France is taking action to protect against the threat of terrorism on its train network by deploying armed, undercover agents on board trains in the country. Reportedly beginning this weekend, French media has said that the “train marshals” that will be placed on SNCF services will be provided by the elite police tactical unit of the French National Gendarmerie, the GIGN, throughout the summer.
Dressed in civilian clothing, the officers will use their anonymity to spot any suspicious behaviour displayed by passengers to spot any potential trouble before it arises. In order to blend in, not alarm fellow passengers and, crucially, remain undetected to any would-be attackers, officers will wear clothing suited to the environment and will even engage in conversation with those around them.
“If we take a train at 8h, filled with engineers or business people, we will dress a certain way, and behave differently to if we are on a train filled with students coming back from holidays. It’s about adaptability," said a GIGN operative involved in the anti-terrorism drive, as reported in Connexion France. SNCF security staff will also be trained to help the undercover agents and will be call on their knowledge of the train’s layout and unique rail environment that could give them an upper hand against any would-be attacker.
Also quoted was Benoît Terrier, lieutenant-colonel in the GIGN, who said that the ultimate objective was to stop an attack as early as possible. “Train marshals can get involved as soon as someone’s personal safety is threatened; or as soon as a threat appears that could cause an accident, and therefore a serious incident.”
The move by France to station GIGN officers on trains comes following a number of terrorist incidents on trains in France and Belgium, most notably the 2015 incident that was foiled by three US citizens – two of whom were members of the US military. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle, the man making the attack was wrestled to the ground after the gun he was holding jammed. The incident was reported around the world and was eventually made into a feature film this year that was directed by Clint Eastwood.
More recently, in neighbouring Belgium, a similar event unfolded on high-speed Thalys train, an attack that was again stopped in its tracks by three US citizens, again made up of three men with two whom served in the US forces.