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Car ramming attacks: Cheap, deadly and hard to prevent

Josep Lago, AFP | Police monitor a cordoned-off area after a van ploughed into the crowd on Las Ramblas in Barcelona on August 17.

Vehicle attacks of the sort seen in Barcelona and Cambrils this week are easy to organise, hard to predict and may simply be part of a new reality.


Barcelona now joins Berlin, London, Nice, Paris and Stockholm among the cities that have seen extremists drive vehicles into crowds with the intent of maiming or killing their victims.

The latest attacks in Barcelona and the seaside resort of Cambrils left at least 14 dead and 100 injured on Thursday night. A truck attack on Bastille Day last year left 86 people dead in the French seaside city of Nice.

Many European cities have introduced new security measures on roads – such as metal or concrete barriers – in a bid to protect pedestrians and crowds. But experts warn that no country can protect all of its possible civilian targets.

"It's the principle of soft targets," Frederic Gallois, the former head of France's elite GIGN (Groupe d'intervention de la Gendarmerie nationale) police force, told AFP.

"Any gathering of people is a soft target and there are crowds everywhere."

Even if security services managed to protect symbolic sites and the most popular areas around cities, nearby streets or neighbourhoods would still be vulnerable, he said.

>> Read more: The Nice attacker's road to radicalism

The rise in unsophisticated, low-cost but effective attacks is in sharp contrast to the highly coordinated assaults across Paris in November 2015 that left 130 dead. But they are very much part of the shifting strategy of terror groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) group. Both extremist groups have urged their followers to use whatever means they might have at their disposal to sow fear and carnage in their war against the West.

Military action by Western powers and their local allies in Syria and Iraq has seized much of the territory and resources available to the IS group, which may now be shifting its strategy to focus on attacks in Europe.

"They aren't looking for spectacular results using huge resources, but rather they want frequency to try to destabilise their adversaries," Gallois said. "It's the regularity which is the problem.”

"At the moment, there's an attack every four to six weeks in Europe," he added. Then with each lull, "everyone says to themselves 'something's going to happen'."

But Jean-Pierre Filiu, an expert on terrorism at Sciences Po University in Paris, warned against thinking the military defeat of the organisation would bring an end to the wave of assaults.

"They want to show that they are still effective despite the territorial losses. But it's not because they are retreating in Iraq and Syria that they are striking now," he said on France Inter radio.

Jihadists want division

Many countries have increased the number of armed street patrols to deal with the threat, and police are now well versed in how to respond to such incidents.

Further investment in intelligence-gathering and information-sharing between EU members could also help reduce the risk of future violence, some experts believe.

The Radicalization Awareness Network, an EU research body, warned last month that 1,200-3,000 jihadists risked returning to Europe after fighting in Iraq and Syria – out of an estimated 5,000 who joined the terror groups there.

One of IS group's stated goals is turning Western governments and citizens against Muslim minorities in their countries. Nathalie Goulet, a French senator who sits on a parliamentary panel tasked with analysing jihadist groups, said it was important to avoid anti-Muslim rhetoric, which plays into the hands of the extremists.

"You need to look at the reality. Telling people that banning Muslims ... or closing mosques will resolve the problem is lying," she told AFP in a recent interview.

"Someone who gets into their car and crashes into a crowd – unfortunately we need to learn to live with that and every citizen must remain vigilant," she said.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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