Mass transit systems around the world ramped up security Monday in the wake of the Russia subway bombing that killed at least 35 people.
But subway surveillance will likely return to normal within the week, and today’s actions will do nothing to prevent future attacks unless cities boost their security measures, says former New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir.
“Episodic security increases don’t work. You need constant security,” said Mr. Safir in a telephone interview today. “You need to have enough security to think you’re safe, but not to be obtrusive."
There’s the rub. Daily, Moscow’s metro system transports 7 million people, New York’s subway transports 5 million, and London’s tube transports 3 million. Sheer logistics make it impossible for mass transit to implement the thorough checks seen in airports.
“If you tried to screen every single person who went into the subway, it would bring it to a halt,” says Safir, who was fire commissioner from 1994 to 1996 and police commissioner from 1996 to 2000. “Think about Madrid, think about London – terrorists, no matter their stripes, are looking for soft targets. And mass transit is a soft target.”
No indication of an NYC subway attack
London and other European capitals increased security measures today, while New York police doubled patrols of the subway system, and San Francisco and Washington, D.C., police sent bomb-sniffing dogs to random metro stations and rail yards.
Officials said there was no reason to believe another attack might occur.
“There is no information indicating plans for an attack against the New York subway system as it relates to Moscow,” says Paul J. Browne, a spokesman for New York City Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “However, as a precaution, the NYPD increased subway police coverage in time for the morning rush hour.”
“When you have a bombing in another city, until we know more, we step up coverage,” Mr. Browne said in a telephone interview today.
Learning from past attacks
The NYPD has detectives in 11 foreign cities working to prevent extremists from hitting New York, though none in Moscow. Additional detectives may be sent to Moscow to investigate today's attack, like was done after the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Browne says the detectives sent to Madrid learned what to look out for, such as ways of transporting and hiding a bomb.
Neither Browne nor Safir could say why Moscow has suffered three major train or subway attacks in the past decade, while a number of New York City subway bomb plots have been foiled, most recently the Afghan-American Najibullah Zazi’s plan to detonate a bomb on the system shortly after the 2009 anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Browne chalks up New York City’s success to luck and simple measures that “disrupt the kind of reconnaissance that terrorist organizations engage in.” For example, police conduct bag checks at random subway stations around the city, changing the location daily.
Additional measures that systems could implement, Safir says, include increased public awareness through campaigns such as the “If you see something, say something” campaigns in New York and Boston, and also new screening devices that detect explosives.
“There are no magic solutions,” Safir says. “You need to combine human surveillance with technology.”
While today’s increased security in New York and London means little unless long-term solutions are implemented, Safir says it was nevertheless prudent.
“You never know if this could be or could not be a coordinated attack.”