Barcelona and the evolution of terrorism: how do we stop a terror attack when vehicles are used?

The Barcelona terrorist attack three weeks ago was horrifying. It left 13 dead and over 100 people injured. The weapon of choice? A van.

A ‘vehicle-ramming attack’ is one of the stealthiest forms of terror attacks due to the difficulty of its prevention. Those who are planning to carry out an attack using this militant tactic do not require the resources or skills needed to create a bomb. All that is needed is a driving licence, and access to a car.

This year alone there have been ten vehicle-ramming attacks globally. In the UK there have been three terror attacks that have involved the use of a vehicle: the Westminster, London Bridge, and Finsbury Park attack. It is an unsophisticated tactic compared to the creation of bombs. These vehicle attacks are also linked to the rise of home-grown terrorists, as access to a vehicle is easier if you are a citizen of the nation. The accessibility of gaining a vehicle has meant that it has appealed to ISIS recruiters. In September 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani issued a call to kill non-believers using any resources available: “[S]ingle out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of his allies,” he said. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.” BBC Inside Out reporters went undercover as young British Muslims interested in carrying out an attack, and were directed to an online terrorist manual on the dark web by recruiters, which specifically explained how to carry out an attack using a vehicle. This shows the indiscriminate nature to which these militant tactics are being encouraged. Young people can easily be led astray by recruiters through social media and communication networks who glorify martyrdom, goading new recruits with the chance of achieving paradise in the after-life.

Governments have attempted to prevent further attacks through the use of vehicles. Security bollards have been added to areas, specifically at festivals and large gatherings, such as most recently, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and Notting Hill Carnival. These are probably the most practicable prevention for crowded areas. Barriers have been erected on popular bridges in central London, protecting pedestrians from any cars that could drive onto the pavement in an attempt to target civilians.

The recent ‘Unite the Right’ rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought together a plethora of far-right groups, neo-Nazis and racists, as well as many counter protestors. As tensions escalated, a neo-Nazi James Alex Fields drove his car at full speed into a group of counter protestors, killing 32 year-old Heather Heyer and injuring 19. This is a tragic reminder that the threat of terrorism and van attacks come from both Islamist and far-right extremists.

There are plans in the UK in place to make British drivers face tougher vehicle hire checks by cross-checking against a terror watch list. Westminster attacker Khalid Masood had hired a 4×4, whilst Khuram Butt, the leader of the London Bridge attack, had hired a large white van. The problem with this is that hiring a vehicle garners very little suspicion. Some suggest making cities car-free in order to extinguish the threat of vehicles as a weapon altogether. However these tactics can only do so much to help protect citizens.

This evolution of terrorist attacks has further shown the importance of our award winning Web Guardians™ programme. One of the only ways to prevent potential terror attacks like vehicle-ramming attacks is to find out the root cause of radicalisation. Social media companies need to take an active role in weeding out extremist content, as videos, posts and other forms of propaganda can quickly go viral, and can have a lot of influence. Communication through encrypted networks can be extremely difficult to infiltrate.

With our highly acclaimed Web Guardians™ programme, we encourage, educate and empower mothers to prevent their loved ones from becoming victims to the dangers of online extremism.

Unfortunately there is no way to make areas completely safe from this modern form of terrorism. Such attacks have created a lot of fear in society, with people fearing for their safety and increasing xenophobic feelings towards others. People should not have to adapt their lives in order to avoid the threat of terrorism, and minorities should not take the brunt of people’s fears. We at JAN Trust can only hope that preventative measures are put in place, and that counter-extremism programmes like our Web Guardians™ programme find sustainable support in order to help prevent the roots of radicalisation taking place.

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About JAN Trust

JAN Trust (www.jantrust.org) is a multi award winning not for profit organisation formed in the late 1980′s. We are based in London and cater for women and youth from disadvantaged and marginalised communities. Our work and services are delivered locally, nationally and internationally. Our aim is to create positive and active citizens of society by educating, empowering and encouraging women and youth. We are dedicated to the cause of combating poverty, discrimination, abuse and social exclusion among Black, Asian, minority ethnic, refugee and asylum seeking (BAMER) women. JAN Trust is making a real difference in improving the lives of communities; promoting human and women's rights as well as community cohesion. We provide a range of services and our work has been recognised by a variety of dignitaries. Check out our website for statements from some of our supporters: http://www.jantrust.org/what-people-say
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