In the hours after a rented van ran down pedestrians on a Toronto sidewalk Monday, killing 10, security was heightened for that night’s Maple Leafs playoff hockey game. At the entrance to a pedestrian walkway to the arena, work crews dropped large concrete blocks, just in case.
The blocks offered a sense of safety to fans but also a glimpse of a possible future as Canada responds to an attack without precedent in this country.
Jon Coaffee, a professor of urban geography at the University of Warwick and director of the Resilient Cities Lab, said Toronto could learn from the mistakes of other cities that have overreacted in an attempt to protect pedestrians from such attacks.
“Experiences from around the world, from cities who have responded to malicious vehicle attacks by the embedding of swaths of security bollards into the landscape and the deployment of armed security guards, indicates that sometimes our responses to attack can be more effective at instilling a sense of fear into the public and undermine the freedom of movement that is the lifeblood of cities,” Coaffee told the National Post.
Mass-murder “hostile vehicle” attacks are a growing global phenomenon, favoured initially by jihadi terror groups and more recently copied by others seeking a low-tech way to inflict damage and sow fear.
“When carrying out violent attacks, terrorists, especially those in the West, are increasingly adopting low-sophistication, low-resource means of committing high-impact violent acts,” Public Safety Canada’s 2017 Report on the Terrorist Threat to Canada noted.
“This is evident in the repeated use of vehicles and knives in terrorist attacks, particularly in Europe.”
Wesley Wark, a national-security expert at the University of Ottawa, said the use of vehicles to kill civilians has become a “favoured tactic” for terrorists since it was advocated by al-Qaida in its Inspire magazine in 2010, and by Islamic State propagandist Abu Mohammad al-Adnani in 2014. Al-Adnani urged followers in the West to kill disbelievers using any means available, including running them over “with your car.”
“It is low-cost, low-tech, terrorizing and almost impossible to defend against,” Wark said.
That only suggests that others have seized upon a murderous tactic first advocated by Islamist terror groups.
Other recent incidents show the same trend, including a right-wing extremist’s attack in Charlottesville, Va., last year and an attack in Muenster, Germany, this month by a man with mental-health problems.
“The broader truth is that the use of vehicular attacks by terrorists has spawned not only copy-cat attacks by other terrorists and those inspired by terrorist causes, but copy-cat attacks by individuals driven by other motivations and causes outside of terrorism,” Wark said. “It is a terrible cycle of violence.”
Since a heavy truck plowed into people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France in 2016, killing 86, protecting against such attacks has become a concern for authorities as well as landscape architects.
In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration last year published a document assessing the “threat landscape, indicators and countermeasures” of “vehicle ramming attacks.”
It counted 17 such attacks from 2014 to April 2017, resulting in 173 deaths and 667 injuries. The agency advised the trucking and busing industries to be vigilant.
“Drivers and staff who both remain alert to potential threats and report suspicious activities to appropriate authorities are the most effective means of detecting acts of terrorism by commercial vehicle,” it said.
But van rental companies do not run criminal background checks, so planners have to examine other ways to make public spaces safe.
The Australia-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee last year published “hostile vehicle guidelines” proposing ways crowded spaces — commercial hubs, stadiums, special events — can be protected.
The guidelines proposed incorporating such things as steps, columns and sculptures into designs to thwart vehicle attacks, and said “strategically placed” spheres, planters, benches or bollards can offer protection without being eyesores.
Coaffee said that beyond the immediate response of adding concrete blocks, Toronto should look at longer-term solutions that reduce the risk of a future attack without endangering public access to, and enjoyment of, the city.
“Such responses should aim to be proportionate to the risk faced and seek to avoid a fortress or barrier mentality in public spaces,” he said. “How our public places are designed tells us a lot about the type of society we are and the one we wish to live in.”
Wark said risk-mitigation measures can be useful to defend high-profile locations, as is already the case at Parliament Hill and the United States Embassy in Ottawa.
“But they can only be deployed in limited spaces so long as urban environments continue to feature a lot of vehicular traffic. Maybe the city of the future will be different, but we are a long way from that,” he said. “And mitigation measures can be a double-edged sword, as they can simply divert a determined attacker from one site to another.”