Londoners commuting to work this week encountered a new reality on several of the elegant bridges crossing over the Thames River. Sturdy barriers between the driving lanes and the sidewalks – some made of steel, others concrete – have been put in place to protect pedestrians from terrorists who might attempt to use their vehicles as weapons following the deadly attack that shook the city Saturday night.
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The barriers were installed on the Waterloo, Lambeth and Westminster bridges, after three ISIS-inspired terrorists rammed their van into pedestrians on the London Bridge and then went on a stabbing rampage in nearby Borough Market, leaving seven people dead and 48 injured. The incident came on the heels of a March 22 attack, in which a total of six people, including the perpetrator, were killed, and dozens injured when he drove his car onto the sidewalk on Westminster Bridge, stabbing and killing a police officer.
Britain's attempt to stave off car-rammings by using barricades follows in the footsteps of similar measures taken in Israel, which has, over the past decade, also installed barriers at locations that have been vulnerable to such attacks.
Like many terror-attack techniques adopted by Islamist groups in Europe, the "low-tech" method of using a car to mow people down, sometimes followed by shootings or stabbings by those in the vehicle, was pioneered in Israel by Palestinians for whom gaining access to explosives and firearms has proved difficult and time-consuming.
The spontaneity of and difficulty in thwarting a car-ramming has since made it a calling card in Israel and abroad among so-called lone wolf terrorists: Turning cars and trucks into weapons requires little planning or coordination with others, and getting hold of a vehicle does not arouse suspicion.
Trio of attacks
The first wave of ramming attacks in Israel began in the summer of 2008 – as in London, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan – when a Palestinian from East Jerusalem rammed his construction vehicle into cars and buses. Three weeks later, a Palestinian construction worker in a bulldozer deliberately plowed into several vehicles. And that September, an East Jerusalem Palestinian rammed a BMW into a busy intersection full of pedestrians in the center of the city.
In the ensuing years, car attacks have taken place primarily in Jerusalem and the West Bank and often – though not exclusively – at bus stops, train stations or hitchhiking stations where Israeli soldiers travelling to and from their bases gather along with other pedestrians.
After a cluster of ramming attacks in 2014, when two such incidents took place within weeks at Jerusalem light rail stations, killing three people, concrete block barriers were set up outside the stations to prevent cars from hitting waiting passengers. The following year, the city of Jerusalem spent $500,000 on erecting steel posts in front of approximately 300 bus stops thought to be located in “high-risk areas,” to protect those waiting to board.
During the same 2014-15 period, Islamist groups began to actively export the technique to Europe. The Al-Qaida online magazine Inspire has been encouraging vehicle-ramming attacks to “achieve maximum carnage” since 2010. For its part, ISIS produced a video in 2014 promoting such assaults against civilians.
The terror groups' efforts bore deadly fruit in 2016, with the mass carnage of the Bastille Day attack in Nice, which took 86 lives, and the Berlin Christmas market attack, which killed 12, leaving European leaders worried about protecting their cities without turning them into bunkers.
Even if there is some advance warning, such attacks are terribly difficult to thwart. Moreover, concrete barriers can’t be erected in every spot where pedestrians encounter vehicular traffic.
In Israel, it is easier to select which areas to protect since the target of choice is consistently Israeli soldiers and the one undefended place where they tend to gather is at public transportation stations. Israel Defense Forces soldiers have long been ordered to stay behind concrete barriers at bus stops and hitchhiking stations, and never to stand close together in large groups. But despite the numerous barriers – and other measures taken – there was a devastating attack in Jerusalem in January, when a car rammed into a group of soldiers who were getting onto a bus at the Armon Hanatziv promenade in the southern part of the city.
At present, British Prime Minister Theresa May, Mayor Sadiq Khan and other British officials are being taken to task for failing to prepare properly for the likelihood of vehicular attacks in London. In 2016, a report prepared by Sir Toby Harris recommended, among other measures, that Metropolitan Police "further explore the use of temporary barriers to protect against a Nice-style attack in London.”
The United States has been watching the trend closely, and with concern: A report prepared in May by the Transportation Security Administration, called “Vehicle ramming attacks: Threat landscape, indicators and counter measures,” noted that over the past three years, 173 people have been killed and more than 700 wounded in 17 such attacks around the world.
For a tense few hours on May 18, it was believed that car-ramming terror had come to the busiest intersection in New York City, when a man plowed his car into a crowd of pedestrians in Times Square, killing a young woman and injuring 22 others. The fact that he was mentally disturbed and homicidal did little to quell fears. Though he wasn’t motivated by terrorism, his act bore signs of a copycat attack inspired by what he’d seen happen in Europe. As a result, the already-reinforced Times Square pedestrian walkway is getting even more barriers and posts.
Meanwhile, as the barriers go up on London's bridges, complaints are already being made. Cyclists are unhappy that the new obstacles make the bicycle lanes on the bridges dangerously narrow; indeed, cyclists are still vulnerable to vehicles outside of the barriers. Others mourn the ugly aesthetic and what lining the streets with concrete represents – echoing the reaction of Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett when the barriers first went up in Jerusalem, calling them “a prize for terror.”
It seems that in Europe, as in Israel, they have now become a depressing and unattractive fact of life. Maybe enterprising graffiti artists in Europe will try to take the threatening edge off of the cement barricades by turning them into colorful art, whimsically making a concrete block into a Rubik’s cube or painting it with a brightly decorated unity message, as they have done in Jerusalem, taking a page from the Palestinians, who have used the security barrier separating the West Bank from Israel proper as a canvas for political and artistic expression.