How to prevent vehicular terrorist attacks – maybe

One thing that is confounding police and intelligence agencies the world over is what to do about car rammings/vehicular terrorist attacks.  We read of them often – last week’s incident in London near the Parliament buildings in just the latest.  Over the past five years or so there have been at least 20 such events, most of them terrorist in nature, that have caused hundreds of deaths (the 2016 attack in Nice was by far the most lethal with 86 dead) and thousands of injuries.

Once investigations begin we learn that those behind these heinous attacks come from a variety of backgrounds.  Some are known to the security services, others not.  Some fooled authorities into thinking they no longer posed a threat (Martin Couture-Rouleau in Montreal in 2014).  Others may have had ties to terrorist groups like Islamic State.  In some cases IS claims the drivers as ‘soldiers’ of Islam irrespective of such links.  One thing is certainly true: there is no profile.

These attacks often happen out of the blue.  A vehicle – car, van, large truck – appears out of nowhere, targeting crowds of people on a busy Toronto street, or one in Stockholm, along Las Ramblas in Barcelona or on the iconic London Bridge.  The only common denominator seems to be innocent men, women and children out enjoying a nice day or commuting to work.  Lives are lost, lives are shattered.

Officials struggle to come up with responses.  In a perfect world, our protectors would have intelligence on those planning such acts and would take action to stop them.  In light of those successful attacks it is clear this is not always the case.

In the absence of intelligence or forewarning some authorities decide to put up barriers.  During festivals or parades dump trucks, often filled with cement, will be posted at certain intersections to prevent the entry of a terrorist bent on destruction.  These measures are of course temporary.   Other countries have elected to put in place concrete bollards or barriers – or planters if they want a better and more aesthetic look – that remain as an obstacle on a more permanent basis.  Structures of this sort appear to have inhibited London’s terrorist last week.  They can be ugly, however, and infringe the freedom of movement of the vast majority who do not have violent intentions.

One possible solution is purely technological in nature.  This involves installing a system in select areas that can act to slow down or stop a vehicle perceived to be speeding up in the neighbourhood of pedestrians.  Would-be extremists find that their cars or vans are incapacitated, thus frustrating their designs.  This capability is already real and can serve other purposes such as stopping vehicles involved in high speed car chases.

There are of course problems with the ability to disable a car at the flick of a switch.  I imagine that the system required to monitor potential bad guys would be enormously expensive.  Who decides which areas should be monitored (once identified the terrorists could just move over a block)?  Do we want to place this capability in the hands of police?  Does it not smack of Big Brother?  Even if it worked 100% of the time, a determined terrorist would be careful to bring along a knife or gun to continue his plot once his vehicle quit (yes, a guy with a knife cannot do as much damage as a guy with a car but he can still kill and wound).  This is exactly what happened to Lee Rigby in Woolich in 2013.

Maybe when we get to the cities of the future, like the plans for parts of downtown Toronto (the Sidewalk Labs project), this will all be old hat.  Many seem to be ok with ever intrusive peering into our activities that they will accept that cars will be stopped if someone in authority thinks they are driven by homicidal maniacs.  Then again, perhaps the backlash over FaceBook and private data will create an opposition movement to all this.

What we have to accept is that, irrespective of the technology we develop, getting to zero terrorism is a pipe dream.  Don’t get me wrong, I welcome all efforts to get the tally of successful attacks as close to nil as possible.  It is just that a very determined violent actor will usually find a way.  We might want to get used to that.

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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