New tools, new com­pli­ca­tions in fight to keep cities, na­tions safe


For gen­er­a­tions, the world’s cities have strug­gled to keep them­selves safe.

“Wall Street Ex­plo­sion Kills 30; In­jures 300,” The New York Times’ front page pro­claimed af­ter a bomb ripped through New York City’s fi­nan­cial dis­trict. “Red Plot Seen in Blast.”

It was Septem­ber 1920. The bomb was car­ried by a horse-drawn cart. The bombers, sus­pected to be Ital­ian an­ar­chists, were never caught.

There are times to­day when it can seem that back in some hazy by­gone era — be­fore a Mon­day evening bomb tore through a Bangkok tem­ple, or train bombers ter­ror­ized Madrid in 2004, be­fore two jet­lin­ers slammed into the World Trade Cen­ter on a clear Septem­ber morn­ing — the world was not so dan­ger­ous.

And in some ways the world is more deadly. Global net­works of ex­trem­ists can now launch at­tacks from Kenya to Iraq to sub­ur­ban Washington, D.C., while moder­nity’s worst-case sce­nar­ios — nu­clear or bi­o­log­i­cal at­tacks, for ex­am­ple — can make that car­riage-pulled Wall Street bomb seem like a toy.

And yet: “We live in a much safer world now,” said Ajai Sahni, a long­time New Delhi-based scholar of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence, polic­ing and se­cu­rity is­sues. “The world was far more dan­ger­ous in a time when war was an ac­cepted method of in­ter­ven­tion” and when an­ger­ing a lo­cal po­lit­i­cal boss could mean “your head would be on a stick.”

In Bangkok this week, that com­par­i­son was lit­tle com­fort. The city of about 10 mil­lion is strug­gling in the af­ter­math of an un­ex­plained bomb­ing Mon­day that killed at least 20 peo­ple and in­jured more than 120, and was fur­ther shaken the next day by a sec­ond blast that caused no ca­su­al­ties but po­lice say may be re­lated.

“We have al­ways been so peace­ful,” said Chon­dej Chaiya­nun, a 33-year-old Bangkok fur­ni­ture im­porter. He said the first blast had con­cerned him, but it was the sec­ond ex­plo­sion that “made me feel like Bangkok might not be so safe.”

Once, there was a sim­ple way for cities to thwart lone at­tack­ers, and those op­er­at­ing in small groups. Thick walls, from New Delhi to Florence, al­lowed guards to mon­i­tor ac­cess to cities and fil­ter out some dan­gers.

To­day, the flu­id­ity of the mod­ern world makes mon­i­tor­ing a city des­per­ately com- pli­cated. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of com­muters flood into ma­jor cities ev­ery day; the pop­u­la­tion of some Amer­i­can cities more than dou­bles on a work day. Then there is tourism: Thai­land wel­comed nearly 25 mil­lion tourists last year, and Jerusalem, a city of 800,000, can see over 3.5 mil­lion trav­el­ers an­nu­ally.

At the same time, it has be­come eas­ier for at­tacks to draw the at­ten­tion vi­o­lent ex­trem­ists crave. A cou­ple decades ago, most of the world would have seen the Bangkok bomb­ing re­duced to just a few news­pa­per para­graphs, but to­day, news of vi­o­lence jumps quickly and fiercely across con­ti­nents. Photos and video from the bomb­ing be­gan spilling onto so­cial media al­most im­me­di­ately af­ter it oc- curred.

So how do you pro­tect a city where so many peo­ple — so many po­ten­tial dan­gers — are com­ing and go­ing?

It has be­come an eter­nal ques­tion in Jerusalem, and deeply rel­e­vant af­ter a se­ries of at­tacks over the past year. A se­ries of bar­ri­ers, from tall con­crete walls to strings of barbed wire, along with a so­phis­ti­cated Is­raeli in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus and se­cu­rity co­or­di­na­tion with Pales­tinian author­i­ties, have helped stem years of care­fully planned and highly deadly sui­cide bomb­ings, Is­raeli of­fi­cials say.

But walls can do lit­tle against the wave of lone-wolf at­tacks that have swept the coun­try as Pales­tini­ans, of­ten with no known mil­i­tant af­fil­i­a­tion, at­tack Is­raelis with guns or knives or by driv­ing ve­hi­cles into crowds.

In Jerusalem’s Old City, a fre­quent flash­point for vi­o­lence, po­lice now use hun­dreds of se­cu­rity cam­eras that are mon­i­tored around the clock to re­spond quickly to any trou­ble.

“This re­ally in­creases the feel­ing of se­cu­rity for peo­ple,” said Is­raeli po­lice spokes­woman Luba Samri. Po­lice pa­trols are also of­ten highly vis­i­ble, es­pe­cially at times of height­ened ten­sions.

Thai of­fi­cials say the Bangkok bomber was no lone wolf. While of­fer­ing no de­tails, na­tional po­lice chief Somyot Poom­pan­moung said the bomber “didn’t do it alone, for sure. ... they work as a net­work, know how to es­cape. No one per­son can do this.”

Prayuth Chan-ocha, the head of Thai­land’s mil­i­tary junta, called the bomb­ing “the worst in­ci­dent that has ever hap­pened in Thai­land,” and vowed to track down the per­pe­tra­tors.

It’s un­clear whether author­i­ties are close to ar­rests, and their state­ments have some­times been con­tra­dic­tory. A mil­i­tary spokesman said Thurs­day that in­ves­ti­ga­tors be­lieve the at­tack wasn’t the work of in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ists — a day af­ter po­lice is­sued an ar­rest war­rant that de­scribed the still-uniden­ti­fied prime sus­pect as a “for­eign man.”

The bomb­ing struck a city that had al­ready been des­per­ate for sta­bil­ity. The Thai mil­i­tary seized power in May 2014 fol­low­ing months of po­lit­i­cal protests, with the goal of bring­ing unity. But the coun­try re­mains sharply di­vided along so­cial and po­lit­i­cal lines, a schism that pits the ru­ral poor against the tra­di­tional elite.

Chon­dej, the fur­ni­ture im­porter, has more con­fi­dence in the junta than in the po­lice, widely de­rided in Thai­land for cor­rup­tion.

“I think the mil­i­tary can take care of the (se­cu­rity) sit­u­a­tion,” he said. “We don’t have that much con­fi­dence in the ef­fi­ciency of the po­lice.”

To Sahni, good polic­ing is a key com­po­nent to keep­ing cities safe.

“The at­tack, per se, is not the point at which you can build per­ma­nent de­fenses,” he said.

“Any terror at­tack has a long se­ries of prece­dents, some very mi­nor, that led up to it. There’s the re­cruit­ment, the con­spir­acy, the trans­port of ma­te­ri­als,” he said. “There are the phases where you have a far bet­ter method to in­ter­vene.”

He sees the an­swer in ev­ery­thing from so­phis­ti­cated in­tel­li­gence net­works that can in­fil­trate sus­pect groups, to neigh­bor­hood watch or­ga­ni­za­tions to re­stric­tions on pur­chas­ing chem­i­cals that can be used in ex­plo­sives.

But even if that works per­fectly, he said, it won’t stop ev­ery at­tack: “At the end of the day there is no guar­an­tee.”

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