Safer subways: easier said than done

The BBC’s Richard Galpin editorializes on this week’s subway bombing in Moscow:  Given the size of the Moscow Metro, the number of people who use it and the history of previous militants’ attacks on this iconic transport system, the authorities must have known it was a potential target. So what has happened is an embarrassing ...

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571881_moscow_02.jpg
WASHINGTON - MARCH 29: Eric Croom (C) and Anthony Montgomery (L) of Metro Transit Police patrol with their canines Kota (C) and Sabre (L) stand during a photo opportunity for the media at Gallery Place-Chinatown Metrorail station March 29, 2010 in Washington, DC. Metro Transit Police Acting Chief Jeri Lee said in a new release by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority that Metro Transit Police has conducted random station and rail yard sweeps throughout the day as part of heightened security associated with the terrorist attacks on subway stations in Moscow. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The BBC's Richard Galpin editorializes on this week's subway bombing in Moscow: 

Given the size of the Moscow Metro, the number of people who use it and the history of previous militants' attacks on this iconic transport system, the authorities must have known it was a potential target. So what has happened is an embarrassing lapse of security by the police and intelligence services.

One senior security analyst told the BBC the authorities had simply not expected to deal with this kind of threat by individual suicide bombers. It is also damaging for the country's top politicians including Mr Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

The BBC’s Richard Galpin editorializes on this week’s subway bombing in Moscow: 

Given the size of the Moscow Metro, the number of people who use it and the history of previous militants’ attacks on this iconic transport system, the authorities must have known it was a potential target. So what has happened is an embarrassing lapse of security by the police and intelligence services.

One senior security analyst told the BBC the authorities had simply not expected to deal with this kind of threat by individual suicide bombers. It is also damaging for the country’s top politicians including Mr Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Galpin goes on to say that Caucasian militants have now "proved they are capable of striking in the heart of the capital."

I don’t generally think too highly of the current Russian government or security services, but this seems like an unfair attack — particularly since it’s not really clear from Galpin’s article what Russian authorities should have done to prevent the attack. Sure, you can criticize the Kremlin’s handling of the Caucasian insurgency. But assuming that a certain level of insurgent activity does exist and will continue to, should the government have restricted the movements of people from Dagestan to keep them out of the "heart of the capital"? Individually screened passengers in one of the world’s busiest Metro system? I’ve been subjected to random ID check on the Moscow Metro system and I don’t think it’s a practice that really needs to be increased.

As always happens in the wake of these tragedies, transit systems around the world are looking into their own vulnerabilities. (See above photo from D.C. Metro.) Needed as these upgrades may be, they’re also a classic example of symptom of the syndrome that leads policymakers to believe that the next terrorist attack is sure to resemble the last one and the reason why we all have to take off our shoes at the airport.

The Christian Science Monitor offers up a few technological fixes for mass transit systems looking for a safety upgrade, but ultimately it doesn’t seem possible to protect subways systems from the most determined attackers without seriously disrupting service. Jena McNeil of the Heritage Foundation — not the most dovish of institutions on homeland security issues — addressed this question in a blog post on Tuesday

Subways and other forms of public transportation will always be vulnerable—putting in place new security measures for every threat is a waste of money, and doesn’t do much to stop attacks.

The formula for combating terrorism effectively remains the same. Stopping terrorism in the earliest stages, through smart investments and effective intelligence gathering/information sharing has been and will continue to be the most successful way to stop these types of attacks.

Those are all areas where there’s plenty of room to criticize Moscow’s counterterrorism tactics, but thanks to the volume of passengers and proximity to urban centers, subways are always going to be a tempting target. As someone who’s commuted by subway in New York, Moscow, and Washington, I can say that compounding the damage by making the system less efficient doesn’t seem like the answer. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

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