Are we entering the time of unpreventable terrorist attacks?

The carnage unfolding in Barcelona as I type is getting to be depressingly familiar.  An individual drives a vehicle (car, van, 18-wheeler) into an unsuspecting crowd of people, strewing them like bowling pins.  Innocent people are injured, some horribly, and some die (maybe mercifully quickly or agonisingly slowly).  While no group has yet to claim responsibility for this act of depravity, Islamic State fan boys, in the expectation that some ‘soldier of God’ from the terrorist organisation is behind the attack, are already celebrating online and vowing more attacks.

We have been here before of course.  Nice.  Berlin.  London.  Charlottesville.  A man, a van, a plan. That is all it takes when you reduce it to first principles.  I don’t doubt that there was some thought and planning that went into this but any idiot can get behind the wheel and find pedestrians minding their own business on a beautiful late summer’s afternoon along Las Ramblas.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist – figuratively or literally – to execute an attack of this nature.  You don’t even have to have a driver’s licence.  All you have to do is be tall enough to reach the accelerator and see out the windshield.  Add a bit of steering and voila! you have a terrorist attack.

And the sheer simplicity of this kind of act is precisely the problem.  If someone wants to build a bomb, that takes skill. In fact, if your skills are not up to par you end up just blowing yourself up as happens on occasion (the other day a whole bunch of terrorists in Afghanistan died when their device from hell went kaboom while they were still working on it – very Darwinian that).  If you try to get a weapon there is a chance a record is kept or you act in a suspicious way while out shopping for an AK-47 (“Hey, how many kuffar – I mean people – can I kill with this?”).

But a car?  How hard is it to buy a car?  For that matter, most people already have cars so they don’t have to go out and get one.  How easier can a terrorist plot be?  Take one vehicle, drive to a spot (i.e. anywhere) where there are people, aim slightly and put your foot to the floor.  If you are lucky you can get away in the ensuing panic (the Berlin Christmas market truck terrorist got as far as Italy before authorities found him) or you will die as a ‘martyr’ in the blissful expectation of whatever eternal rewards will be showered on you by God (God: “Wait, you did what??  Ah no, I don’t think you deserve infinite pleasure.  But do I have the holiday resort for you.  I’ll give you a hint: it’s really, really warm!”).

There are two salient points of analysis to make here.  First, terrorists are finally picking up on what extremist organisations have been saying for years, i.e. engage in ‘Nike violence’ (‘Just Do It’).  Use what you have: a car, a knife, a golf club (yes, we saw that in Scarborough). Don’t overcomplicate things.  Keep it simple and your chances of success are greater.

The second point refers to prevention.  How does a security service or law enforcement agency stop an attack of this nature from happening?  I have an answer you won’t like. They don’t and they can’t.  Unless they are already watching the person/people and/or receive timely intelligence.  Even if the person is ‘on the radar’ that does not guarantee disruption (we saw that a year ago with the Aaron Driver case here in Canada).  We can get better – we can always get better and strive for that – but in the absence of complete and total surveillance and electronic snooping attacks as unsophisticated as these will occur.  Accept that.

I am sure that as we learn more in the coming hours, days and weeks we will hear a few things:

a) you knew about this guy and didn’t stop him?  Why not? Intelligence failure!

b) you didn’t know about this guy? Why not? Intelligence failure!

We will trot all the experts, real and wannabe, and we will analyse this to death.  Armchair critics will yell and scream at the government and some people will cancel plans to visit Barcelona (Spain, Europe, the planet) for fear of ‘the next one’).  None of this is helpful. While we must expect the very best from our protectors we have to tell ourselves that no system, no paradigm, no approach is perfect and never will be.  Humans have been killing each other since we were apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey and will continue to do so.  We will stop a lot of acts from succeeding: otherwise we will respond and act as best as we can.  You might see this attitude as defeatist: I see it as realist.

My heart goes out to the victims and their families in the wake of this horrific incident.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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