New York and the Moscow Subway Bombing

People intent on preventing a Moscow-style terrorist attack against the New York subway system are proposing a range of expensive new underground security measures, some temporary and some permanent.

They should save their money – and instead invest every penny they’re considering pouring into new technologies into intelligence and old-fashioned policing.

Intensifying security at specific stations only works against terrorists who aren’t smart enough to move to another station. Cameras are useful only if all the stars align: The terrorists happen to walk into the frame, the video feeds are being watched in real time and the police can respond quickly enough to be effective. They’re much more useful after an attack, to figure out who pulled it off.

Installing biological and chemical detectors requires similarly implausible luck – plus a terrorist plot that includes the specific biological or chemical agent that is being detected.

What all these misguided reactions have in common is that they’re based on “movie-plot threats”: overly specific attack scenarios. They fill our imagination vividly, in full color with rich detail. Before long, we’re envisioning an entire story line, with or without Bruce Willis saving the day. And we’re scared.

It’s not that movie-plot threats are not worth worrying about. It’s that each one – Moscow’s subway attack, the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, etc. – is too specific. These threats are infinite, and the bad guys can easily switch among them.

New York has thousands of possible targets, and there are dozens of possible tactics. Implementing security against movie-plot threats is only effective if we correctly guess which specific threat to protect against. That’s unlikely.

A far better strategy is to spend our limited counterterrorism resources on investigation and intelligence – and on emergency response. These measures don’t hinge on any specific threat; they don’t require us to guess the tactic or target correctly. They’re effective in a variety of circumstances, even nonterrorist ones.

The result may not be flashy or outwardly reassuring – as are pricey new scanners in airports. But the strategy will save more lives.

The 2006 arrest of the liquid bombers – who wanted to detonate liquid explosives to be brought onboard airliners traveling from England to North America – serves as an excellent example. The plotters were arrested in their London apartments, and their attack was foiled before they ever got to the airport.

It didn’t matter if they were using liquids or solids or gases. It didn’t even matter if they were targeting airports or shopping malls or theaters. It was a straightforward, although hardly simple, matter of following leads.

Gimmicky security measures are tempting – but they’re distractions we can’t afford. The Christmas Day bomber chose his tactic because it would circumvent last year’s security measures, and the next attacker will choose his tactic – and target – according to similar criteria. Spend money on cameras and guards in the subways, and the terrorists will simply modify their plot to render those countermeasures ineffective.

Humans are a species of storytellers, and the Moscow story has obvious parallels in New York. When we read the word “subway,” we can’t help but think about the system we use every day. This is a natural response, but it doesn’t make for good public policy. We’d all be safer if we rose above the simple parallels and the need to calm our fears with expensive and seductive new technologies – and countered the threat the smart way.

This essay originally appeared in the New York Daily News.

Posted on April 7, 2010 at 8:52 AM31 Comments


Morley April 7, 2010 9:36 AM

The problem now is that people want results they can see, immediately. But intelligence work, when done correctly, is invisible to the general public.

After the liquid bombers were arrested, we saw an immediate ban on liquids on planes- theater that reassured people that they were safe, even though the true safety came from the intelligence work that prevented the attack.

We need more articles like this one, as far-reaching and well-read as possible, to convince more people of where true security comes from.

GreenSquirrel April 7, 2010 9:51 AM

Well said.

The terror threat to subway systems is unchanged so why should we undergo a huge expenditure now. The 7 July bombers didnt lead to massive security overhauls on the London underground, they (unusually I should add) led to increased police and intelligence work.

Lets continue to laugh at the terrorists and pour our resources into combating them properly rather than pandering to knee-jerk scared reactions.

Die Hard V: Das Squid April 7, 2010 9:57 AM

Before long, we’re envisioning an entire story line,
with or without Bruce Willis saving the day.

In my movie plot, it’s the other Bruce that saves the day…

Joe April 7, 2010 10:00 AM

Its all about the placebo effect. People need to FEEL like something is going to help. If you give someone a painkiller with each pill colored blue and wrapped in gold foil it works better then the same chemical in plain white tablets in a generic container. The additional relief is real, even though the effect is from expectation.

Since the real effective work in counter-terrorism is invisible, the public is not reassured and their collective neuroendocrine system is on the edge of fight-flight, kind of like a herd of wildebeest who know that a lion is invisible somewhere nearby.

I think the gov’t should do more to explain the policing that is going on, without giving away details. Knowing that funds are being spent on police work, knowing that officers are doing investigations, and then acting in a trustworthy manner would go a long way to reassuring the public.

But, the gov’t doesn’t really seem to want to reduce the level of fear. The modus operandi seems to be playing to people’s fears to further one ore more unsavory agendas.

Sierra Janus April 7, 2010 10:01 AM

Perfect example of a reactive security program instead of a proactive one. If they had established a realistic security context and performed proper threat and risk analysis in the first place they wouldn’t be doing things like this.

kangaroo April 7, 2010 10:16 AM

You make up for your worst column EVAH, with a damn good one.

Of course, the practical problem is that machinery & movie-plot responses diffuse responsibility, while intelligence and police work concentrate it.

Guess which one a rational bureaucrat will choose?

Blue wire April 7, 2010 10:27 AM

What the terrorists should do is make sure they don’t use any red wires. That makes things too easy for EOD.

paul April 7, 2010 10:30 AM

The city has historically been unable to keep drunks, drug addicts, the mentally ill and just plain thrill-seekers from going pretty much anywhere they choose in the subway system. It’s terrifying to think that they even imagine they could keep serious attackers out. Here we are, almost 10 years later, and apparently stupider than ever.

Daniel April 7, 2010 10:32 AM

Bruce may not intend it but the trust of his article boils down in my mind to this statement: If you want to prevent terrorist attacks, make yourself like North Korea.

The difficulty is that I don’t want to live in a police state where everyone is spying on everyone else just of the sake of security. Oddly enough, I agree that most of these flashy technologies won’t solve the problem. But that’s OK because in reality America doesn’t have a problem with terrorists. So if it chooses to waste it’s money on false security rather than hookers and blow, that’s OK; I don’t care so long as it’s not more cops!

aikimark April 7, 2010 10:37 AM

One of my cousins is doing drug interdiction work and he recently had a multi-million dollar bust of a horse trailer on the highway. I asked him what was unusual about the horse trailer and he said it was the passenger’s behavior that drew his suspicion. All of this observed in the span of 1-2 seconds.

I immediately thought of Bruce’s many threads on people acting ‘hinky’.

Mark J. April 7, 2010 10:45 AM

What struck me about the Moscow bombing is that the stations and trains were in operation again by the afternoon commute. If that had been NYC, those stations and trains would still be out of commission while the investigation plodded on.

history April 7, 2010 11:23 AM

General George Patton: “Fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man.”

Thank you Bruce for championing a view long held by our greatest security leaders.

Heiseberg April 7, 2010 11:42 AM

Thank you for blogging. I always enjoy what you write.

Regarding the arrest of the liquid bombers – isn’t London awash in security cameras? I seem to remember they played a roll in identifying where the individuals lived.

S. Powers April 7, 2010 12:33 PM

I seem to remember a lot of issues with attacks on the London Tube system back in the 80’s by terrorists. It led to people switching over to see through plastic for bags and briefcases and a lot of extra patrolling by the police. The see through bags were a convenience for passengers because the police didn’t have to ask them to stop and empty their satchels to make sure there wasn’t anything dangerous; only a glance was required.

Dinah April 7, 2010 1:01 PM

I love the points you make here. Related: all the story-telling CSI-type shows have convinced people (at least subconsciously) that there are no unsolved cases and that science will figure out everything in time if given enough resources. Fingerprints, “microfibers”, or other some such nonsense will save the day. Example:

HJohn April 7, 2010 1:03 PM

I intend this is a historical post, NOT a religious one. (I think the last thing Bruce would want is a religious debate.) So please induldge me as I quote a bit of history Deuteronomy 25:17-18:
“Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you came out of Egypt, how he attacked you on the way when you were faint and weary, and cut off your tail, those who were lagging behind you.”

The reason I quote this is that it was written several thousands of years ago. Whether or not one believes the book or not, the author still had this in mind. Attacking where one is weak and unguarded is certainly nothing knew. The strong were guarding the path, so the attackers came around back.

Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. We’ll be attacked where we are vulnerable and/or where we are not looking. This is how it has always been. New technologies and structures may add to the targets and tactics, but it remains that we need strategies, as Bruce has said, that will guard against an array of unexpected incidents.

It has ever been so.

John Q April 7, 2010 1:08 PM

Another great example of money well spent is what the State of Minnesota did with some of its Federal 9/11 grant money. They put in place a state-wide radio system for all Police, Fire and first responders so that in the event of an emergency, any and all agencies could talk to one another on their radios with no problems. Of course this was done under the auspices of preparing for a terrorist attack, but the planning and the systems came in very handy when the I-35W bridge collapsed into the Mississippi river. All the stories I have read said that the system worked exactly as it was supposed to and greatly aided in the rescue and recovery efforts. Not sexy, but very useful.

webbnh April 7, 2010 2:56 PM

Fixed, automatic chemical detectors? That’s like doing the terrorists job for them: now they don’t actually need to get the bomb into the subway system, they just need to spray some of the active ingredient up-wind of the detector and the police will shut down the system for them!

Ooops! Don’t tell anybody this secret!!

weegmc April 7, 2010 5:52 PM

Great piece. I work for large government agency on security projects and its mind boggling how much money is wasted on pilot programs for high tech security applications that are unnecessary at best, a complete waste of money as worst. There are people in public agencies whose whole life is finding grants and spending federal dollars on pie in the sky cutting edge technologies when extra or better trained staff or some razor wire would do the job nicely.

Common sense, feet on the street and an emphasis on intelligence gathering is the best most cost effective solution.

One thing I would disagree with is CCTV deployment. In mass transit systems they have a lot of operational benefits and should be looked at from that stand point or as forensics tools to solve street crime. Cameras should be deployed accordingly. Spending on video analytic applications or other recognition software for mass camera deployments however is a waste however (some limited applications not withstanding).

charlie April 7, 2010 6:19 PM

The point about increasing emergency response and getting the system back on line quickly are very well taken.

Managing the information is also important. WMATA, for instance, can barely tell you when there has been a minor accident involving two trains. For a major incident like this it would be chaos for 75-100K persons trapped below ground. Just having working speakers in the stations would be a step up….

NobodySpecial April 7, 2010 6:23 PM

Having lived in London during the Irish ‘euphemism’ the authorities response was to remove litter bins and raise a general level of awareness on the part of the public to report suspicious packages.

The current climate in the US works against that public response.
I was recently in an airport departure lounge where somebody boarding a plane had obviously forgotten their bag and coat on a chair.

My natural reaction was to tell the desk staff so they could make an announcement on each of the planes at the gate and re-unite the person with their bag.

But my second thought was that their response would be to shut down the airport for hours while they search everywhere, arrest the women whose coat it was and probably question me for hours about my involvement – so I just got on my plane.

Ivan April 7, 2010 9:34 PM

The only result of these loud bangs would be throwing away a huge amount of money. In Russia you could buy toy guns at prices of fully-fledged assault rifles if you on the state funds. It’s called ‘business’.

PS. Sorry for mistakes.

Filias Cupio April 8, 2010 12:00 AM

One might argue that the Christmas Day bomber failed because chose his tactic to circumvent last year’s security measures. Had he brought a proper detonator, he’d have caused an explosion (or perhaps been caught at security.)

In my opinion, this is the primary purpose of airport security: it requires more sophisticated strategies from the attackers, which reduces the pool of potential attackers and increases the time and resources they require, increasing the chance they can be caught through normal police work.

Changing topic, here’s an idea which is still movie plot security, but possibly much more practical movie plot security than scanners in subways: install some sort of blast-dissipation materials in the subways – perhaps kevlar curtains every few meters. If you’re right next to the bomb you’re still dead, but it is more survivable for more distant people.

I don’t know if such a material exists, how expensive it is, and how well it will last in this environment. The interruption to lines of sight could also encourage all sorts of other crimes – this could be somewhat countered by deploying the barriers only at peak times.

bruce April 8, 2010 1:41 AM

@ Filias – In the London Underground attack the bombers chose to set off their explosives in moving trains*. I’ve seen nothing in print to confirm this, but I assume it added to the carnage and subsequent disruption. Also have you travelled on such a system at peak times with a constant flow of passengers?

*Apart from the one who got lost and chose a bus.

Yaris April 8, 2010 2:19 AM

This essay reminded me about software design discipline (since I’m a software designer). Preventing “movie-plot threats” is like fixing bugs after system has been deployed. Every bug costs millions of dollars and no one knows where the next bug is sitting. In SW design there are many attempts to prevent bugs from going into “live” systems, like different types of testing, different methodologies etc. But, when looking into security field, with all these scanners in airports, cameras everywhere and so on, I cannot see any systematic approach behind all this stuff, no methodology.

greg April 8, 2010 5:40 AM

@Filias Cupio

Exploding underpants is considered sophisticated now?

Fact is that all the airport security does not stop anyone– even this idiot. If he had known that you need a detonator he could have easily brought one with him with a very very very small chance that it would be detected. However he clearly had no idea that he needed one.

Yes a detonator is small, and can be completely non metallic. In fact every detonator i have seen, the only metal was the wires, and quite a few (the pressure types used on railways) didn’t have any.

All the security added to subways won’t change a thing either.

Andy April 9, 2010 5:02 AM

If there were more tube trains, each with less people and more smaller stations then the terrorists would be less effective as each incident would affect less people. Also if each interchange only had a couple of lines then there would be no critical points in the system and people could simply take a different route to avoid an incident.

This would make the tube network a less attractive target.

BF Skinner April 9, 2010 6:53 AM

The Daily News Bruce? Really? Do you think maybe you got less attention than Sneaky Tiki?

“These threats are infinite” but the actors are not. 6 Billion max

alreadyonthelist April 11, 2010 9:33 AM

Great article Bruce. We need to hire more police and more intelligence analysts. Farming out to the cellphone network creates unique problems for law enforcement that add to the total burden.

@John Q the cellphone network, like the Sprint/FEMA cellphone network created with the 9/11 money has a Pandora’s Box of problems in that the members of that group can not be and are not policed. For example, there is no audit trail on vehicular surveillances, so you can have the 9-1-1 fellowship, kith and kin on domestic obs acting more like hate groups with the Patriot Act protecting them from any checks or balances. Nobody investigates Patriot Act Abuses. Nobody watches the watchers.

I believe as a victim of the abuse of power on Patriot Act jobs that privatizing police powers on these jobs is not just a waste of money, it is dangerous all the way around. I agree with Bruce that we need more police, sworn officers not security guards, and more intelligence work.

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