Dec 20, 2016 by

Terrorist attacks using vehicles are very hard to prevent – but there are safety measures cities can use, experts say.

The outside of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium
Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium has some innovative protective features: large concrete letters at the main entrance, concrete benches on the forecourt and giant cannons. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

The Berlin lorry attack on Monday that killed 12 people and injured 48 others raises a pressing question for security services across the world: what can be done to stop such attacks?

The attack on Berlin’s Christmas market came six months after a 19-tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, killing 86 people and injuring 484.

This seemingly new – and brutally destructive – form of terrorist attack is quickly becoming one that security experts fear the most: it can cause untold carnage and seemingly come out of nowhere. And there are obvious limits on the effect of practical measures.

On Wednesday, Berlin’s police chief, Klaus Kandt, argued that bollards would not have prevented the attack. With “so many potential targets” – 2,500 Christmas markets in Germany and 60 in Berlin alone – he said it was impossible to reduce the risk to zero. But can they at least be made less likely? Yes, is the simplistic answer – but the measures to achieve that are varied, complex, and far from a panacea.

Barriers in public spaces


The primary way is to erect huge, imposing barriers around vulnerable crowded areas: indeed, police chiefs in Berlin said on Tuesday they would now erect new barriers.

In Britain, a lower-key approach has been favoured – until now, perhaps.

Ruth Reed, the head of the Royal Institute of British Architects’ (RIBA) planning group and its former president, said counter-terrorism officers would reassess the security of open spaces in the wake of the Berlin attack.

“There will be a degree of reassessment of public open space inevitably after Berlin. I think that will happen all over Europe, not just here,” she said. “The British approach has always been to put in a degree of protection. They may want to think about increasing it – but it can be done discreetly.”

Reed co-authored industry-leading guidance, published in 2010, on designing for counter-terrorism without turning the nation into an uninviting fortress.

The most obvious form of protection against a truck attack are large barriers, known in the architecture business as “anti-ramming landscape features”. The black barriers around the Palace of Westminster are designed to stop a lorry attack at high speed. Up the road in Whitehall, there are barriers but they are hidden from view.

All US military and governmental buildings have “crash- and attack-resistant bollards” outside. The US state department “anti-ram vehicle list” lists several types of bollards to protect the perimeter of its embassies abroad. Some bollards are capable of stopping vehicles travelling at up to 50mph (80km/h).

Safety measures that avoid a bunker mentality

There are also innovative ways of protecting large crowds. Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, opened in 2006, has been held up as a model for how physical barriers can be incorporated into a building’s design. Large concrete letters spelling out the word Arsenal at the stadium’s main entrance also act as a barrier to vehicles.

Concrete benches prevent a vehicle from weaving across the forecourt, and giant ornate cannons, which feature on the club’s logo, form an obstacle for vehicles driving towards the stadium building.

“It’s not just the point of obstruction,” said Reed, who pointed out that measures including tight bends and restricted-width streets had been designed to prevent a large vehicle building speed before reaching a bollard or barrier.

“The important thing for public sanity really is that we don’t let this kind of anti-terrorism provision cloud our thinking because, if we develop some kind of bunker mentality, we’ve actually let them win,” she said.

“We want people to be able to go about their normal working and leisure times blissfully unaware that there is a risk that has been considered and reduced or eliminated. That’s the really important thing to say.

“People may feel nervous about attending crowded external places, but it might be worth them having a look around and thinking what is in place and usually there are preventative measures for vehicles.”

Will rings of steel be erected in crowded places across Britain? No, said Reed. “I don’t think people will be going to German markets behind walls of steel. I think it’s discreetly possible to introduce anti-ramming landscape features,” she said.

“There may be a review that increases some of it, but I suspect that if you look carefully at some of our crowded places generally it has been considered, because it has been part of police thinking for a long time in this country. Sadly we’re not strangers to terrorists.”

Practical limits on security

Using a vehicle to commit a terrorist atrocity is not a new tactic. Apart from the Bastille Day attack in Nice, Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale used a car to run down Fusilier Lee Rigby in May 2013 before stabbing him to death.

In June 2007, Bilal Abdullah and Kafeel Ahmed drove their Jeep Cherokee, loaded with propane canisters, into the glass doors of the Glasgow airport terminal. In the Israel-Palestine conflict, car-ramming attacks have become a regular feature, with Palestinian drivers running down Israeli soldiers and civilians.

While the security services across Europe have sophisticated systems to alert them to those acquiring weapons or explosives, getting your hands on a vehicle is easy.

In 2010, the online magazine Inspire, produced by al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, urged jihadis to target pedestrian-only locations and ram vehicles into crowds in order to “achieve maximum carnage”. A 2014 propaganda video produced by the Islamic State encouraged the group’s French sympathisers to use cars to run down civilians.

The attack in Glasgow prompted a government review of the protection of strategic infrastructure, which recommended the installation of robust physical barriers as protection against vehicle bomb attacks and the creation of vehicle exclusion zones to keep all but authorised vehicles at a safe distance.

Prof Tahir Abbas, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said the British government had already been sensitive to the subject of protective security and that many important government buildings and public sites were already surrounded by barriers to stop vehicle attacks.

“When you have an open event, something that’s almost ad hoc such as a Christmas market, then the need to have greater security measures has become more pronounced in light of these events in Nice and now in Berlin,” he said.

“Now designers and scientists have got the technology to create aesthetically pleasing barriers to prevent cars from ramming into buildings,” said Abbas. “As part of that you have things like innocent flower pots outside buildings that are actually enforced with concrete and metal to prevent a truck from going over them. They are hidden and blended into the aesthetics of the building.”

“You try to protect yourself from any possible risk, but there will always be something that creeps through. With terrorism you’re always playing a game of catch-up in some respects and this is where lessons learned from across the world become important.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *