A vehicular attack to maximise casualties and spread panic is now a well-tested terrorist strategy in European cities.
A vehicular attack to maximise casualties and spread panic is now a well-tested terrorist strategy in European cities. Barcelona became the latest urban centre to be so hit when a van ploughed into pedestrians on a busy street, leaving at least 14 dead and more than 100 injured. This is Spain’s worst terrorist incident since the Madrid train bombings of 2004. The Islamic State has, expectedly, claimed responsibility.
The plot appeared to be multi-site and involved numerous actors, not just a “lone wolf”. This hints at meticulous planning. The police have linked the van attack in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas area to an explosion the previous evening that ripped through a home and killed one person in a town 200 km south of Barcelona. Authorities also saw connections to a second vehicle attack that occurred in the resort town of Cambrils, south of Barcelona.
With at least one attacker, the driver of the van, said to be at large, the Spanish government is likely to be grappling with the same question as its counterparts elsewhere in Europe: what options are available to law enforcement to thwart attacks using easy-to-obtain vehicles to grab the headlines? Over the past year, the weaponisation of vehicles has increasingly become the tactic of choice for extremists: it was used in London (March and June 2017, at least 12 killed), Stockholm (April 2017, five killed), Berlin (December 2016, 12 killed), and Nice (July 2016, 86 killed).
If indeed it is established that the IS was behind the Barcelona attack, even if only as an “inspiration” and not in terms of planning or execution, this would call for a renewed focus on containing the jihadist group’s recruitment agenda in Europe. There is a real risk that with the steady erosion of the IS’s territorial control in Iraq and Syria, recently highlighted by its defeat in Mosul, foreign fighters may return from those battlefields to their home countries and focus on carrying out attacks there. European intelligence and security services that were beefed up after a multitude of al-Qaeda-linked attacks through the decade of the 2000s are still fumbling to gain control of this new paradigm of individualised, low-tech terror.
Until now it was believed that Spanish intelligence had performed better on this score than France, and perhaps even the U.K. Strained by a lack of resources and suboptimal intra-Europe coordination, France’s intelligence seemed no match for the 2015 IS terror campaign on its soil, which culminated in the death of 130 people in the Paris attacks in November. Spanish authorities, on the other hand, are said to have foiled several major plots in 2008, and “at least 10 separate conspiracies” in 2016, not to mention additional networks reportedly uncovered this year. Notwithstanding these variations, law enforcement agencies across the continent, and elsewhere, now face the unenviable challenge of adapting to the evolving terror tactics of a dispersed, determined enemy.
The Hindu, August 19, 2017