Travel Safety: Use of Vehicles as Weapons

It’s happened again-this time in Barcelona, on the popular tourist and historic street known as Las Ramblas.  A man using a van as a weapon careened down one of the two narrow side streets that border the wide pedestrian path and used it as a missile of sorts, killing 14 innocent people and injuring up to 100 others.  According to Spanish press reports, individuals from 35 nations are among the dead and injured.  Yet again, Europe becomes the scene of terrorist carnage.  Despite the sophistication of Spanish police and intel services, accusations of an intelligence failure on the part of government agencies are already swirling about.

Political wrangling will inevitably take place, but hopefully some effective measures will be adopted to at least deter future would-be terrorists from using their vehicles to mow down civilians.  In the interim, what can we do in the hospitality sector to reduce the threat that our colleagues travelling on business or our assigned personnel in higher-risk locations face?  The random nature of a vehicle-borne attack and the unpredictability of it are at the heart of the issue, but some measures in fact can be taken to lessen our risk.

First and foremost, keep informed of the security environment in the country or region you are visiting.  Do this through a regular review of related material in newspapers and magazines.  In addition, the US State Department, UK Foreign Office and other government websites routinely publish country security status updates that are specifically designed to aid the public in travel planning and safety.  If a respected government agency recommends that the public defer all but essential travel, then it might be wise to heed that recommendation.  That may be an extreme measure, but remember that governments acquire and assess intelligence from a wide variety of sources and boil it down into useful analysis.  We must take such analysis seriously, even if we may never be privy to the source(s) of the intelligence.

Secondly, if you are in a foreign country, it’s wise to place a call to your country’s embassy or consulate for the latest information on the security situation.  In rapidly developing circumstances, embassies may be in possession of updated intelligence furnished by the host government.  This vital information may not have been previously disseminated and can serve as the basis for more informed decision-making in an evolving situation.

Naturally, the most iconic locations draw the most attention from those intent on perpetrating a mass casualty attack.  The Champs Elysees, London Bridge, Times Square, Las Ramblas and other landmarks-such as the World Trade Center-all come to mind.  But avoiding these areas does not mean a visitor or resident will remain safe.  Terrorists planning an attack often have a plan B:  If the primary target becomes too difficult to strike, they will find another, “softer” target to hit.  So, we’re talking about reducing-but not eliminating-risk.  Keep your wits about you, plan alternate routes and ensure to identify possible safe havens, both in areas you may visit and in and around your hotel or workplace.

The fact remains that not much can be done to stop an individual hell-bent on wreaking havoc through the use of a vehicle.  Let’s summarize for a moment the most salient vehicle-borne attacks in Europe and the US:

July 14, 2016 – 31-year-old French citizen Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel used a rented truck to barrel down a pedestrian street in Nice, France on Bastille Day and killed 87 people.  This attack proved to be the most deadly, not only because of the size and weight of the truck, but also due to the fact that the front end had been modified and fitted with a heavy metal plate, designed specifically to maximize its destructive impact.

November 28, 2016 – A student at Ohio State University inspired by ISIS propaganda drove his car into several pedestrians at the school before crashing it and jumping out to continue assaulting victims with a knife. At least 13 people were injured in the attack. The attacker was shot dead by police.

December 19, 2016 – A hijacked truck is driven through a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring 56 others. The perpetrator was later killed in a shootout with police.

March 22, 2017 – A British man barrels into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge and Bridge Street in London, killing four and injuring more than 50 others. The attacker then crashed the car into a fence at the Palace of Westminster and fatally stabbed a police officer before being shot to death.

June, 2017– Eleven people were injured when Darren Osborne, a self-radicalized anti-Muslim extremist, drove a rented van into a crowd of worshippers leaving London’s Finsbury Park Mosque as Muslims finished Ramadan evening prayers.

Also in June, 2017– Three radicalized British residents of North African descent drove into pedestrians on London Bridge before launching a knife attack in Borough Market, killing 8 and wounding another 48.

August, 2017– A neo-Nazi white supremacist, identified as James Alex Fields, Jr. is alleged to have driven his vehicle into a crowd of demonstrators who were protesting a white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.  One woman was killed and several people were injured.

Preventing this type of attack is a difficult task for law enforcement inasmuch as it is a low-tech, easy and efficient way to cause mass casualties.  Significantly, the on-line AQAP magazine Inspire urged its followers to use vehicles as weapons and to turn commonly-used items, such as household cleaning agents, or chemicals, into improvised explosive devices.  The low-tech nature of the operation is crucial to its success.  The fewer people involved in an operation and the reduced need to carry out long and complex logistics in preparation for the attack lessen the risk of its detection.  In the case of this Spanish ISIS cell which perpetrated Thursday’s attack, there were at least eight people involved who conspired to commit an even more spectacular attack using large improvised explosive devices.   Their preferred method involved readily available portable gas tanks, widely used in Spain for cooking and home heating.  Nothing noteworthy or suspicious in their acquisition and no special permit is required.

Of course, the use of a vehicle as a weapon and the targeting of a tourist area present a quandary that is not easily addressed.  Law enforcement can deploy additional stanchions and other physical barriers leading up to pedestrian walkways or popular attractions.  Authorities can also strategically-and on the spur of the moment-deploy spike strips to slow down a vehicle and render it immobile in a matter of seconds.  However, the crucial intelligence indicating when and where such an attack will occur would still be lacking.  Even with a sophisticated human intelligence component in its investigative arsenal, the ubiquitous nature of vehicles and the spontaneity with which they can be used as weapons would leave law enforcement ill-equipped to detect almost all of them in the planning stages.  No easy solution for this one.

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