Barcelona terror attack: A look at the new weapons of terrorism and why they are effective

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on 5 June after the Borough High Street attack. It is being updated and republished in light of Thursday night's terror attack in Barcelona that saw a van mow down pedestrians in a tourist area, killing 13 and injuring 100.

On Thursday afternoon, a van drove down a promenade in the busy central Barcelona area of Las Ramblas, moving from side-to-side running over scores of pedestrians. While 13 people were killed, the attack left several victims in its wake and induced widespread panic. Josep Lluis Trapero, a senior police official for Spain's Catalonia region confirmed the horrible reality of the attack to reporters that this was no road accident or case of a driver losing control of his vehicle. "It was clearly a terror attack, intended to kill as many people as possible," he said late on Thursday.

But before that, it was on 22 May that a series of events set into motion a trend of vicious, brutal, up-close-and-personal manifestations of violent extremism in Western Europe.

That's 22 May, 2013, in case you were wondering, and not 22 May this year — which is when the bombing at an Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena took place — to which a reference is being drawn. On that day four years ago, the British Army's fusilier Lee Rigby was run over by a vehicle and then hacked to death by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale.

In a video shot immediately after the heinous act of butchery, Adebolajo — with bloodied hands still wielding the cleaver and knife — was recorded on video by a bystander as saying, "You people will never be safe... You think (then prime minister) David Cameron is gonna get caught in the street when we start busting our guns? Do you think politicians are going to die? No, it's going to be the average guy, like you and your children."

The video did the rounds of television channels across the world and attained the sort of 'virality' most clips of this nature tend to these days.

And in the four years since Rigby's gruesome murder, three tools have emerged as the new weapons of terrorism: blades, vehicles and cameras.

Police officers on Borough High Street investigate the attack on Saturday night. AP

Police officers on Borough High Street investigate the attack on Saturday night. AP

New weapons of terrorism: Part one

Let's examine the blades and vehicles part first, since these are the most visible weapons being deployed.

26 February, 2016 - Hannover: A German-Moroccan teenager stabbed a policeman in the neck, injuring him, at the city's busy train station. Investigations found that the 16-year-old girl had been influenced by Islamic State propaganda.

14 July, 2016 - Nice: Forty-one-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel used a truck to mow down revellers watching a seaside fireworks display to mark Bastille Day. Eighty-four were killed, while hundreds of others were injured.

18 July, 2016 - Berlin: A 17-year-old Afghan refugee attacked passengers on a German train with an axe, injuring at least four people.

26 July, 2016 - Normandy: Two armed men stormed a church in Saint Etienne du Rouvray, slit the throat of an elderly priest and wounded several others.

19 December, 2016 - Berlin: Twenty-three-year-old Anis Amri drove a truck into a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding over 50 people. While there was nothing concrete to suggest it was an act of terror, local authorities concluded it was 'probably' a terror attack.

3 February, 2017 - Paris: A machete-wielding man was shot dead while trying to attack a group of soldiers guarding the Louvre. While this attack was foiled, it's frightening to consider what could have happened if he had been able to run amok amidst the sort of crowds that flock to the Louvre.

22 March, 2017 - London: Fifty-two-year-old Khalid Masood mowed down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge — killing four and wounding many others — in his car, before driving into the steel fence around the Parliament building and stabbing a policeman to death.

7 April, 2017 - Stockholm: Rakhmat Akilov, an Uzbek seeking aslyum in Sweden, killed four and injured around 15 people when he drove a truck into pedestrians along a busy shopping street.

And this brings us to Saturday night's attack at London Bridge and Borough Market that saw seven people lose their lives, with a further 48 left injured. The modus operandi appears to be similar to that of the 22 March Westminster Bridge-Parliament attack, in which the attacker indiscriminately mowed down pedestrians, before crashing the vehicle and taking to the street on foot, wielding blades.

The choice of weapon here is closely linked to the concept of the 'lone wolf', highlighted by this article. The author rightly argues that "(a) lone terrorist is far less likely to trigger an alarm or come under the police scanner". And even if the actions of these perpetrators are brought to the attention of the police, it's likely they are set aside because law enforcement authorities tend to focus on more tangible and immediate threats. Case in point: One of the terrorists involved in Saturday night's attack had twice been reported to the police in connection with his radicalisation. Similarly, Masood, who carried out the Westminster Bridge attack, had been "investigated in relation to concerns about violent extremism", according to Prime Minister Theresa May, but was a 'peripheral figure' in the present day's intelligence picture.

And in order to keep a low profile, knives and motor vehicles play an important role.

Unlike the US, firearms are very hard to come by for civilians in Western Europe, particularly in the UK. Knives, on the other hand, are freely available in all departmental stores and can be purchased without raising so much as an eyebrow. Unlike IEDs, self-destructing vests or even firearms, no training is required for how to cause pandemonium with knives. As for motor vehicles, training is provided by governments of all countries and ability is certified in the form of a driver's licence.

The common elements here are that both these tools create nearly as much fear and paranoia as an explosion in the vicinity, and the fact that neither knives nor vehicles require the sort of training that can only be provided in terror camps, which means that potential perpetrators can stay under the radar until they actually carry out the act. There's no travel history, no suspicious cash transactions and nothing linking them to terrorist entities. And this is aside from the fact that these tools are cost-effective for the terrorist and the organisation in whose name the act is being carried out.

New weapons of terrorism: Part two

Obviously, there is a very minuscule number of people who will get into motor vehicles and intentionally plough through a crowd of innocent civilians before setting upon them with machetes, in the absence of some sort of external stimulus. And that is where the third of these new weapons of terrorism — cameras — come in. The word 'camera' refers not only to the actual device, but to the entire process of documentation and propaganda-creation. Propaganda is by no means a new concept; it has existed for as long as human beings have been familiar with the written and spoken word. However, it's the speed with which today's propaganda is created, received, absorbed and executed that is the unique part.

Considering the availability of mobile phones with high-quality cameras, rapidly increasing internet speeds and the variety of social media websites on which videos can be published, the growing instances of self-radicalisation show that potential terrorists need not even leave their homes — never mind traipsing all the way to Muridke — to become beholden to a cause, no matter how misguided. And most extremist videos that go online tend to go viral in hours, demonstrating that there's a ready audience for this sort of content. All within a matter of hours.

This 'instant propaganda' then works in two ways.

First, it motivates, inspires and brainwashes some into carrying out violent acts for a cause they deem to be noble.

Second, it frightens others to view the world through this prism. In other words, wittingly or unwittingly, what this surfeit of knife and vehicle attacks has ensured is that every case of a 'hit-and-run' or a stabbing (perhaps even as part of a simple mugging) will be viewed as a potential terror strike. A case in point was the 25 July, 2016 incident in Reutlingen near Stuttgart, wherein a machete-wielding 21-year-old killed a pregnant woman in broad daylight. The local police eventually ruled out terrorism, but for the first few hours, it was believed that another terror attack was underway. And striking fear into the hearts and minds of the public at large is half the battle won for most terrorist groups like the Islamic State, much like Adebolajo said in his chilling words to the camera.

Even as commuters cross London Bridge, which has reopened after Saturday evening's terror attack, striking fear into the hearts and minds of the public at large is half the battle won for most terrorist groups like the Islamic State AP

Even as commuters cross London Bridge, which has reopened after Saturday evening's terror attack, striking fear into the hearts and minds of the public at large is half the battle won for most terrorist groups like the Islamic State. AP

So what's the solution?

Should knives be sold after background checks? Should there be similar checks carried out for everyone who passes a driving test? Should the internet be subject to complete government surveillance?

None of these are the answer. Treating the symptom, in this case the low-intensity manner in which terror attacks are being carried out, has never been the solution. Unfortunately, when it comes to treating the disease, we're still a long way from discovering a cure. It's back to the drawing boards.

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Updated Date: Aug 18, 2017 19:54:04 IST

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