What If Some Terrorist Attacks Are Unstoppable?

26 Apr 2017

We look at terrorist acts in ways that most people would never consider reasonable when it comes to other tragedies in life. For instance, we accept a certain level of fatality in car accidents, or drug overdoses, or in gang disputes, or even, at least in the US, in everyday gun incidents. Of course, we try to minimise the death count and we are constantly coming up with new ways to prevent these events from occurring, but it seems unlikely that anyone realistically expects a zero chance of serious injury or death in these instances.

So why is it different when the tragic events are terrorist in nature? We expect our protectors – security intelligence and law enforcement agencies – to stop every single planned terrorist attack and when the odd one – at least in the West – slips through we all yell ‘intelligence failure’ and demand to know why all the billions spent on counter-terrorism cannot guarantee 100% success.

Of course intelligence failures do exist – although they are far rarer than most people think – since security agencies are made up of humans and humans are fallible. And yet the vast majority of terrorist plots are foiled in Canada, the US, the UK and elsewhere, a solid indication that our capable spies and cops are worth the money we invest in national security.

So what happens when surveillance and intelligence gathering is insufficient to stop terrorism? The unfortunate truth is that there may very well be terrorist acts that are unstoppable, unless we agree as a society to enormous intrusions on our privacy and freedom of movement.

I am speaking here of the type of attack that occurred in Stockholm on 7 April (or in London on 26 March or in Berlin last Christmas season or in Nice on 14 July last year) and which seem to be trending of late. These acts involve individuals (with or without direction or guidance – I am not sure the difference matters) who drive – or hijack – vehicles and run them into crowded pedestrian areas, killing and maiming dozens in many cases. In essence this type of terrorism is a form of ‘low-lying fruit’, open to anyone with a driver’s licence or the ability to steer a car or truck towards a crowd. Jihadi groups have been calling for this tactic for years in on-line propaganda and it appears that their followers have begun to answer the call zealously.

It is hard to imagine how these attacks can be disrupted. There is unlikely to be advanced, drawn-out planning necessary, no need for a group or cell to meet to discuss methods, and no requirement for researching how to put together bombs. A dedicated individual does not even have to own a vehicle: in several cases the ‘weapon on wheels’ has been stolen. Of course we could ask citizens to report ‘suspicious activity’ (odd vehicle movements or purchases of fertiliser) but it is very probable that a lot of useless calls would be made, further taxing limited resources.

Short of intelligence on the very individuals seeking to cause vehicular mayhem and real time access to their thoughts, there is little that our spies and police can do. There is no easy way to implement general security measures as there are in airports and (perhaps) train stations. In light of the sheer number of roads and possible targets (in Israel and the West Bank bus stops have been the sites of attacks) it would be unreasonable to expect an increase in security. Sure, you can try to lock down major events or festivals such as the World Cup, but it is obviously not feasible to beef up an armed presence wherever people gather (as happened in Sweden).

Are we okay with checkpoints everywhere? Do we want our morning commute to be interrupted on a regular basis by police road blocks? Will we accept road closures to a far greater extent than is now the norm? I didn’t think so.

Unfortunately, even when intelligence is available, that information is rarely robust enough to be predictive. What most fail to understand is that the vast majority of radicalised people never carry out acts of violence and even those who discuss attack planning seldom go the full distance. Were our security agencies to respond with a heightened response to every potential threat they would quickly run out of time and resources, not to mention make our daily life hell.

Perhaps in the end we as a society must accept that terrorist acts will happen. Thankfully those we expect to keep us safe will be effective most of the time, but a successful attack is inevitable now and then. We need to become more resilient and not overreact to terrorism which, as all statistics clearly show, is one of the least likely ways to die. We cannot allow terrorists to achieve their goals of spreading fear and anxiety and we must put terrorist acts into perspective, constantly reminding ourselves that they remain rare and not particularly lethal. When an attack succeeds by all means cover it in the media – after all we have a right to know – but do not treat it as a world-changing event, magnifying its importance and thereby increasing societal fear and handing a victory to the terrorists.

This attitude is not defeatist: it is realist. Death by terrorism is just another form of violent death. We don’t upend our habits and routines when a shooting takes place and nor should we when terrorism occurs. We should follow the age-old British maxim of ‘keep calm and carry on’.

It sure beats panicking.