As the latest terrorist event in Berlin shows, the goal of the Islamists is to scare society rather than the authorities. For that purpose, trucks are more effective than bombs.
A truck which ran into a crowded Christmas market Monday evening killing several people Monday evening is seen in Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016. Photo: AP
Another tragedy, this time in the center of Berlin, is just the latest in what appears to be a new strategy by the Islamist radicals: using trucks as instruments of terror. On Dec. 19, a heavy truck crashed through a crowd at a busy Christmas market in the German capital. This might be another terrorist attack.
Just 20 years ago, the media in Europe would probably have come up with a different version of events – maybe a drunk driver and a misguided suicide attempt, but not a single word about terrorist attacks. Now, at the end of 2016, marked by a series of grisly terrorist attacks by radical Islamists in Europe, things feel very different.
Memories of the July tragedy that happened in Nice are still fresh in the heads of people in the European Union; on that day a man of Tunisian origin (Mohamed Bouhlel) smashed into the festive crowd on the beachfront. As part of his murderous rampage, he ran over and shot down 84 people.
Thankfully, the number of victims in Germany is significantly smaller. Police sources mention nine dead and 50 injured. What is also important, there was no shooting. Regardless of that, Christmas in the Old Europe is ruined.
In post-apocalyptic movies about a dystopian future world destroyed by humanity, trucks and vehicles that somehow remain operational are often used as weapons that can crash into enemies and knock them off their feet. In movies like “Mad Max,” a truck enhanced with rusty iron pieces, blades and grills can dash through the burned-out panorama of the U.S. or Australia, sowing death everywhere.
In real life as well, vehicles can turn out to be more dangerous than bombs. And while authorities manage to control trafficking of arms and explosives, it is practically impossible to monitor every suspicious driver of a truck or a minivan.
One after another, EU countries have announced tightening of security measures after the Berlin tragedy. Police officers and special security forces are called on duty, and the patrolling of crowded public spaces is increased. But are these measures really efficient in the light of a permanent terrorist threat?
Generally speaking, events held near the holy day of Christmas are alluring for the terrorists. As early as Dec. 16, German police arrested a young 12-year old extremist who attempted to blow up a Christmas fair in the German town of Ludwigshafen (located in Rhineland-Palatinate). The holiday season had not even started yet, and the extremists were hatching new plots!
As the Nice attack showed, a terrorist does not even have to procure weapons, make explosives, choose places to plant explosives or shoot people. No, all it takes is to get behind the wheel of a huge sturdy vehicle with a powerful engine and crash into a crowd of people, simply having identified a place that gets packed during the holiday season.
Moreover, the human way of thinking and how people respond to such incidents make such style of terrorist attack rather efficient, according to the twisted logic of the terrorists. Many people panic and try to escape from the vehicle literally by running in front of it instead of trying to find shelter in buildings, narrow passages and side streets.
A panicking crowd knocks many people off their feet, who might then be trampled. A heavy truck can crash into pavilions, smash tents, and destroy small temporary structures. In such a scenario, broken pieces and debris flying around can increase the number of victims significantly.
In reality, even an SUV or a passenger car with a suicide driver can cause a great deal of damage. The scariest part of such a terrorist attack is that is lasts a long time. Victims have enough time to get scared desperately running in front of a moving vehicle in panic and those who survive remember this nightmare forever.
Fortunately, things aren't that simple for the perpetrators of such attacks. All a suicide bomber has to do is press a button, but a terrorist speeding in a deadly car must remain extremely focused for a period of time trying to kill as many people as possible. Besides, a perpetrator of such a hideous act would want to follow his instincts and steer the wheel to avoid an accident even if it is premeditated. To accomplish that, one has to have nerves of steel and good training. Finding resources doesn’t seem to be a problem; as the events of the past years showed, most perpetrators of terrorist attacks in France, Belgium and Germany were EU citizens.
Thus, nothing prevented them from learning how to drive a truck, getting a job as a driver or simply buying an appropriate used car and stepping on the bloody path, as it was the case of the Nice attack. It doesn’t seem to be a problem to buy a medium size truck, minibus or a minivan on the secondary market. Moreover, one can even steal a future means of terrorist attack, but then there is the risk of being caught by police ahead of time.
How can one prevent such attacks from happening? Unfortunately, not much can be done except for closing the streets during public holidays, patrolling more actively, or prohibiting trucks from driving through city centers. Let us not forget that terrorists want publicity. One can smash a bus stop with passengers or drive into a coffee shop window on New Year’s Eve in the suburbs but it won’t provoke the same reaction, panic and fear as any attack in the center of the city under the lenses of journalist cameras witnessed by thousands of people.
Obviously, efficiently ensuring security of places of mass gatherings from truck attacks very soon will became a relevant issue for Europe. European cities will see temporary “speed bumps,” transportable but sturdy barriers capable of stopping have vehicles.
At the same time, it is impossible to completely prevent such attacks from happening, even more so, because they can be perpetrated even by a loner, since one can easily buy a car, learn to drive it and crash into a crowd of people all by himself, having previously undergone a training somewhere in the Middle East and then returning to the Old World as a refugee. The price of a used and sturdy light truck is comparable to, and sometimes lower than, an illegal fire arm.
On the other hand, neither increased patrolling, nor placing barriers is any guarantee to stop the terrorists. An attack on the same day in Ankara, which resulted in the assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov on secured premises, demonstrated once again that terrorist attacks can be extremely difficult to prevent.
Oftentimes, modern society is haunted by the thought that it is being constantly watched over, which means that sooner or later special services will track down any radical extremist. Nevertheless, all databases, mobile location services and similar forms of surveillance prove to be useless to deter terrorism.
Moreover, meticulously planned attacks by terrorist groups in the second half of the 20th century that took months to prepare, such as the “Red brigades” in Italy and “Red army” in Germany, are gradually being replaced by extremists whose main goal is to scare all of society and not just the authorities. They would use all available weapons and resources to achieve this goal. It took more than special services to defeat European terrorism in the 1970s, which in Italy alone claimed more than 150 lives in 10 years.
In the end, far-left extremist ideas were discredited through instituting social reforms in Europe, establishing youth programs and launching diplomatic efforts towards persuading the Soviet bloc to renounce any cooperation with the “red” terrorists.
The question is whether Europe will be able to defeat the ideology of radical Islamism and integrate millions of refugees and migrants who want to live by their own traditions and laws. If Brussels manages to find an answer to this problem, it would become a turning point in the fight against Islamic terrorism.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.