The prevalence of vehicle-borne attacks in Europe over the last few years once had many security professionals in the United States asking daunting questions: “Can those types of assaults happen here? Why have we not seen cars, delivery trucks, panel vans, or even semitrucks used as terror weapons here to this point?” And then, a vehicle attack occurred last month in New York City, leaving eight people dead.
Preventing these types of attacks will require security practitioners to do more than just installing permanent or portable bollards or other barriers around pedestrian entry points or creating controllable traffic channels. Stopping these attacks starts with identifying who might be a potential perpetrator. This list of subjects capable of this type of assault could include:
- One or more terrorists with political or religious ideologies to fulfill;
- An angry current or former employee of the facility, bent on revenge against specific employees or bosses, and who attacks the pedestrian areas during shift changes or the start and end of the workday, when the most number of employees are present in the open areas;
- A mentally ill stranger who sees an opportunity to create mass casualties and get on the national or international news channels;
- A domestic violence perpetrator, who wants to target his former spouse or partner, or her new spouse or partner, who also may be an employee of the facility as well;
- A subject high on drugs or alcohol who cannot control the vehicle and crashes (which may occur at the end of a police pursuit); or
- A driver (like an employee or a delivery vendor) who does not have a criminal or violent intent, but who is overcome by a serious medical condition, such as a heart attack, stroke, or blood sugar emergency, and loses control of the vehicle and causes a significant crash, which injures or kills himself or herself or others.
While it may be more likely that an individual terrorist or cell might attack a high-value target with a vehicle—like an electrical grid, a water treatment plant, or a chemical plant—the likelihood of them choosing softer targets seems more possible. This could include a large public gathering during the holidays; large K–12 school campuses, during pickup or drop-off times; or even the entrance to a busy hospital emergency room. The possible targets, the types of vehicles, and how they could be tragically deployed are nearly endless.
One common security flaw that seems to suggest that a vehicle attack was not considered in the design is in the positioning of the guard shack too far in front of the perimeter fence, instead of directly adjacent to it, or at least near the gate controls. In a vehicle attack where the guard shack is exposed and not protected by secure barrier fencing and strong gates, the guards will be the first to be injured or killed in the attack.
We certainly cannot protect or fortify every road or entry point at a facility enough to make them “ram-proof.” But we can start our protection strategies by first admitting that they are indeed possible, just like we’ve seen overseas, even though they have not happened to any great degree here. It will take a combination of physical barriers, additional security surveillance (especially at the perimeter roads, which enter into the facility parking lots), by using cameras, guards, and other vigilant employees; and a constant search for any preattack behaviors that might become apparent through our investigations, information-gathering, or notifications by law enforcement or intelligence agencies.