It is impossible to make cities 100% safe from attacks with vehicles, but authorities can do much to mitigate the threat at least to some obvious targets. With hindsight, officials will be regretting not moving faster to boost security measures on Las Ramblas boulevard, packed with tourists on a sunny August afternoon, after vehicle attacks elsewhere in Europe since last year.
The mayor of Nice has said he will convene European counterparts next month to see how they can improve security in their cities in the aftermath of Thursday’s van attack in Barcelona.
Christian Estrosi said €30m had been spent on protecting potential target areas in the city from possible vehicle attacks since last year, and that cities needed more money to cope with the new threats. The most obvious defences are barriers that prevent vehicles either gathering speed or continuing for long distances. These can be highly visible – such as the deliberately obvious metal-cased concrete blocks outside the Houses of Parliament in London or disguised, as with heavy flower pots and sculptures that are appearing on our streets. At Arsenal’s Emirates stadium in north London, giant ornate cannon, which feature on the football club’s logo, act as a barrier.
Less obviously, streets and access roads can be redesigned to prevent vehicles reaching targets or accelerating. This has been done throughout much of central London. But such measures can only provide partial protection, as the attacks on Westminster and Borough Market this year proved.
At Columbia Road flower market in the East End of London, traders have taken security into their own hands. Since the events in Borough Market, they have been parking their lorries diagonally across each entrance to the often densely packed street to guard against would be attackers. Discussions with the local council about installing retractable bollards are ongoing.
After a truck was driven into a crowd at a Christmas market in Berlin last year, the police chief, pointed out that with so many potential targets – 2,500 such markets in Germany and 60 in the city alone – it was impossible to reduce the risk to zero.
Then there are possible targets outside the centre: places of worship for example – there was a vehicle attack against worshippers outside Finsbury Park mosque in north London this year – or an almost infinite range of other sites.
So stopping terrorist attacks using vehicles differs little from stopping terrorists with other weapons, and depends on a complex and dynamic mix of intelligence, law enforcement, public awareness, community relations and other elements that have grown familiar over recent years.
Terrorists, whatever their ideology, have usually been quick to seize on the potential of new technology, from dynamite in the 1880s to television in the 1950s and passenger planes in the 70s. It is surprising that groups took so long to work out the potential of vehicles.
Some of this delay may have been due to strategic and theological concerns about indiscriminate targeting of civilians, even in the west, that now seem like anachronisms in the world of modern Islamist militancy. These have long since been swept away.
In 2010, the online magazine Inspire, produced by al-Qaida in the Arabian peninsula, urged jihadis to target pedestrian-only locations and ram vehicles into crowds to “achieve maximum carnage”. A 2014 propaganda video produced by Islamic State encouraged the group’s French sympathisers to use cars to run down civilians.
Almost all Islamist militant terrorist attacks over the past 20 years have been executed with locally obtained materials, within an hour or so of the attackers’ home. Dramatic “long-distance” strikes such as the 9/11 attacks have always been an anomaly. This goes for Afghanistan and Iraq as much as for Spain, the UK and the US.
The means used by terrorists are often determined by availability. So in the US, powerful firearms are often employed. Elsewhere, other weapons are used. In China, knives have featured in mass-casualty attacks. But vehicles are ubiquitous, of course.
So too are cities, where attackers and victims live side by side. This has been the case since modern terrorism emerged – in cities – 150 years ago. It will not change in the near future.