Europe Adopts Israel-style Security Measures as Terror Becomes the New Normal

Israel has faced waves of car-rammings and stabbings over the last decade and may be the go-to place for European countries seeking help in preventing low-tech terror

Barriers to prevent vehicles from entering the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan, August 19, 2017.
Matteo Bazzi / ANSA via AP

BARCELONA, Spain – With concrete barriers protecting pedestrians on busy streets and around famous monuments, more bag searches and a beefed-up police presence, Europe’s streets are looking more and more like Israel’s as the Continent faces attacks by jihadis increasingly using cars, knives and other low-tech weapons to target civilians.

Last week’s car-ramming in Barcelona in which a van mowed down pedestrians, followed by a stabbing rampage in the Finnish town of Turku, were eerily reminiscent of the incidents that have plagued Israel in recent years.

With the authorities Monday expanding the hunt for the suspected driver in the Barcelona attack beyond Spain’s borders, the immediate response across Europe was similar to the Israeli approach.

Over the weekend, the authorities set up concrete barriers in locations ranging from the shopping galleries of Milan to the old port of La Rochelle on France’s west coast, while other cities increased or strengthened barricades already put up after previous attacks.

These barriers are the same that protect many bus stations and other crowded locations in Israel that have often been targeted by Palestinian attackers.

Concrete barriers put up outside a soccer stadium in Barcelona, August 20, 2017.
Sergio Perez / Reuters

As in Israel, European security agencies also beefed up surveillance and intelligence efforts to try to prevent attacks. Finland reinforced security at train stations and Helsinki’s airport, while Italy’s Interior Ministry asked rental companies to flag any suspicious rentals of vans or trucks.

All the while, the authorities have repeated a warning long familiar to Israelis: It is nearly impossible to prevent all attacks, especially when they are carried out by lone wolves or small, independent cells using easily available materials.

“European security services face an historic challenge,” Anders Thornberg, head of the Swedish Security Service, said in a statement. “We have a new normal situation in Europe when it comes to terrorism.”

Security experts say the connection between Israel and Europe goes beyond the visible efforts to thwart terrorism, as international law enforcement delegations now routinely visit Israel to learn about the latest anti-terrorism methods.

“When it comes to counterterrorism, Israel and Europe have intense relations,” said Jose Maria Gil, a Spanish security analyst from the International Security Observatory. “They are discreet, but very efficient.”

File photo: Concrete blocks are a common sight along Israel's roads. Here blocks were installed to prevent car ramming attacks from a busy road adjacent to Jerusalem's light-rail line.
Olivier Fitoussi

These contacts have increased over the last three years and the cooperation takes place on every level, from top government officials to regular patrol forces. In 2014, for example, the Catalan police received special training from the Israeli company Guardian Defense & Homeland Security, Gil said.

Police forces seek advice on how to monitor or infiltrate organizations, prevent radicalization and “become less dependent on technology,” he told Haaretz.

“Jihadis have discovered that if they behave like people from the past, they become invisible to people from the future,” Gil said. In this scenario, the high-tech surveillance that European agencies relied on might not be as relevant as old-school human intelligence such as espionage and infiltration, he added.

“Almost every European country has sent a delegation to Israel,” said Ely Karmon, a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya. 

The key to Israel’s anti-terrorism success is cooperation among security forces including the army, police, intelligence agencies and local authorities. The judiciary is more flexible and adaptable, so Israeli law enforcement, prosecutors and judges can be more effective and are less constrained, Karmon added.

This is not the case in most European countries. There is no unified transnational strategy, especially at the legal level, and terrorism cannot be prosecuted as a criminal offense by the International Criminal Court, Gil noted.

Europeans also hesitate more over the amount of surveillance and security measures that can be carried out without making massive changes to urban landscapes or violating people’s basic rights – essentially recognizing that the terrorists have won, Gil said.

But while these attacks will remain difficult to predict and prevent, when they do happen it is important to restore a semblance of normality as soon as possible, Karmon said.

“We cannot do like Barcelona, where the Metro was closed for almost 24 hours, or Brussels, which shut down its airport for several days” after the city was hit by three coordinated bombings, he said. “In Israel we have a protocol that says that in six hours life must go back to normal.”