Since it is unrealistic to protect every public space against the rising vehicle-ramming attacks, there is a need to target the roots of radicalisation to prevent them.
At least 13 people were killed and more than 100 injured after a van rammed through a crowd in the heart of Barcelona on Thursday (August 17). Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said the vehicle-ramming attack was “jihadist terrorism” which required a global response.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack without providing evidence of its involvement.
‘Vehicle-ramming’ or the use of a vehicle to drive into crowds is now increasingly common. London has been a target of three such attacks between March and June of this year. Christopher Stewart, who researches extremist tendencies at Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said the wave of attacks is likely to continue across Western Europe.
“As long as extremist groups like Islamic State continue to pursue a recruitment strategy in Europe, we are going to continue seeing such attacks,” he said.
The weapon involved is perfectly legal to own. So, can there be an effective counter-terror strategy that prevents an attacker from using this perfectly legal weapon to plough down pedestrians and cause devastating casualties?
Stewart believes the key to a long-term solution lies in targeting the roots of radicalisation. But, as the intelligence authorities would tell you, the task is easier said than done.
New trend in terror?
These low-tech attacks are usually carried out with a vehicle as the primary weapon along with wielded knives or arms as a secondary weapon of assault. “They are low-tech, doable types of terrorism,” said Steve Hewitt, who studies surveillance and counterterrorism at the University of Birmingham. The attacks involve everyday items such as knives and automobiles, and Hewitt adds they “can be carried out cheaply, with little or no training required by the attackers [in contrast to a gun or bomb attack], and against so-called soft targets that are difficult to defend.”
These factors suggest the attacks were ‘ISIS-inspired’ rather than an attack in which ISIS had trained the perpetrators. Extensive propaganda material on the internet coupled with its easy access continues to provide radical exposure to those who seek it.
This is where the problem lies, according to Stewart. It is not necessary for a connection with the fundamentalist regime. A mere influence through exposure to radical content can lead to an offline attack.
“The roots of communication are reaching those willing and able to carry out such attacks. This isn’t going to disappear with them losing territory in Syria and Iraq. If anything, it is going to further condense their focus on recruiting more individuals in Europe and in the UK,” Steward said. “We need to focus on how we can disrupt it, discredit it and de-mystify it.”
The ISIS ensures is it feeding its followers with malicious propaganda on a regular basis. Three days after the Manchester attack, the alleged perpetrators – ISIS – hailed the suicide bomber in its weekly newspaper al-Naba, while warning that another terrorist attack in Britain was “definitely coming.”
This is not new for the extremist group. ISIS has been using propaganda magazines – both in occupied territory and abroad – to call for vehicle and knife attacks. The jihadist group mainly makes use of encrypted messaging applications such as Telegram along with various social media platforms to spread its propaganda.
Sajjan Goel, the international security director at Asia-Pacific Foundation, believes the terrorist group’s Rumiyah magazine has been a critical part of instructing and guiding terrorists that are inspired or assisted by terrorists.
“Daesh’s ‘just terror’ tactics have been replicated with brutal effectiveness because they are simple to execute and cost-effective,” Goel said.
A recent issue of Rumiyah, aimed at English-language speakers, included another ‘Just Terror Tactics’ article that provided tips on carrying out vehicle-ramming attacks. It includes pointers on acquiring a vehicle and ideal targets for carrying out the attack.
Goel also points also out that although the recent attacks are largely attributed to ‘lone wolf’ attackers, it is arguably less common for these actors to have had no connection to a network, whether physically or through virtual communication.
“Daesh’s Emni, its intelligence apparatus, uses encrypted messaging to recruit, plot, plan and guide to carry out attacks. There have been several of these Emni networks that have been responsible for delivering terrorism to the host country where the recruits are from. We have seen this in France, Belgium, Germany and it is very likely it exists in the UK as well,” Goel added.
It is commonly believed that ISIS’s intent and effort to incite a spike in these homegrown terrorist attacks is also largely attributed to their setbacks in Iraq and Syria, and the closure of foreign fighter transit routes into the conflict zone. The group recently lost the fight for Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, after an intense battle with the Iraqi forces that lasted eight months.
According to Goel, “As Daesh continues to lose territory, resources and personnel in Syria and Iraq, acting as the death cult they are, want to take as many people down with them. This is achieved through terrorism.”
Jonathon Wood, the director of global risk analysis at Control Risks, said that vehicle-ramming terror attacks, which may be low in the number of casualties but remain high on media attention, also tend to occur in jurisdictions where other types of weapons are more difficult to obtain, due to cost or tight control.
“Previously, vehicle ramming attacks occurred in the Palestinian Territories and China’s Xinjiang region, both of which are tightly controlled by security services,” he said.
More recently, they have occurred in Western Europe – where illegal firearms are available but expensive – and the UK – where firearms are more tightly controlled.
“There have been comparatively few attacks in the US, by contrast, possibly because legal firearms are easier to obtain,” Wood said.
It may be argued that the frequency of vehicle-ramming attacks has increased after the Nice attack, given the severity of the incident. The tactic has proven more lethal than bomb attacks over the last ten years and Wood adds that this would have suggested to extremists that even with limited resources and training, they could still potentially mount a ‘spectacular’ attack.
Protecting public spaces
These attacks are unlikely to replace traditional attack methods, especially in places where firearms or explosives are easy to obtain, or where the threat mainly stems from organised militant or insurgent groups. But Wood warns that “the threat of these vehicle-ramming attacks seems likely to spread to further jurisdiction, due to the high-profile nature of the attacks, incitement by foreign terrorist groups, and copycat behaviour by extremists.”
But it is impractical to plant bollards at all public spaces. Even if they were protected, hypothetically, the extremists would find another spot to carry out an attack.
Adrian Griffiths, the architect behind the security design at Cabot Circus shopping complex in the UK, said, “If someone wants to walk out with a kitchen knife and stab someone on the street, you can’t design for that.”
“The problem is as soon as you create an area which is protected and still hugely vibrant, the terrorists will move to somewhere else where it’s an easier picking, like a football ground.”
However, he still recommends some basic protection measures for buildings along busy streets. These occupy a wide range of options – from level changes in the pavement to appropriately placed street furniture.
Others, like the Trak Global Group, recommend the use of telematics in the fight against vehicle-ramming terrorism. The company is working on a system whereby the professional installation of a hardwired telematics unit (a ‘black box’) and its wireless pairing with the authorised driver’s smartphone will ensure a line of protection against theft.
However, most vehicle-ramming attacks, including the three in London, were carried out using rented vehicles. Andrew Brown-Allan, the managing director at Trak Labs, understands the system has limited scope to prevent attacks carried out with rented vehicles.
“One potential solution is remote immobilisation; another might be the provision of live tracking data to the security services where intelligence suggests that the vehicle may be in the hands of individuals where the threat level is high,” Brown-Allan said.
Stopping an attack before it happens
Stewart, a programme associate at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, said it is important to understand that fundamentalist propaganda – whether accessed online or offline – is able to reach those who seek it and push those who are willing to carry out an offline attack. “Looking into the root cause of radicalisation is going to give us a solution that we can rest on because it is impractical to protect every public space,” he said.
In the aftermath of such attacks by home-grown militants, the headlines often make use of phrases such as ‘lone-wolf’ to throw attention to the attacker. But, according to Stewart, the media needs to dictate how best they can report these incidents because that is exactly the kind of attention the perpetrators seek. “The phrase ‘lone-wolf’ was coined by al-Qaida and it’s what they want to be called. They want to be called soldiers, they want to be called martyrs. It plays into their hands.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May has been a stern advocate of regulating major internet companies and has firmly stood for their accountability as a media company that needs to take proactive steps to prevent exposure to radical views.
Some countries have enforced regulations in the face of vehicle-ramming terrorism threats. Israel, for instance, monitors its social media for keywords that might indicate an attack is imminent. Last year, France executed a broader framework to tackle terrorism, making it illegal to regularly consult websites that promote terrorism, except for legitimate academic or journalistic activities.
Counter-terrorism remained a prominent part of the recent summit talks in Brussels after a suspected Islamist bomber was shot dead at the city’s central railway station. The 28 leaders agreed to put legal pressure on internet giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook to remove jihadist content faster and more proactively, according to a BBC report.
But, this pressure has also met rising concern over access to encrypted content and its potential clash with user privacy.
Other potential measures being looked into by the British and other European governments also involves a crackdown on the funding of terror activities and controlling movements of foreign fighters who are now believed to be dispersing from the battlefield in Syria and Iraq.
While these policies seem all encompassing, it might be worthwhile to look at what can be done to control the severity of an attack, once it happens.
In the words of Steve Hewitt: “In some ways, it is about containing the threat to reduce the loss of life because eliminating the threat is not realistic.”
And finally, a vigilant society may hold the key to a safer society. Staying vigilant of your surroundings and recognising the growing danger of vehicular terrorism may be a crucial step towards a long-term solution.
Pooja KC is a London-based freelance journalist.