National Security and Strategic Foresight
June 23 of this year marks 33 years since the bombing of Air India 182, the largest act of terrorism ever committed against Canadians in terms of loss of life. During the last three decades, the tools and tactics employed by terrorists and other violent extremists have changed dramatically as they rapidly adapt and evolve. One key evolution which has continued to hit the headlines is the use of vehicles as weapons. This tactic has been employed across the globe by individuals with a range of motivations, and was used in Canada as early as 2014, when Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was murdered by an assailant using a vehicle in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. In 2017, a vehicle attack was carried out in Edmonton. Yet again in 2018, a vehicle was used as a weapon in Toronto.
While the motivations behind these attacks may vary, the new reality we need to deal with is one in which vehicles can be used as weapons, by terrorists and others. This presents a number of challenges, as it is difficult to restrict access to vehicles. So what can be done to deal with this evolving threat?
In February 2018, the Conference Board’s Council on Emergency Management and Centre for National Security convened a closed-door session on vehicle attacks. Experts from the United States, Spain, Australia, and Canada shared their experiences with such incidents. A number of insights arose from these discussions, but two in particular are worth noting when it comes to dealing with vehicle attacks.
1. Don’t be too quick to assign motivation.
When the van attack in Toronto occurred, there was a lot of speculation on social media about the motivation of the attacker. Terrorism was cited many times, with some blaming certain groups and minorities even before the facts behind the situation were established. It turns out that the attacker may have been motivated by a misogynistic subculture, rather than one of the many violent extremist ideologies that have made headlines in recent years. Presenters at the conference also cited other global incidents where mental health and other issues resulted in incidents that looked like vehicle attacks.
Speculating about the motivation of an incident involving a vehicle can drive up fear and anxiety about the incident. Blaming specific groups or ideologies without any evidence can create societal schisms and fear. The resounding advice from the presenters was to be very careful when assigning motivation to a vehicle-related incident. Make sure the evidence is clear and be wary of making claims too early, as that can create more problems and increase the fear factor.
2. Barriers may not be the answer.
After a vehicle attack, questions are usually raised around the use of barriers and other devices to prevent vehicles from accessing pedestrian spaces such as sidewalks. Permanent barriers have been installed in cities such as London in the United Kingdom, and both movable concrete blocks and large trucks have been used as mobile barriers in Canada and elsewhere during major events.
While these approaches can potentially prevent a vehicle attack, they come at a financial cost. More importantly, having permanent barriers in place can also restrict access by emergency vehicles. This was cited as an issue by more than one presenter, and was the reason cited for the lack of barriers in some pedestrian areas.
It is important to take a risk-based approach to the decision whether or not to use barriers. This needs to include consideration of the additional risk created by barriers in impeding access by emergency vehicles.
A lot has changed since the bombing of Air India 182, and the threat landscape continues to evolve. Vehicles being used as weapons is the latest evolution in this landscape, and this tactic is being used by a broad range of groups and individuals. When dealing with a vehicle incident, be wary of assigning motivation too quickly, as getting it wrong can do a lot of damage. Also, be aware that barriers may not be the solution to this problem and may create additional issues, such as restricting emergency vehicle access.