Vehicles as weapons: A game changer

Vehicles as weapons: A game changer

Infrastructure, Security & Business Affairs Manager | Road Haulage Association

Recent events in the UK and around the world remind us all of the terrorist threat we face, which in the UK remains ‘severe’, meaning an attack is highly likely. Police and security agencies are working to protect the public but it’s also important that communities remain vigilant.
 
The variety and type of security threats we face are changing, fast. We are seeing the rise of low-tech terrorism such as vehicle ramming attacks on public spaces often inspired by online propaganda.
 
Recent years have seen vehicles join a growing list of industry sectors to have been directly targeted by terrorists. Vehicle as a Weapon (VAW) attacks in Nice, Berlin, and closer to home in London have provided a brutal example of just how easy it is for extremists to misuse cars, vans and trucks, turning them into instruments of terror. As well as killing or maiming innocent people, these attacks are also carefully designed to have a wider impact on society, creating fear and anxiety and threatening business continuity.
 
The threat
Terrorists are increasingly relying on home-grown, low-tech, lone-agent attacks against public spaces in the West, because they are easier to operate under the radar of security services and can spread fear amongst civilian populations.
 
The July 2016 truck attack in Nice – which killed 86 people and injured 434 – was a ‘game changer’ in terms of how terrorists perceived vehicle attacks as an effective modus operandi.
 
Between March and June 2017, London saw three terror attacks in which individuals used vehicles and knives to kill and maim members of the public. Tourists, revellers, worshippers and a police officer were all targeted. A total of 14 innocent people lost their lives in the attacks, and almost 90 more were injured.
 
The security services have acknowledged that the scale of the terrorist threat facing the UK is unprecedented in terms of the number of current investigations and the overall number of individuals of interest. Keeping track of, assessing and applying proportionate investigative resources to such a large number of individuals is an extremely challenging task for the intelligence and security community. It is essential that the freight industry plays its part in supporting this work.
 
Operators must also address the threat posed by ‘insiders’ – terrorists that seek to use their employment as an opportunity to undertake an attack.
Why vehicle as weapon attacks are attractive to terrorists
 
Vehicle as weapon attacks are considered by western security services to be unsophisticated because a perpetrator can carry out such an attack with minimal planning and training. The fewer people involved in the preparation of an attack, the lower the risk of security agencies becoming aware of plans. This type of attack is also attractive to would-be terrorists with limited access to weapons or explosives.
 
Vehicles of choice
Analysis of terrorist’s literature shows that commercial vehicles are the preferred ‘weapon’ of choice due to their large size, weight, carrying capacity and ability to cause greater destruction.
 
According to the TSA (US Department for Homeland Security’s Transport Security Administration) commercial trucks and buses are plentiful and routinely arouse no suspicion because of the exceptional access they have to city centres and other iconic locations.
 
Cloned vehicles
The use of ‘cloned’ vehicles remains a popular way for criminals and terrorists to gain access to restricted or high-profile areas. Cloned vehicles and those impersonating legitimate businesses, law enforcement or first responder personnel pose a significant threat to security.
 
Ideal targets
Ideal targets are typically events that draw large groups of people and thus present an attractive vehicle attack target. Such attacks could target locations where large numbers congregate including parades and other celebratory gatherings.   
 
The threat from Daesh is complex, from lone operators to sophisticated plots. The threat from Al Qaeda has not gone away and is well-funded. In terms of the number of current investigations and the overall number of individuals of interest, M15 has confirmed that it is currently running approximately 600 investigations into individuals or groups associated with Islamist terrorism.
 
In addition to the above, M15 and Counter Terrorism Policing have publicly stated that they currently have around 3,000 subjects of interest on their radar. This group sits on top of a larger pool of 20,000 individuals who have previously been Subjects of Interest (SoI).
 
Profile of a terrorist
There is no profile of a terrorist.  Many had clean criminal records and were being radicalised in the space of a couple of weeks making detection much harder. Another area of concern is the rise in right wing extremism, the first since 1940 and the fascists.  
 
Campaigns, advice and training material
Significant progress has been made with the freight industry in highlighting the risks and implementing more robust systems. Key advice and training material is available, free of charge, via the regional CTSAs (Counter Terrorism Security Advisers) under Project Griffin and more recently Project Argus - which is aimed at senior managers to help make decisions on what procedures need to be put in place to prevent and survive a terrorist attack. CTSAs are trained and tasked by the National Counter Terrorism Security Office (NaCSTO) – a specialist police organisation working closely with the CPNI which co-ordinates the nationwide CTSA network.
 
The RHA is already involved in ACT, a national campaign by Counter Terrorism Policing which urges the public to act on their instincts to help tackle the terrorist threat.
 
The anti-terrorist hotline is now operational 24/7. Further details can be found on the government website at www.gov.uk/act
 
Insider-threat counter-measures
According to the CPNI, malevolent insider activity can be lessened by carrying out thorough pre-employment checks and by having a strong security culture. The CPNI’s website contains a wide range of guidance and products across seven key areas to help organisations make informed decisions about the level of personnel security risk they manage.
 
Conclusion
Counter-terror experts acknowledge that there is no magic formula for preventing terrorism, but the RHA and its members are determined to take a proactive role in reducing the likelihood and impact of VAW attacks.
 
Addressing the vehicle as a weapon threat needs a co-ordinated approach from industry, policy makers and law enforcement organisations. No-one is in any doubt about the complexity of the challenge ahead. There is no panacea to solve this issue but working together we can make a difference to deter attackers from using vehicles as their preferred weapon of choice in future attacks and keeping our country safe.
 
Useful contacts
Counter Terrorism hotline: 0800 789 321
ACT website: www.gov.uk/act
www.mi5.gov.uk/business-security-advice
www.cpni.gov.uk/personnel-and-people-security 
Online resources in order to protect and prepare: www.nactso.gov.uk