Revisiting 'No Russian' in the wake of Paris

The infamous 'No Russian' level of Modern Warfare 2 was inspired by historic 'soft target' attacks. But real attacks of this type? They're very different beasts.

Back in 2009, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 exploded on to the cable news circuit with a section that was, to put it mildly, controversial. The sequence in question, “No Russian,” cast the player as an undercover CIA agent embedded in a Russian terrorist cell. It’s main action involved the player entering a Moscow airport and ripping through unarmed civilians with automatic weapons.

The segment divided opinions. A BBC tech reporter said it “saddened rather than shocked him,” because he’d hoped games had moved beyond cheap tactics. A writer for the New York Times called it “unflinching yet empathetic.” Matt Peckham at PC World said it was an un-sanitized — but also unearned — look at terrorism.  Cable news compared the sequence to the Columbine shootings, and reignited the debate after Oslo shooter Anders Breivik claimed he used the level as training for his attack.

No one in the public, however, threated it as a realistic security threat. Terrorists might hijack airplanes and bomb events, but few imagined that trained militants might walk into a crowded building and massacre civilians. At least not in the West.

After the Paris attacks, that’s no longer the case — and in retrospect, “No Russian” takes on a mixture of prescience and uncomfortable disgust. However, Infinity Ward are not prognosticators. Even in 2010, it was clear armed assaults on soft targets would be the new terrorist attack model, and indeed, this attack pattern was already well-established by the time MW2 came to market. Yet there’s still a great deal we can learn from revisiting “No Russian,” and the sequence can help us grapple with a terror tactic world governments are trying desperately to mitigate.

The Mission

Let’s get one thing clear: “No Russian” is an absurd concept. In MW2’s over-arching narrative, the episode serves as a foil to get Russia to invade the United States. Embedded CIA agent — and former Marine — Joseph Allen impersonates a Russian gangster in order to join Vladimir Makarov’s ultranationalist terror network. As part of his undercover work, Allen helps execute a mass-shooting attack on Russian civilians in order to keep his cover, but in the end is betrayed and executed at the scene by Makarov. Allen’s body, along with documents identifying him as a CIA agent, make it appear the United States carried out the attack.

This is dumb.

First of all, if an undercover agent managed to infiltrate a top-tier terrorist’s network and become part of a major attack, it’s inconceivable he wouldn’t expose and foil the operation. One could argue that the operative might hold out for something bigger, but it’s difficult to imagine what would be “bigger” than a mass-casualty attack on a Russian airport. Second, if an armed American spy was on the scene when this plan swung into action, he’d likely gun the terrorists — including Makarov — down on the spot, thereby saving lives and decapitating the organization. Third, even if the Russians did find a dead CIA agent on the scene, the whole thing would be so suspicious that their first instinct would probably be to reach out through backchannels. After all, what exactly does America gain by sponsoring a terror attack on a Moscow airport?

Infinity Ward could’ve fixed these issues via several gameplay options — for example, giving the player the option to attempt to shoot Makarov and end the mission. While this is technically possible in “No Russian,” the resulting firefight with the squad only means you have to start the mission over again — meaning the designers don’t treat this as a valid choice. Without that option, the best the player can do is hold their fire and execute no civilians, standing impotently while Makarov and his goons kill helpless men and women. The sequence feels unnecessarily masochistic as a result, as if the developers are saying no, no, you watch this.

That would be all right if “No Russian” meant more in the overall narrative. It forces a plot twist, sure, and reveals the depth of Makarov’s villainy, but any larger point its trying to make gets muddied through its lack of context and contrived feel. There’s no larger point about terrorism here — just bloody, empty spectacle.

Which is a shame, because the attack was inspired by a real-world event.

Mumbai: The Unspoken Inspiration

While cable news compared “No Russian” to the Columbine shootings, the mission was clearly based on a real life event: the 2008 Mumbai attacks.

Almost exactly a year before Modern Warfare 2’s release, 10 gunmen from Pakistani Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba stormed multiple locations in Mumbai. Major targets included hotels, a café, a train station, a hospital, a cinema, and a Jewish community center, but the militants also bombed taxis and a port area.  The ensuing hostage crisis lasted four days, only ending when Indian Special Forces stormed the remaining militant-held positions.

Casualties were catastrophic. The attacks killed 166 people, mostly civilians, and wounded over 600 more. The impact was so deep that attacks of this type — where trained gunmen storm soft targets full of civilians — came be to known as “Mumbai-style” attacks. Recent events, however, have renamed the attack pattern “Paris-style,” and it’s highly probable the Paris attackers used Mumbai as a model.

“[Mumbai] was a watershed moment in counterterrorism,'' Mitchell Silber, the NYPD's former director of intelligence analysis told USA Today after the Paris attacks. "Before Mumbai, the focus of attention was on spectacular 9/11-style attacks or single-target bombings. Mumbai was essentially a raid by teams fanning out across the city…it was just like Paris. It is the simplicity. Kill, kill, kill any way you can. We have moved from the complex type of attack to something more basic and lethal.”

It was the Mumbai attacks, not Columbine, that Infinity Ward drew on when crafting “No Russian.” The attack pattern is essentially the same, with a squad of trained terrorist operatives opening fire on closely packed civilians, then engaging security forces when they respond. And like the majority of the targets in Mumbai and Paris, the airport itself had no larger symbolic value — it just offered a wealth of targets and hammered home that civilians weren’t safe anywhere.

But it would be wrong to suggest Mumbai was entirely new. In fact, the armed assault model has existed for decades. In 1997, gunmen from Egyptian Sunni terrorist organization al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya massacred 62 people, mostly foreign tourists, at an ancient temple in Luxor. The early 2000s saw multiple armed attacks on temples in India, a shooting at LAX, and an attack on foreign oil industry workers in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Oddly enough, some experts believe the Mumbai attacks were themselves based on the foiled 1993 New York City landmark bomb plot — were an al-Qaeda-linked group planned to attack several New York hotels, tunnels, and UN facilities. In that case, an FBI informant infiltrated the group and — in a very un-Modern Warfare fashion — called in the authorities before the cell harmed anyone.

This, in fact, is where most terrorist plots fail. Even a relatively “simple” terror attack like Mumbai or Paris involves months of upfront planning. Terrorists have to conceive of the attack, plan it, recruit willing participants, train, acquire specialty equipment, conduct pre-operational surveillance on targets, and make it to the attack location without triggering a security alert. This logistical phase is dangerous. Every one of these steps exposes the terror cell to counterterror agents. A friendly member of the community — possibly an attempted recruit — could report them to the FBI. Weapons or explosive material purchases could raise a red flag. Building security may spot suspicious behavior as they scout the target. And if the government had an agent inside a terrorist cell like in “No Russian,” you’d better believe they’d intervene before everyone got in that elevator.

In other words, Infinity Ward didn’t predict the rise of mass shooting attacks, and didn’t particularly understand them. “No Russian” was based on a well-publicized event and portrayed a terror attack that the intelligence community had already discussed and debated at length.

What “No Russian” Can Teach Us About Security

Despite “No Russian” not being as bleeding-edge as advertised, it still has a great deal to teach us about the current spate of Mumbai-style attacks.

First of all, let’s look at the attack’s location: an airport. Since the 9/11 attacks, airports around the world have reviewed and beefed up security. Shoe removals and baggage inspections are only the most visible aspects, and behind the scenes everything from passenger screening to parking lot security has come under review. However, these changes have also triggered debates over whether these new security measures create vulnerabilities of their own.

For example, experts point out that while enhanced security makes it less likely terrorists could bring down an airplane, it also creates a choke point in an unsecure area, crushing a large number of people together before anyone’s been screened for weapons.

A suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo Airport (the same airport depicted in MW2) hammered home this vulnerability in 2011. In that attack, a member of the southwestern-Russian jihadist organization Caucasus Emirate detonated a TNT-based shrapnel IED in the arrivals hall, killing 37 people and injuring 137 others.

“No Russian” plays off this vulnerability, critiquing this security problem in the most brutal manner imaginable. As the mission begins, the player looks at a dark screen, listening to the team unzipping bags and loading guns. When the screen fades in, they see the terrorist attackers standing in an elevator, prepping for the assault.

Stepping outside, the player sees a packed security line, the security officers have their backs turned, too busy with the passengers to look for oncoming threats.

No one notices the terrorists until they open fire.

Afterward, metal detectors wail as the team walks through them, the checkpoint officers already dead.

These are genuine worries about airport security. Line management constitutes a job in itself, and the pressure to keep things moving can distract security officers from the screening process. Meanwhile, long checkpoint lines force passengers into a small, unsecure enclosure. As a result, since 9/11 airports have implemented new measures to safeguard passengers before they arrive at the security line.

Consider the “no waiting curbside” policy at American airports. Though travelers generally interpret it as a nuisance — and yes, it’s also to keep traffic moving — the policy helps mitigate the chance of a car bomb or vehicle-borne IED (VBIED) targeting passengers at check-in. In addition, in most airports the “unsecured area” outside the metal detectors is actually a semi-secure area, with security personnel on the lookout for suspicious behavior or body language. The TSA refers to this as “layers” of security, though the concept has its own detractors and notable failures.

As for the vulnerable security lines, it’s becoming common to break up the line into component parts — passengers get screened for tickets and passports in a short line, then pass around a corner or behind a shielded barricade to complete their actual security screening. Usually by the time a passenger takes off their shoes, they’ve already passed through 2-3 layers of security. The hope is that, at some point in the process, an attacker will tip off security or be forced to start their attack early — saving lives. Ideally, security officers would’ve stopped the “No Russian” attack before the terrorists got in the elevator.

This kind of security screening has worked in the past, with the most recent example coming from the Paris attacks.

ISIS’s plan called for a three suicide bombers to attack the Stade de France during a football match between France and Germany. One bomber would enter the stadium and detonate his vest, triggering a panicked evacuation, while the other two would wait outside and detonate their vests when the streets filled with evacuees.

However, security discovered the initial bomber’s vest during a pat down, and forced him to back away. The bomber detonated the device while he retreated, killing a bystander. Suspecting a follow-on attack, French authorities let the game continue without alerting the crowd — giving police time to search the surrounding streets for other attackers.

The two other bombers detonated their vests within minutes, inflicting no casualties.

Note that this security response didn’t prevent a loss of life — but it did significantly mitigate it. That’s the ugly, unspoken truth of security procedures: they’re designed to save the most people possible, and that might not mean saving everyone.

Soft Targets and the Future

The most disturbing aspect of the Paris attacks were the other targets — cafés, theaters, and restaurants. With the exception of the Stade de France, most of the IS gunmen focused on so-called “soft targets,” a term meaning a site or gathering with minimal security. Unlike hard targets like airports and major events, soft targets generally don’t have on-site police presence, hardened security, or well-practiced evacuation procedures. Added to that, there’s basically no way to secure all the soft targets in a city — making a “No Russian”-type scenario difficult to mitigate once it begins.

It doesn’t mean governments won’t try. After Mumbai, Boston developed three separate SWAT teams and explosives units, then spaced them out over the city. New York updated its Critical Response Vehicle and Hercules teams — heavily armed squads that include canine and highway patrol units — to match the threat. These New York teams went on alert following the Paris attacks, with tactical units deploying to the French Consulate and other designated locations.

The Paris attacks put European police similarly on-edge. Over the holidays, Austria received warnings of an imminent attack. Even as a visitor, it was obvious something was going on. Security was tight and visible. Police tactical teams stood guard at Christmas markets in Vienna. One night as I stood on a train platform in Salzburg, armed tactical units flooded the station, shouting for commuters to drop their bags and file outside. There was no bomb, it turned out, but no one was taking chances. Days later, we crossed into the Czech Republic by rail. Czech police searched the train end-to-end, kicking open restroom doors and checking passports.

It won’t be the last time Europe goes on high alert, because here’s the horrible truth: we can’t stop every “No Russian” attack. Our system for detecting and interrupting these assaults only works if an intervention happens early in the attack cycle when the attackers begin planning, recruiting, conducting pre-operational surveillance, and acquiring weapons. Once the attack is in motion, all we can do is respond and mitigate the number of casualties.

Just like in “No Russian,” once they step off the elevator, it’s too late.