If tasked with pinpointing the catalyst for the spate of terrorist attacks that have taken place across Europe over the last few years, most commentators would highlight the events of Paris in 2015, beginning with the attack at the offices of Charlie Hebdo and culminating with the atrocities of the Stade de France and Bataclan theatre.
However, in retrospect, when considering terrorism trends it may be better suited to treat the Paris attacks as a stand alone incident, instead focusing our attention on the events of March and July the following year, the threat of which police have successfully helped prevent happening again in one case, and the other still plaguing cities across the continent.
On the morning of 22 March 2016, two suicide bombings shook Brussels Airport in Zaventem, while a third coordinated bombing took place at Maalbeek metro station in the centre of Belgium’s capital. The ISIS-claimed attacks collectively killed 32 civilians and injured at least 300 more, but remains the last high-scale, successful attack at a transportation hub across Europe. That is because, since then, European authorities have heightened security at airports, train stations and ports, with British Transport Police now operating Project Servator across the entirety of London, and recently being implemented at Manchester Airport in April and at Birmingham Airport last month.
As part of the initiative, highly visible deployments take place at any time and at any location in and around the airport or station in question, with both uniformed and plain clothed police officers trained to identify anyone wanting to commit crime, supported by specialist police resources such as search dogs and armed officers.
Readiness over likelihood In the Art of War, Sun Tzu advised to ‘rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him’. Airport security has advanced a lot since attacks in Madrid in 2006, Glasgow in 2007 and the plan to bomb the John F. Kennedy International Airport the same year, so much so that the tragedies of Brussels and Turkey’s Atatürk Airport in 2016 triggered further funding and planning into how to secure aviation travel further. In other words, they prioritised ‘readiness’ over likelihood.
The same cannot be said of vehicular terrorism, which appears to be moving on an upward curve since the Nice attack on Bastille Day two years ago. Since that incident, in which 87 people lost their lives, there have been attacks of a similar nature across the continent. In December 2016, a truck was deliberately driven into the Christmas market in Berlin, leaving 12 people dead, while pedestrians were struck down on La Rambla in Barcelona in the summer last year, as Younes Abouyaaqoub killed 13 people and injured at least 130 others.
Closer to home, a terrorist attack took place outside the Palace of Westminster in March as Khalid Masood drove a car into pedestrians along Westminster Bridge, killing five people. The attack was somewhat mirrored a few months later when a van was deliberately driven into pedestrians on London Bridge, before the attackers entered Borough Market and stabbed nearby civilians. In total, eight people were killed and 48 were injured.
Since then, an inquest has been running and is drawing to its close. While questions are being asked of the Metropolitan Police, who have angered many by not accepting its share of responsibility for the death of one of its own officers in the attack until a coroner forced them to do so, perhaps a wider inquest should ask why, given increasing incidents of vehicular attacks, attention has not been given to preventative measures. At the start of October, the inquest claimed that Transport for London needed to ‘raise its game’ to protect people from the threat of terrorism, saying that the risk of a vehicle being used as a weapon to target pedestrians on the city’s bridges had not been appreciated at the time, despite the attacks on the continent. Readiness was not the reaction.
Ultimately, it should not take an inquest to force the UK’s security and police forces, or those across Europe, to fully commit to protecting people, places, events and transport hubs, such as airports, from the threat of attack. The counter argument will claim that the attack posed will always change to find soft targets, but as airport security has shown, and as the Westminster inquest is divulging, our pavements, bridges and walkways should not be seen as ‘soft’.