Anyone. Anywhere. Anytime. Such is the message of the terrorist attacks in Paris, London, Brussels, Istanbul, and now, apparently, Nice. A paradox in this contemporary problem is that, as security measures become increasingly sophisticated, the terrorist threat seems to evolve in the opposite direction: toward simplicity.
The world was shocked 15 years ago by the preparation that went into Al Qaeda’s attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. A large group of attackers were involved, many of whom had undergone flight training.
The carnage in France, like other more recent attacks, reminds us that intensive training is not necessary. At least 84 people are dead as the result of a high-probability and high-impact attack with a rudimentary modus operandi at its core. It only took one man and a truck to cause untold damage.
Only a few hours before the terrible events unfolded in Nice, I was analysing video footage of similar incidents in Israel as part of research into how to stop lone-extremist attacks. Many of these simply show cars suddenly changing direction to hit groups of pedestrians.
I came to the conclusion that physical security measures would be of limited use against attacks of this kind. A possible option is to introduce bollards near crowded places, like at bus stops. However, the cost of doing this on a large scale would be a problem in the age of anytime, anywhere terrorism.
The fact is, our surroundings are full of potential hazards. Some are natural, others are engineered. We want and expect to be protected from terrorism, but we don’t imagine the threat to come out of the ordinary. This is in part what is so chilling about the Nice attack – most of us will see at least one white truck in any given week. Those of us living in cities will see them every day. People can turn everyday objects and amenities into weapons right in front of us.
The attack in Nice is not comparable to those in Israel though. It did not actually happen against anyone, anywhere, anytime. It happened at a public fireworks display on an important day in a country living under a state of emergency.
National and local authorities were aware of the terrorist risk at this event. Even without specific intelligence, everyone knew that this large, public, outdoor gathering would meet most (if not all) the criteria for an attractive terrorist target. And France was officially in a state of emergency following the Paris attacks in November.
A target is attractive if it is exposed, vital, iconic, legitimate, destructible, occupied, nearby and easy to attack. The wide-open public thoroughfare in Nice, on Bastille Day, after a fireworks display, at a time of great tension, fits the bill well.
The last item on the list – “easy” – is the one security agencies can influence to put off an attacker. On this occasion, it seems it was just too easy for the perpetrator to successfully carry out the attack.
We will soon know why the truck was not stopped before accessing this crowded section of the Promenade des Anglais, and lessons will hopefully be learnt about what went wrong that night. However, if human error is involved, there is a risk that the media and politicians focus on who to blame rather than on what to do differently to save citizens’ lives in the future.
Research has highlighted that anti-terror security measures tend to be limited in most public spaces other than airports. Much could be done to improve situation awareness among the general public and to provide them with information they need in emergencies. There is an official anti-terrorism app called “alerte attentat” but this sent its first message to the public a full three hours after the Nice attack had ended. This is particularly depressing to hear given that we know the truck travelled for more than a mile before it was stopped.
With an effective local communication system, people located on the east end of the Promenade des Anglais could have started to run as soon as the threat was detected. Messages could have been displayed to indicate where to go in the old part of the city, minimising the risk of stampede and reducing panic. Instead of this, witness testimonies indicate that many people only understood what was happening as they saw the lorry coming toward them and false rumours started spreading on the ground.
Urban environments should be adapted to provide a flexible security infrastructure to protect people attending public events – in the same way that transport, communication or waste management services have dedicated infrastructures. That could include functioning apps but also urban electronic displays, crowd monitoring sensors, data analytics and simulation models, smart barriers, and so on.
In a tourist destination such as Nice, the challenge lies in achieving this seamlessly, without affecting the perception of tourists and residents on normal days. Embedding security into the fabric of our buildings and cities is part of the solution. Nice must remain Nissa la Bella – Nice the beautiful.