Tighter Security on Europe's Rails

By John Burgess
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 17, 2004

BERLIN, March 16 -- The crowds aboard the commuter trains that feed central Berlin haven't thinned noticeably since last Thursday, when bombs killed 201 people riding into Madrid. Some rail users here said they believed that Germany was probably safe from such attacks; others feared attacks were inevitable but said that there was just no other practical way to get around.

"Germany did a good job of keeping itself out" of Iraq, said Tina Maibach, 19, as she waited Tuesday at Berlin's Zoo station, a busy crossing point of commuter, long-haul and subway trains. The Madrid bombings, she said, were retaliation for the deployment of Spanish troops in Iraq. "I'm not so afraid" that it could happen in Germany, she said.

But a few steps down the platform, Inge Berktold spoke with concern. "I have a very bad feeling to go on a train now," she said. "And I'm always anxious when my nephews go on a train. . . . It can happen anywhere."

All over Europe, which is served by one of the most advanced and heavily traveled rail systems in the world, people have had to sort out what the bombings in Madrid might mean for their daily rides. Governments have tightened security, but officials concede that they can make no guarantees of safety.

Mounting evidence pointing to the responsibility of Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network in the Madrid blasts has raised official and public fear that attacks in other countries could be on the way. Germany's interior minister, Otto Schily, said after a cabinet meeting Sunday that al Qaeda's involvement would mean that Islamic terrorism in Europe had "taken on a new quality."

While Germany and France stayed out of the war in Iraq, they and many other European countries are contributing to U.S.-led military operations in Afghanistan, once al Qaeda's training ground, and their governments say that this could make their countries targets.

Tightened security is perhaps most visible in France, where authorities have placed transit facilities on "red" alert, the second-highest level. In part, that's because the French rail system faces a double threat, al Qaeda and an obscure extortionist group calling itself AZF, which has threatened to detonate 10 bombs along the tracks unless it is paid millions of dollars. This month, the group led police to a bomb; in recent days, French newspapers have reported that the group has been back in touch with authorities, apparently hoping to capitalize on Madrid-related fears.

In addition, the French prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, said on television Tuesday that the government had received a letter from an Islamic group called the Movsar Barayev Commando that contained threats of attacks against French interests, the Reuters news agency reported. Last month, the al-Arabiya television channel in Dubai broadcast an audiotape in which a man purporting to be Ayman Zawahiri, the top lieutenant to bin Laden, said a recently approved French law banning Islamic head scarves in schools was "another example of the Crusader's malice, which Westerners have against Muslims."

During a visit to Paris's Saint-Lazare train station on Monday afternoon, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said that "all security forces . . . are working together to guarantee the highest level of security." He cautioned, however, that there was "no such thing as zero risk."

Police in the Paris region were conducting luggage and identity checks at peak travel hours, Sarkozy said. At 160 railway stations, police stopped about 5,000 people and detained about 30, for reasons unrelated to terror.

A police clampdown like this "is not just a measure to reassure the public," said Kevin O'Brien, senior policy analyst in the British office of Rand Europe, the European unit of the U.S.-based Rand Corp. research organization. "Certainly, increased police presence has been demonstrated in countries like Israel to actually have an impact."

Passengers boarding Eurostar trains that pass under the English Channel between Britain and France undergo security screenings similar to those employed for air travelers. But otherwise, Europeans generally step onto trains unchecked. There are just too many people to screen, officials say. In Germany alone, short-haul trains carry 4.2 million people a day; long-distance trains add another 350,000, according to Claudia Triebs, spokeswoman for the national rail system Deutsche Bahn. She said that rail officials had observed no sign of a drop-off in passenger volume after the Madrid attacks.

But a poll taken by the TNS-Emnid organization March 12, the day after the Madrid bombings, found that 56 percent of respondents said they feared terror attacks in Germany. That was up from 43 percent in a similar poll on July 7.

At Saint-Lazare station in Paris, one married couple, Gisele and Ababacar Diop, felt little comfort from the heightened patrols. "We are only taking the train because we have no other choices," said Ababacar, 32. "I just hope bin Laden is not angry with France."

Special correspondents Pan Yuk in Paris and Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.

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