Vehicular terror attacks are relatively new to Europe, but they are not a new phenomenon internationally. In recent years, cars and vans have been used repeatedly, particularly in Israel, to mow down innocent people. Even in France, in 2014, a man in Dijon was arrested after running over 11 pedestrians whilst shouting “Allahu Akbar”. Another ran over 10 people the following day using a white van at the Nantes Christmas market.
This is in one sense a consequence of improved security: as shootings and bombings become harder to plan and execute, terrorists resort to other measures which are harder to predict and prevent. As counter-terrorist intelligence has improved, the challenge of organising terror-training camps without detection by intelligence services has increased, but driving a vehicle into a crowd at high speed requires little or no training. With vehicular attacks proving much harder to predict, the emphasis of the security response has to shift to minimising their impact when they do occur. This relies on two main approaches: physically stopping the vehicle from getting to the intended victims, and neutralising the driver so that they no longer pose a threat to life.
So what went wrong in Nice? A state of emergency was in place following November’s attacks in Paris. The Euro football championship had prompted a state of high vigilance. The Nice atrocity took place on Bastille Day, when attacks were known to be far more likely than usual. Nice is a popular tourist destination, and the Promenade des Anglais is a well known destination likely to be a gathering place for tourists and local residents alike. In such an obvious place, at such an obvious time, in a period of high vigilance, how did a huge white lorry manage to drive one mile through a crowd of people, killing over 80 and injuring many more?
There are lessons to be learned from countries such as Israel about how to deal with this emerging threat. In October 2014, a Palestinian terrorist drove his car into a crowd of people waiting at a tram stop, killing a 3 month old baby girl and a 22 year old, and injuring seven others. Several similar attacks have claimed lives and caused casualties, in 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2014. As ever, Israel reacted quickly to new techniques used by terrorists, and put in place measures to minimise further deaths.
Israel’s 2014 Alon Shvut terror attack is one example of effective security minimising the casualties of an attempted car ramming attack. Maher al-Hashlamun attempted to ram his car into people waiting at a bus stop. The car was, however, stopped by a concrete bollard, prompting him to get out of the vehicle and resort to stabbing people with a knife. While one young woman was killed and two others were injured, the bollard did its job by preventing larger numbers of deaths from occurring. A knife is less able than a car to inflict mass casualties in a short time. A fast response from security personnel was also key: Al-Hashlamun was shot in the chest by a security guard and later died of his wounds.
Europe will have to quickly learn some serious lessons. There are concrete security measures that need to be put in place with urgency, especially at high profile events, not only in capital cities but also elsewhere. Concrete barriers already surround the Houses of Parliament in London. American embassies often have physical barriers to protect them. The Israeli embassy in London is protected by metal and concrete defences. Yet not enough has been done to protect ‘softer’ targets which are vulnerable to vehicular attacks. More can and must be done, even if the chances of attack seem small. Better to over protect all our events in order to prevent one single attack, than to ignore the threat and risk a repeat of the Nice killings.
Passenger coaches can be parked in a ring around areas of vulnerability. These are easily mobilised physical barriers which even a large lorry would find impenetrable. Armed police, security and army personnel can be stationed at high profile, high traffic events (especially on dates of national importance), ready to react quickly to any attacks by rapidly neutralising terrorists. Temporary or even permanent concrete barriers can be erected around areas of human gathering; wherever groups of people tend to gather, they will be vulnerable. With terrorists looking for highly visible targets on symbolically meaningful dates, authorities must improve reaction rates and on-site security at strategic moments and in vulnerable places.
Europeans often complain that such measures would change the mood of our continent, creating an oppressive climate of fear. Many say they don’t want armed police in clear sight, or bag checks and security measures at the entrance to shopping centres and busy areas. But the relaxed European mood of recent decades has already been irrevocably altered by the many deaths on the streets of Paris, Nice, Toulouse, Brussels and elsewhere. We have no choice. Realistic security is in fact reassuring. It should not cause fear, but can instead guard us against it. In no time at all, we can become accustomed to higher security. In time, like Israelis, Europeans will not only come to tolerate higher security, but to expect, demand and value it.