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Ridiculous rushed responses and surprised amazement in the west greeted Russia's latest metro bombing on Monday 29 March 2010.

But this is neither the first nor the deadliest of the many Moscow subway bombings reaching back more than 30 years.

So why the surprise and panic in the west?

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Lessons from the Moscow Metro Bombings

Latest attack simply repeats longstanding known vulnerabilities

Two female suicide bombers blew themselves up on Moscow's metro in the morning rush hour on Monday 29 March 2010.  39 people were killed, another 70 injured.



There have been at least seven earlier attacks on the Moscow metro, with the first one occurring in 1977.  74 people have been killed i these earlier attacks.

The terrorists who attack Moscow's metro are also people with no quarrel against the west.  They are Muslims, yes; but they are separatists specifically seeking independence from Russia.

There have been other attacks on other metro systems elsewhere in the world, too - most notably London in 2005.

Is the US also at risk?  And if so, what can be done to protect us?  Please read this five part series for a full discussion on these issues.

What Happened

At approximately 8am Moscow time on Monday morning, 29 March 2010, a female suicide bomber blew herself up on a Moscow metro train at the Lubyanka metro station (underneath the KGB - now FSB - headquarters).  A second woman blew herself up about 40 minutes later at the Park Kultury metro station.

Both were wearing explosive belts underneath their clothes, with RDX type explosive equivalent to approximately 3lbs of TNT, augmented with screws and iron rods to increase the lethality of the blast.

39 people were killed - most immediately - and another 70 received injuries requiring formal medical attention.

Although horrific, the casualties and deaths were much lower than would have been the case if the women had detonated their bombs inside the tunnels.  By detonating at train stations, the explosive force could dissipate, out onto the open platform areas, with less effect than if it had been trapped inside a narrow tunnel with the blast being reflected back inside the carriage.

Blowing themselves up at stations also made it much easier for emergency responders to attend to victims.

The women are thought to be members of the 'Black Widows' - Muslim women who have lost relatives in the insurgency in Russia's North Caucasus region where separatist Muslims are seeking to establish their own independent state.  Such women - either alone or sometimes aided by men - have repeatedly attacked Russia, Moscow, and its metro system in the past, and it is believed that there are 19 more Black Widows from this particular cadre available for additional attacks in the future.

(Note - two more suicide bomber attacks in Kizlyar, southern Russia on 31 March may have reduced their number down to 17.  At least nine people were killed and at least 23 more wounded)

Other Russian Terrorist Attacks

This is not the first time terrorists have attacked targets within Russia, nor is it the first time they have attacked targets within Moscow, nor is it even the first time they have attacked Moscow's iconic metro system.

There have been seven previous attacks on Moscow's metro system :

  • Jan 1977 :  A bomb planted in a carriage by Armenian separatists killed seven people and injured another 37

  • Jun 1996 :  A home made bomb on a train on the Serpukhovskaya line between Tulskaya and Nagatinskaya stations killed four people and injured 14; it was estimated to have the equivalent energy of 2.2lb of TNT

  • Jan 1998 :  A bomb blast at the Tretyakovskaya station injured three people; it was estimated to be the equivalent of 5 oz of TNT

  • Feb 2000 :  A bomb blast at the Belorusskaya station was partially contained by the marble seat it was placed beneath/behind, but still wounded 15 - 20 people

  • Aug 2000 :  A bomb in a pedestrian tunnel at Tverskaya station killed 13 people

  • Feb 2004 :  A male suicide bomber on a train traveling the Zamoskvoretskaya line between Avtozavodskaya and Paveletskaya stations kills 40 people and wounds more than 250.  The explosive device was estimated to be equivalent to 9lbs of TNT.

  • Aug 2004 :  A suicide bomber blew herself up outside the Rizhskaya station, killing 10 people and wounding 51

  • Mar 2010 :  Two suicide bombers on trains, one at Lubyanka station and one at Park Kultury station, kill 39 people and injure 70.  Each explosive device was estimated to be the equivalent of 3.3lbs of TNT

Terrorists - usually Muslim separatists from the Chechnya and North Caucasus regions - have not confined their attention only to Moscow's subway system.  They have also attacked the train between Moscow and St Petersburg (Nov 2009, killing 26 people), the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow (Oct 2002, 130 fatalities, but many caused by the rescue operation rather than by the terrorists), and a school in Breslan (Sept 2004, about 400 deaths, and again many caused by the rescue operations rather than the terrorists).

Other events have included a female suicide bomber blowing herself up outside Moscow's National Hotel (and another one who blew herself up at a bus stop in Vladikavkaz), women who blew up two passenger planes en route from Moscow in August 2004, and a bombing at a rock concert.

Since the first known 'black widow' attack in 2001, it is estimated they have been involved in about two-thirds of the nearly 40 terrorist attacks that have killed 900 people in Russia up until Monday.

Lessons from Russia's Experiences

This high level of ongoing terrorist attack transcends anything experienced in the west.  And, most to the point, Russia's terrorist problems are the result of its internal conflict with its Muslim separatists - people who are willing to die for their cause, for sure, but people apparently focused exclusively on doing harm to their enemy, Russia, rather than seeking to broaden their focus to the rest of the world as well.

As such, Russia's unfortunate experiences and the 40 attacks by these people on Russia in the last nine years have not shown to be linked to any increase or decrease in the risk of other western countries suffering related attacks.

On the other hand, it does provide us with stark lessons in terms of the vulnerabilities to terrorist attack suffered by even somewhat restrictive societies such as Russia is and remains.

Terrorist Transportation Attacks Elsewhere in the World

As most readers of course know, we have not been spared attacks on our transportation systems, with the highest profile attack being the four planes that crashed in the US on 9/11/2001.

There have been failed attacks on US-linked aviation too, with the failures being due to bungled incompetence on the part of the terrorists, rather than any successful thwarting of their attempts by the authorities.  Most notable of these are the shoe-bomber and the crotch-bomber (see our analysis of this event).

There have been attacks on subway systems in other countries, too; most notably the 2005 attack on 7 July in London that saw three bombs go off on London's Underground and a fourth on one of London's famous double decker buses, killing 52 (plus the 4 terrorists) and wounding another 700.

This was followed by a second attack on 21 July where another four bombs on the underground and a bus failed to explode properly, happily resulting in no further casualties.

These eight attackers were British Muslim discontents with apparently generic animosity to Britain and the west, and as such, are more global in terms of risk.

A subway attack of a different kind occurred in Tokyo in March 1995 when deadly Sarin gas was released at five locations within its subway system, killing 13 people, and injuring thousands, including 50 severely and 984 with temporary vision problems.  This attack was by the Japanese religious movement, Aum Shinrikyo (now known as Aleph).  A second attack, involving hydrogen cyanide, was foiled in May 1995.

Trains have been bombed, too.  In March 2004, ten explosions on four commuter trains in Spain killed 191 people and wounded 1800, and is thought to have changed the outcome of the country's general election held three days later.  The bombers were believed to be Muslims, keen to see a change in Spain's government which would cause it to become less supportive of US anti-terror operations (and this is exactly what happened).

In India in July 2006, Muslims placed seven bombs on suburban trains in Mumbai, which killed 209 people and injured over 700.  India has suffered other attacks on trains too.

Other countries to suffer train attacks include Algeria (June 2008, 12+ fatalities) and Pakistan (July 2000, 9 fatalities and 26 injuries).

Ferries, cruise ships, and freighters have also been attacked, with a Feb 2004 bombing of a ferry in Manila Bay, the Philippines by Muslims, killing 116 people, having the greatest number of casualties.

Clearly, public transportation in all its many forms is vulnerable to terrorist attack.  So what can - and should - be done to protect it and us as passengers?  Please continue through this five part series for more discussion, issues, and answers.

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Originally published 2 Apr 2010, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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