Since 2014, Europe and North America have been the sites of a string of vehicle-ramming terrorist attacks. On April 7, 2017, for example, 39-year-old Rakhmat Akilov, an Uzbek national, drove a stolen truck into a crowd of people in a popular Stockholm shopping district, killing four people and injuring 15 more. This attack came just weeks after Khalid Masood rammed his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge in London, England, four months after a truck drove through a Christmas Market in Berlin killing 12 people, and eight months after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhel drove a rented cargo truck through the streets of Nice, killing 86 people. Other attacks in Barcelona (August 17, 2017), London (June 3, 2017) and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu (October 20, 2014) serve as a reminder of the tactic’s effectiveness and destructive capability.
Vehicle-ramming attacks present a significant challenge for security officials, as they have proven to be next to impossible to predict and relatively easy to pull off. The method is simpler than large-scale coordinated attacks, and requires no specialized training, illegal or hard-to-obtain materials, or extensive premeditation. Unlike attacks using complex materials or bombs, authorities cannot identify prospective attackers beforehand by analyzing their online activity or purchasing history. Vehicle-ramming attacks turn ordinary objects into killing machines, creating an element of surprise, as well as the constant threat of attack. Based on its simplicity and unpredictability, it is likely that ISIS and similar jihadi groups will continue to employ the tactic in their attacks moving forward.
So, what can be done about it? This question proves easier to answer in the case of particular events, as security personnel can take necessary measures to block vehicular access to concentrated or vulnerable areas. In Toronto, for example, buses and city dump trucks were used to block key intersections to protect crowds of people enjoying Canada 150 celebrations in Nathan Phillips Square. Similar tactics have been used in Montreal, Ottawa, and Calgary, proving that Canadian police services have adapted to emerging threats to public safety.*
The question is more difficult to answer when it comes to protecting major cities as a whole, and not necessarily securing a particular event. Many countries have looked towards installing barriers to make it more difficult for vehicles to enter pedestrian areas. Bollards, or short posts, have been used increasingly in recent years, however, it is unlikely that bollards can do much to stop large, load-bearing trucks. Additionally, bollards must be anchored deeply into the ground, meaning that they will likely not be able to be installed on bridges — a particularly relevant fact given that bridges have been targeted in two recent attacks in London. Another, more aesthetically pleasing option, is the strategic placement of heavy flower pots, metal lampposts, and statues, around tourist attractions. Still, while it may be possible to protect specific landmarks, it is unlikely that every area within a city can be protected.
Others have explored more creative ways of mitigating the risk of vehicle-ramming attacks. A number of companies are exploring ways to enhance advanced emergency braking (AEB) systems, which engage the brakes when sensors in the vehicle detect a collision. Such technology has been mandatory in new heavy vehicles since 2014 under EU law, and enhancing the technology to stop the vehicle immediately, and expanding its use in all vehicles, would surely prevent a number of vehicle-ramming attacks. Still, a savvy terrorist could simply use an older vehicle or find a way to disable the AEB system. Other companies have looked towards “geo-fencing” technology that would create a digital force field that can slow down unauthorized vehicles and eventually bring them to a halt.
While the use of bollards, brake systems, and high-tech force fields may indeed prevent a number of vehicle-ramming attacks, motivated terrorists can easily adapt and use other tactics. The measures do nothing, for example, to prevent an individual from exiting their vehicle and attacking individuals on foot, as was the case in the March 2017 attack outside the British Parliament. While baby-proofing one’s home is surely to prevent a number of accidents, nothing can replace the gaze of an observant and responsible parent. Similarly, while measures such as blocking intersections during events and erecting bollards around Parliament may prevent certain types of attacks, intelligence remains the most important tool to detect and prevent terrorist incidents before they happen. We cannot terror-proof entire cities, but with the right ratio of deterrents and intelligence, we may be able to mitigate risk significantly, and since terrorism is based on the element of surprise, that’s all we really can do.
*The first two paragraphs come directly from an article by the same author for the NATO Association. The original can be found here: http://natoassociation.ca/vehicle-ramming-attacks-a-growing-threat/.
Nabil Bhatia is an M.A. candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, where he specializes in Conflict Analysis and Conflict Resolution. He has written on emerging security issues for the NATO Association of Canada, and his work on transnational crime is scheduled for publication in December 2017. His research interests include: homegrown and transnational terrorism, radicalization to violence, comparative counter-terrorism strategy, and transnational crime. You can connect with Nabil at firstname.lastname@example.org.