NEW YORK — Most of us have done it dozens of times: walked into an airport arrivals hall, carrying flowers or just a smile, and waited for a loved one to step off the plane.
That was the scene at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport on Monday, until a suicide bomber entered the crowd and detonated a blast, shattering the evening calm and killing 35 people. More than 100 were injured.
The brazen attack sent shockwaves around the world, with many asking: Could we be next?
Like most major airports, including New York’s John F. Kennedy and London’s Heathrow, Domodedovo requires no security checks to get into its international arrivals hall.
“We feel very badly for what happened to them in Moscow because that could have just as easily happened here," Adm. James Winnefeld, commander of NORAD and the U.S. Northern Command, told the Associated Press in an interview this week.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has lashed out at officials at Domodedovo, the country’s largest airport and its only privately operated one. On Wednesday, he fired the regional official responsible for heading the Interior Ministry’s transport administration. “Those who did not work properly must be punished,” Medvedev said. “All officials responsible for organizing the [security] process must be brought to their senses."
Yet security experts agree that airport security only goes so far. Who would have imagined, for example, that terrorists would try to hide bombs in their shoes until Richard Reid did just that when he attempted to blow up an American Airlines flight in 2001? Airline passengers the world over are reminded of that every time they take off their shoes at security, nearly a decade later.
“The most important issue in airport security is possessing accurate intelligence about the nature of threat,” said Richard Bloom, director of terrorism, intelligence and security studies at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Should U.S. airports change their practice because of Monday’s attack in Moscow?
“The nature and probability of threat should drive the decision on what kind of security program with various layers of security [some observable and some not] one should resource,” said Bloom. “The U.S. should do more to guard against the threat of a suicidal bomber in an uncontrolled airport area, only if there is credible and significant intelligence to indicate this.”
Security sources have told Russian media that prior to the attack they received a tip that a suicide squad had arrived in Moscow and was planning to target an airport. No public warning was issued, and the information was leaked to the press only after the attack. In the wake of the blast, Vladimir Vasiliyev, head of the Russian parliament’s security committee, called for the government to adopt a color-coded terror alert system, similar to the one in place in the United States. (Sources told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the U.S. system would be phased out by April.)
“A terrorist attack on Moscow has been in the works since November,” Moskovsky Komsomolets, a widely read Russian tabloid, wrote on Wednesday, citing unnamed security officials. The cell that carried out Monday’s attack initially planned a bombing on New Year’s Eve, but was foiled when the suicide bomber’s vest exploded in her apartment, it said.
Despite the clear threat, Medvedev has continued to focus on the leadership at Domodedovo rather than Russia’s security or intelligence services. Nor has he made statements on the need to communicate potential threats to the public.
Domodedovo stepped up security after 2004, when two suicide bombers from Chechnya boarded jets flying to the southern cities of Sochi and Volgograd and blew themselves up mid-air, killing 89 people. The investigation found that the two women had managed to bribe their way onto the planes.
“The authorities need to crack down on corruption in law enforcement, focusing beat cops on preventing crimes rather than extorting bribes,” said Simon Saradzhyan, a research fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. He also called for authorities to redirect the focus of the police’s terrorism unit, “which was reformed to focus on 'extremism' and is now focusing on radical, but largely non-violent opposition,” rather than potential terrorist threats.
On Wednesday, tabloid website Life.ru released a video (below) showing increased security at Domodedovo's entrance. Long lines grew as passengers waited to pass through two metal detectors, creating the sort of bottleneck that can also be vulnerable to potential terrorist acts. A Life.ru correspondent built a fake suicide vest, wore it under her fur coat and tried to pass through one of the metal detectors. She got tired of waiting in line — and simply walked between the two metal detectors and straight on into the airport as police officers stood milling about, talking among themselves.
In Russia, the problem goes well beyond installing a metal detector or two.