Motor vehicles are the terrorist’s new weapon of choice, experts say

Can cities be terror-proofed against the growing trend of vehicle-ramming attacks?

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Wednesday’s attack in London is the fifth high-profile urban attack in eight months by an assailant who used a vehicle as a deadly weapon, and comes two months and three days after Melbourne experienced the same horror.

Though no city can hope to stop every such attack, its defences will be the difference between a smaller death toll and a massacre as seen in Nice last year, when 86 died, one expert said.

Gavin Queit is director of GK Solutions, a Melbourne-based company that specialises in “hostile vehicle mitigation”, among other security measures. It recently installed protective bollards outside Victoria Police’s new station on Spencer Street.

Mr Queit said there are three essential aspects to minimising the damage of vehicle-ramming attacks: intelligence, physical barriers such as bollards, and a quickfire response by police.

Intelligence can stop a would-be killer before a strike, failing that barriers and a rapid response by police in taking him down are the best ways to limit the human toll.

There is a fast-growing list of cities that have suffered a vehicle-ramming attack.

In Nice on Bastille Day last year, a terrorist drove a truck into a crowd and killed 86 revellers.

In Berlin in December a man rammed a vehicle into a market, killing 12.

In Melbourne in January, six people were mown down and killed in Bourke Street Mall, in an attack police have said was not an act of terrorism.

In London, five are dead, including the attacker and a police officer, and at least 40 were injured, when the assailant drove a car into a group of people on Westminster Bridge.

Mr Queit said London had done a good job of “containing and compartmentalising” the city, which could explain why the death toll there stands at five, compared with 86 in Nice, which left itself vulnerable.

“London has done a lot of work in this regard, it has compartmentalised the city into small areas, which means it’s not going to have a Nice attack where there is a massive death toll,” he said.

Melbourne also avoided a massacre during the Bourke Street rampage, but this was partly due to luck.

The alleged killer “went through 36 people, he killed six, he could have killed 36”, Mr Queit said.

He said Melbourne could choose to line its CBD footpaths with bollards to minimise the damage of an attack such as occurred on Bourke Street, though no city can make itself impervious to a vehicle-ramming attack.

“If you think about a major intersection in Melbourne at lunchtime, people crossing any of the major intersections and cars are waiting opposite and you can’t impede those cars.”

Terror experts have said the attack in London is the latest example of an emerging model, in which an everyday object like a motor vehicle becomes a shocking weapon and a sure way to capture the attention of global media.

“Terrorists rely on a lot of people watching – it can be even better than having a lot of people dead,” Frank Foley, a scholar of terrorism at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, told the Washington Post on Wednesday.

The 2010 edition of Inspire, an al-Qaeda propaganda magazine, included an article calling on readers to use a large vehicle to kill pedestrians in built-up areas.

“The idea is to use a pick-up truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah,” it said.

In the past six years there have been 17 documented vehicle-ramming attacks, according to a list compiled by Wikipedia, compared with eight in the three decades between 1981 and 2010.

The increased use of vehicles as weapons of terror may lead authorities to impose licence bans on suspects, according to counter-terrorism specialist Mark Briskey.

But Dr Briskey, a former Australian Federal Police officer, said potential terrorists would always search for ways to circumvent security measures.

“Licence bans – they are only good if people stick to the rules,” he said, but a terrorist with a death wish was not going to care.

He said adding extra security measures could create a “balloon-type situation”, where strengthening one area would lead plotters to find the next soft target.

Shopping centres and the entrances to major transport hubs are often singled out as places where crowds gather.

“It’s like any other crime, people are looking for gaps,” Dr Briskey said.