Whenever I read in the news about vehicles attacks against pedestrians, it’s striking to realize that I’m not really surprised. What’s more, this type of attack is likely to happen more and more in the future.
Not only are these vehicle attacks encouraged by terrorist organizations in their publications and propaganda channels but the large media attention they generate plays directly into the hands of the terrorist. Media outlets fill their column inches with sensational stories of successful and attempted attacks because this stirs fear and fear sells news. Law enforcement agencies are diligently at work foiling many more attacks than what takes place but, for the most part, we don’t hear about these.
Why are these attacks are so popular?
- The copycat phenomenon: Would-be terrorists wishing to become martyrs read about these success stories and the adulation they receive from followers, fanatics and cell leaders.
- Vehicle attacks are relatively simple to carry out. No prior training is required, just basic driving skills.
- These attacks are cheap and there is little operational planning they have to conduct.
- The weapon (vehicle) is easily accessible, it can be their own, rented, or stolen.
- Fear factor: The fear effect of these attacks is high due to the global media attention. In years gone by, we would have only heard about these attacks in war zones but now they are a reality in our own cities and on the streets where we live and work. There is a feeling among people that anyone and everyone can be a victim. And of course, that is the purpose and goal of terrorism.
Beyond war zones
I live and work in Finland where the terrorist threat is considered to be low in general, although we had our first terrorist attack in city of Turku in 2017, where there was a mass stabbing. At the time of writing the official threat level in our four ladder scale (1-4) is 2, or elevated. One of the threats named By the Finnish security intelligence service is a lone wolf attack. We are seeing authorities and security service companies stepping up to the challenge. The new norm is to plan for a vehicle attack everywhere there are gathering crowds, such as at concerts and festivals.
There are a lot of people who are thinking and worried about modern-day terrorism and these kinds of vehicle attacks. However, in reality, there are more chances of you winning millions in the lottery than becoming a victim of terrorism. But a little knowledge about these incidents can help put things in perspective.
It irks me when I hear security specialists replying to questions like ‘what I can do in situations like this,’ with an overly simplistic response of ‘well, you have to be more aware of your surroundings.’ That is very true, but people don´t know how to be aware unless they are first educated on how and what to look for. Awareness skills are something you have to be trained for and then practice.
How to guard against attacks
What follows is a list of considerations that I include when instructing on how to guard against vehicle attacks on pedestrians. This is not an all-inclusive list of what to do but it will serve as a good starting point for you to learn more.
1. Routes: Protecting buildings is simpler than protecting people. When you do your emergency preparedness planning for fires and such, include these types of scenarios in them. Consider the routes vehicles are driven towards your building or near crowds of people. Make it difficult to drive in a straight line to your building or people. Strengthen the building With an extra layer of protective material.
2. Physical Deterrents: Consider using barricades to prevent vehicles from driving directly into crowds or at a building. These barricades can come in many shapes and sizes and can be visually sympathetic to the environment.
3. Gathering Points: Consider carefully where people congregate to smoke or the location of gathering spots in case of fire or similar incidents. Where people gather in close proximity, such as outdoor concerts, keep the crowds inside the protective barrier.
4. Direction of Travel: When walking on streets, try to walk on the sidewalk with cars travelling in your direction, so you are looking at the cars coming towards you instead of them passing behind your back. Maybe you can buy an extra 1-2 seconds by seeing what’s happening ahead.
5. Environmental Protection: If the street has cars parked on only one side, use that side when walking so the cars act as a barricade. Also, the same applies if there are fences, uplifted curbs or similar then make use of them.
6. Tunnel Effect: Try to avoid being caught in the ‘tunnel effect.’ In situations where cars are coming to you, there should be some direction to move to avoid it. The tunnel effect can be formed by bodies when there are a lot of people running away from a threat in a narrow street.
“Your brain is very good at identifying when something is out of place”
7. Gut Feeling: If you get the feeling something is wrong, try to locate the source of this gut feeling. Usually, your brain picks up on subtle indicators about an incident before it occurs. Your brain is very good at identifying when something is out of place but this action usually happens on a subconscious level and requires more processing.
8. Background Noise: Be aware of background noises and distant sounds like cars accelerating or revving. If you hear something that is out of the ordinary, try to identify the reason for it.
9. Pause, Assess, Act: If you see something out of place like people running toward you act fast and don’t stay there too long trying to figure out what´s going on. Move to a safer location and assess the situation from in cover. It might sound obvious but the reality is that people are often ashamed of reacting too quickly. If you don’t know what’s up and something tells you there is something happening, move to a safer location and assess the situation without panicking.
10. Follow Up: Realize that the attack does not always end in a crash. The terrorist can (and there are plenty of examples of it) continue the attack using guns or knives. Even explosives may come in the picture) so don’t go near the attack vehicle. Assess the situation carefully before helping the victims. There may be more attackers in play.
11. Hard Cover: If possible take refuge inside a secure building. Avoid silhouetting the windows and stay away from the front entrance where a vehicle can be driven into. Also, avoid large crowds gathering inside the building.
12. Call for Help: Once inside a building locate the exits, avoid panic and prepare to leave if the attacks continue in your direction. Call the authorities when you get to a safe spot. When the incident is over, always do what the authorities tell you. Think in advance about how and who you are going to contact to tell you are OK. Make use of the possible crisis debriefings that are offered to you.
Additional preemptive considerations
Practice first aid skills. In addition to your basic CPR training consider doing TCCC (tactical combat casualty care) course or some similar course where you will learn little more relevant stuff regarding these types of attacks.
Mentally practice what you are going to do if/when this happens to you, or those it’s your job to protect. You may have a different approach when you are alone versus when you are with family and friends.
Remember that, in the bigger picture these attacks are very rare! Don’t live in fear, but do take a few moments to think about your actions in crisis like this.
There is a lot more to discuss, but let’s save something for the future. Thank you for your time and interest!
Vehicle attacks against pedestrians
By: Wille Heino