Lessons of Domodedovo

The death toll from the suicide bombing at Domodedovo Airport in Moscow has climbed to 35, with 180 more injuries.  The carnage was apparently the work of a single attacker with a suitcase bomb, detonating himself in the packed international arrival area.

The Associated Press quotes NORAD commander Admiral James Winnefeld expressing his sympathy for the Russians, and his desire to work with them, to reach a greater mutual understanding of such threats.  “I would welcome the opportunity, candidly, and I would also welcome the opportunity to host a Russian counterpart here,” said the Admiral.

Describing the challenge of protecting society from terrorism, Winnefeld compared terrorist strikes to “shots on goal” in hockey.  “We have to be perfect goaltenders.  All they have to do is get one shot through and they get to make an impact.  And they certainly made an impact in Moscow yesterday.  It was a real tragedy.”

I’ve often found myself stuck in crowded airports, wondering why a terrorist would bother smuggling a bomb onto a plane, when hundreds of perfectly good victims are milling around outside the security checkpoints.  In the novel Storming Heaven, published way back in 1994, military fiction author Dale Brown imagined terrorists hijacking airplanes and using them as bombs to take out airports.  The novel is filled with some chilling technical details about how easy this would be to accomplish.  After all, airports expect planes to be flying at them, and a hijacker wouldn’t have to miss the runway by much to hit a concourse.  I happened to be sitting in one of the airports attacked in the book, waiting for a red-eye flight, while reading it.  Maybe that’s why it stuck with me.

Airports aren’t the only crowded location vulnerable to terror attacks.  The Mumbai massacre of 2008 involved nothing more complicated than squads of killers invading cafés, hospitals, and hotels.  Once again, fiction anticipated such attacks, by Tom Clancy’s 2003 novel The Teeth of the Tiger.  The story begins with terrorists crossing the Mexican border, arming themselves with machine guns, and attacking several American shopping malls.

A prosperous society creates many locations where large numbers of people gather, in ways that cannot be easily protected with defensive security.  The challenge is even more formidable than Admiral Winnefeld’s hockey metaphor implies, because hockey goals aren’t that large.  Counter-terrorism has to protect a much larger sea of targets from those “shots on goal.”

Considered as a strategic exercise, playing defense against terrorism is doomed to inevitable failure.  Much of America’s security since 9/11 is due to our willingness to seek out terrorists where they live, and give them something other than airports and shopping malls to think about. 

Russian officials have been vowing revenge for the Domodedovo attack, whose perpetrators are believed to be Islamist separatists in Chechnya.  President Medvedev has fired the security officials charged with protecting the stricken airport, accusing them of “taking an absolutely passive position.”  There has never been a successful passive response to determined aggression.  Improving lax security at Domodedovo may be a wise precaution, but if you turn airports into fortresses, they stop being airports… and they are surrounded by hotels and crowded streets that will never be fortresses.  Terrorism ends when it is defeated.


View All