This story was originally published in December 2016 in the wake of the Berlin Christmas market attack. As European nations ask themselves the same questions in the wake of yet another lorry attack, we have republished it in its original form:
How do you stop a huge lorry, packed with a heavy cargo, from being used as a weapon of terror? It used to be explosives we worried about – in suicide vests, or car bombs. Now it is the vehicle itself.
As was shown most dramatically on 9/11, planes can become missiles. But airport security has been revolutionised since then. Now it is lorries that are transformed into battering rams.
For terrorists, there is an obvious advantage in the method. Explosives are hard to get hold of; manufacturing them requires dangerous manipulation of materials like fertiliser that will mark you out to security services if bought in any quantity. Lorries, on the other hand, are available in huge numbers.
If you are unable simply to hire one, you can steal one, or hijack the driver. Once at the wheel, the force and brutality of the lorry can be directed to terrifying and fatal effect. For those on a sadistic mission to kill – and possibly be killed – there is an added grim directness about running down your victims in this way. Not for them the instant evaporation of the suicide bomb.
I have seen this before. Baghdad in August 2003, was a city that was still, more or less, bathing in Iraq’s newfound, post-Saddam liberty. What we did not know was that a wave of huge lorry-borne attacks was about to be launched. First to be hit was the Jordanian embassy. Then the UN compound.
The city began to panic. Just as in Berlin, or in Nice this summer, being a civilian, or an aid worker, or a journalist, offered no protection in itself. The aim was to hit symbols of the West, the occupation, and hit them hard.
On the day after the UN attack I chatted with the ever-genial front desk staff of the hotel where I was staying. After some discussion, they erected a chain across the drive. It wouldn’t have stopped a bicycle, let alone a lorry. But elsewhere attitudes changed swiftly.
Within weeks, the entire face of the city’s central districts was being remade. Concrete blast walls were erected around hotels and government ministries. Residents who couldn’t afford such protection banded together to block up the end of their streets with concrete-filled oil drums, and man the barricades themselves. Checkpoints sprouted everywhere. Gridlock ensued. Checkpoints themselves became targets.
Must we be prepared for this in our own cities now? Probably, yes. We will need to accept that terrorists with all their demented ingenuity, have found yet another way to test us. Lorries are now a weapon of war.
But the grim grey concrete facade I saw in Baghdad does not have to become the norm. Bollards and blast shields can be more discreet than that. Christmas markets can continue behind anti-lorry defences disguised as trees, street furniture and the like.
If necessary we can subtly redesign streets, narrowing some and introducing more bends to slow potentially dangerous vehicles. We have done this already in London, with the so-called ring of steel around the City.
And just as the sellers of ordinarily harmless substances – like fertiliser – have been trained to look out for suspicious behaviour, so perhaps now the security services must liaise with haulage companies to introduce new security mechanisms and safety procedures on lorries themselves.
Ultimately, lorries are a terrifying but rudimentary mode of attack. We must not let them change our way of life – especially as we already have the means to ensure they do not.