Protecting Europe from vehicle attacks

Following a number of large scale terrorist attacks in the last few years, Counter Terror Business looks at the current state of terrorist security in Europe and how the EU is improving its anti-terrorist security systems.

While Europol’s 10th publication of its EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT), published in June this year, reveals a decline in the number of failed, foiled and completed terror attacks in Europe since 2014, it also shows that the number of deaths associated with such attacks has spiked over the last few years from just four to 142. It seems as though tactics have changed; the focus is no longer on how many attacks terrorists can orchestrate, but how many fatalities they can cause at any one time. In previous years, perpetrators have used bombs, suicide vests and guns to cause as much destruction as possible, especially on public transport. The most memorable attacks of this kind include the 11 March 2004 Madrid train bombings, which left 191 dead and 1,841 injured, the 7 July 2005 London Underground bombings which killed 25 and injured 750, and the 22 March 2016 Brussels subway bombings which caused 21 fatalities and 130 injuries. Each of these attacks were carried out by groups of four or more - Madrid having the largest organisation with 21 suspects.

Although bombs, suicide vests and guns are still used in terrorist attacks, terrorist tactics have undoubtably changed. It has become a common trend to use everyday objects, such as vehicles and knives, as weapons, and to execute an attack alone. The 2016 Nice vehicle attack on 14 July seemed to set the trend. 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a 19 tonne cargo truck into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in France, killing 86 people and injuring 458 others. The attack ended following an exchange of gunfire, during which Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was shot and killed by police. Five months later, a similar attack occurred in Berlin. 24-year-old Anis Amri drove a truck into a Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church on 19 December, killing 12 and injuring 49. The trend continued into 2017, with vehicle attacks happening in London and Sweden. Attacker Khalid Masood left five people dead and 50 injured when he drove a hired SUV into the railings in front of Parliament Yard on 22 March. He then burst through the gate to the Palace of Westminster with two large knives and fatally stabbed PC Keith Palmer. Rakhmat Akilov, 39, was suspected of carrying out the Sweden attack, in which a truck ploughed into pedestrians in a busy shopping street in Stockholm. Five people were left dead and 14 injured. And although the latest vehicle attack in Europe involved more than one perpetrator, on 17 August in Barcelona, leaving 15 dead and more than 100 injured, it is clear evidence that the trend is unfluctuating. These incidents, although set in different locations and at different times, are all the same: they involve a minimal number of perpetrators but ‘weapons’ with maximum effect. It is attacks like these that counter terror networks must swiftly identify and foil.

Physical security
Less than a year after the Nice vehicle attack in 2016, and a week after the London Bridge vehicle attack, Nice completed a €16.5 million anti-terror project to keep tourists safe from another vehicle attack. The first section of the city’s Promenade des Anglais, which re-opened in the beginning of June, is now heavily defended with reinforced bollards which run two metres into the ground and can withstand up to 20 tonnes, and steel cables. The two inch steel cables and reinforced bollards, which can stop a speeding truck in seconds, have been placed along the busy road for nearly a mile. In the south of France, security chiefs splashed out €16.5 million fitting ‘anti-ram’ retractable terminals placed at points along the Promenade des Anglais alone.

Christian Estrosi, President of the Nice region, said: “The bollards have foundations which are more than two metres deep, and can resist up to 20 tonnes. Only authorised vehicles can get access to the area behind the bollards, and they are only allowed in after visual verification by cameras which check number plates. We had always wanted to do the work, but it was done much faster after the tragedy of 14 July.”

France also extended its state of emergency for three months after the vehicle attack, which was initially put in place following the November 2015 Paris attacks which left 130 dead and over 350 injured. The country currently remains in a state of emergency, with the latest terror attack in the country again involving a vehicle, in which 36-year-old Hamou Bachir drove a BMW into six soldiers in a Paris suburb.

Similarly, some German cities reacted quickly to the Christmas market carnage on 19 December 2016, with the Christmas markets of Hamburg, Stuttgart and Dresden installing concrete bollards following the vehicle attack. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, also passed a package of security bills that the cabinet said was in response to IS attacks on Germany. They included a measure to broaden video surveillance in public areas, body cameras for federal police officers and the use of automated devices to read vehicle registration plates.

Security barriers were additionally installed between the road and pavement on three London bridges following the London Bridge terror attack, namely Waterloo, Westminster and Lambeth - but not before being criticised for failing to put any security measures there earlier following the Westminster Bridge attack. The UK also deployed more police on the streets following the attack and London Bridge was closed for one day but opened the next as people made their way to work, refusing to be defeated by terrorism. The UK has also introduced new laws for those trying to rent vehicles. Following the latest Barcelona vehicle attack, the Department of Transport is working with the police and vehicle rental industry to decide whether customers should be cross-checked immediately against terror watch lists before hiring a vehicle. Although hire companies are already vigilant for potential criminal activity, with an industry database of suspect customers and checks regarding identity, credit and insurance, UK counter terror groups are exploring what more can be done to prevent the malicious use of hire vehicles.

Taking further action
Measures were taken as early as 2006 by the United Nations to deter terrorists from causing as much destruction as they hope. On 8 September, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy to enhance national, regional and international efforts to counter terrorism. Through its adoption, all Member States agreed for the first time to a common strategic and operational approach to fight terrorism. Their united stand sends a clear message that terrorism is unacceptable in all its forms and that they are dedicated to its abolition. The strategy is composed of four pillars: Pillar I involves addressing the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism; Pillar II focuses on measures to prevent and combat terrorism; Pillar III is concerned with measures to build states’ capacity to prevent and combat terrorism and to strengthen the role of the United Nations system in that regard; and Pillar IV concentrates on measures to ensure respect for human rights for all and the rule of law as the fundamental basis for the fight against terrorism. The General Assembly reviews the strategy every two years, making it a living document attuned to Member States’ counter-terrorism priorities, and keeping it as up to date as possible.

The G20 referred to the four pillars and their measures at the 2017 G20 Hamburg summit held on 7-8 July. In the Hamburg G20 Leader’s statement on countering terrorism, the Group of Twenty called for the implementation of existing international commitments on countering terrorism, including the four pillars, and committed to continuously supporting UN efforts to prevent and counter terrorism. It also recalled UN Security Council Resolutions 2178 of 2014 and 2309 of 2016, pledging to address the evolving threat of returning foreign terrorist fighters from conflict zones as well as aviation security systems.

The Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and G20’s statement on countering terrorism are proven to work - to an extent. The number of failed, foiled or completed attacks in the last three years has steadily decreased from 226 in 2014 to 142 in 2016, while the number of suspects arrested quickly climbed from 774 to 1077 in 2015, and then came down again to 1002 in 2016. These numbers demonstrate that while terrorism is still very much alive, police and counter terrorism forces are on the ball to keep terrorism at bay, and are able to prevent disasters from happening.

More, however, needs to be done in order to prevent terrorists from planning an attack in the first place. The police and MI5 came under heavy criticism after it was revealed shortly after the London Bridge terror attack that one of the attackers, 27-year-old Khuram Shazad Butt, was known to the authorities and even appeared in a Channel 4 documentary called The Jihadis Next Door. The Metropolitan Police said that although they knew of his extremist beliefs, ‘there was no intelligence to suggest that [the London Bridge] attack was planned and the investigation had been prioritised accordingly’. Margaret Gilmore, an expert in counter terrorism at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), revealed two days after the attack that authorities were told that there are more than 20,000 extremists in the UK, but they are not watched all the time.

She said: “If they did anything out of the ordinary - if they weren’t in their normal location, if they were acting in an odd way and it was brought to somebody’s attention, or they did something criminal - then they would be looked at doubly”.

But what of Butt, whose worryingly extremist beliefs were made known to the thousands of people watching Channel 4’s documentary? He was still able to tear families apart.

Gilmore also admitted that there is a list of 3,000 people that the MI5 is ‘very concerned about’. These people, according to Gilmore, are ‘under pretty regular surveillance and watched a lot of the time’, but since they cannot be charged if there is no evidence, authorities cannot simply arrest them.

Nor can they wait for a terrorist to strike before doing anything about it. Police surveillance needs to be tighter and those reported to authorities need to be taught that terrorism is intolerable.

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