisite.”
In addition, say the MTI experts, a bus is the target of a single bomb, and only so many people can be killed on a single bus. Therefore, a train may be more suitable to an attack involving multiple bombs. Terrorists have used explosives-filled vehicles to make attacks more lethal by having suicide attackers ram them into crowded buses or into bus terminals or stops, or just by leaving them near those targets.
Jihadist and non-jihadist attacks have some differences
Messrs. Jenkins and Butterworth say that both jihadist groups — those subscribing to al Qaeda’s or similar ideologies of a religious war against Western infidels in order to ultimately impose a new world order under Sharia law — and non-jihadist groups employ terrorist tactics. Suicide attacks by jihadist and non-jihadist groups are increasing at about the same rate. And the lethality of their attacks is increasing for both types of groups, although it is increasing more for jihadist attackers.
“There is less of a difference between suicide attacks and non-suicide attacks by jihadists,” says Mr. Butterworth. “All jihadist attacks aim for high body counts. There is a greater difference between non-jihadist suicide and non-jihadist non-suicide attacks, reflecting more diverse motivations and objectives.”
Despite their overall higher lethality, only 56 percent of the jihadist devices detonated on target while 19 percent were rendered safe, according to MTI data. In contrast, 84 percent of the non-jihadist devices detonated on target and only 5 percent were rendered safe.
“This may be at least in part explained by the fact that the Palestinian groups that carried out the many lethal suicide bus bombings during the Second Intifada are classified as non-jihadists,” Mr. Jenkins says. “Their aims, including the destruction of Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state, are more secular than those who seek to create a caliphate that will eventually rule the world. These groups, however, were highly effective in delivering well-constructed devices. Their failures were not ones of engineering, but rather interceptions by Israeli authorities before they came close to their targets.”
Of course, regardless of the group, he says, suicide attacks still kill more than non-suicide attacks, although a few non-suicide tactics, such as placing an explosives-laden vehicle next to a bus stop or terminal, can be as lethal if not more so.
“But let’s return to perhaps the most striking number,” says Mr. Butterworth. “Only 138 suicide attacks have occurred since 1970, far fewer than most people would think. Meanwhile, just fewer than 4,000 non-suicide attacks have taken place, occasionally with greater lethality. Though growing in number and lethality, suicide attackers in the world of buses and trains are still relatively few. They have not been the unstoppable, monstrous wave of attackers our worst nightmare would conjure up.”
“People are always drawn to suicide attacks,” says Mr. Jenkins. “Nothing gets attention more than a person sacrificing their life to kill the innocent. News photos and videos provide graphic testimony.”