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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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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2 Apr 2010, last update
21 Jul 2020
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