Westminster attack: car hire firms urged to tell police about suspicious customers

Shane Hickey
The branch of car-hire firm Enterprise in Spring Hill, Birmingham used by Westminster attacker Khalid Masood. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Car hire companies have been asked to forward details to police of customers suspected of using vehicles for criminal purposes, in the wake of last week’s terror attack.

Khalid Masood rented the 4x4 used to mow down pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, killing three people. Concern has been raised that possible future attacks may also use rented vehicles, copying Masood’s methods and also those of Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who used a hired 19-tonne cargo truck to kill 86 people in Nice in July last year.

Professor Anthony Glees, from the Centre for Security and Intelligence Studies programme at the University of Buckingham, has called for staff from car hire companies to tell the police of any concerns they have about people renting vehicles. Masood hired the Hyundai Tucson used on Westminster Bridge from Enterprise car rentals in Spring Hill, Birmingham.

“I would say that if… somebody [renting out] a car may suspect the motives of the person hiring the car, that should be recorded and passed on… to the police. Security policy is a dial, not a switch. When times are tough, you turn the dial up and I would say times are tough at moment.

“What are the telltale signs? I think people hiring cars should be asked to give a purpose, so that people can give a judgment. What was the purpose of this man hiring a car?”

The vehicles used in some of the most recent high-profile terror attacks are linked in that none of them have been owned by the attackers who used them. In the Nice attack, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel used a lorry he had rented from a local company, while in the Berlin attack last December, 12 people died when Anis Amri ploughed a hijacked lorry into a Christmas market. This link has given rise to theories that the use of vehicles not owned by the perpetrators is a deliberate tactic.

“If you compare this attack to the Nice attack or the Berlin attack, on all three occasions, the vehicles used did not belong to the attacker. The Nice lorry was rented, the Berlin lorry was hijacked. And the car used [in London] was hired. It raises the question of whether this is a modus operandi, if terrorists are told, in using a car as a weapon, ‘you should not use your own car’,” said Glees.

“It is quite an important clue. If you are going into a jihad operation, you almost certainly expect you are going to die – why wouldn’t you use your own vehicle? So hiring a car, hijacking a car, would seem to be part of a plan. In that context at the moment, it would make very good security sense to put car hire companies on the alert and to enable data to be shared.

“We know that people copy other people and we have to be on the alert. And one of the ways we could be on the alert is asking a few questions about why people are hiring cars – for what purpose?”

The chief executive of British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA), the trade body which represents the majority of car hire companies, said members can use databases to identify “problem renters”.

“The car rental industry takes security very seriously. We will continue to work closely with police to ensure that our members are kept abreast of latest threats or security concerns,” said Gerry Keaney.

A spokesman for the organisation declined to comment on what level of cooperation there was between companies and the police.

“I can’t comment on the current procedures that are in place,” he said. An industry database called Risc contains the details of drivers who have used fake IDs or damaged vehicles. This, however, would not necessarily work to prevent the hiring of a vehicle for criminal use.

“As we saw during the week, the people who intend to use hire vehicles either for dishonest, illegal or appalling purposes will often produce valid credentials,” said the spokesperson.

In the United States, the FBI and the Department of Justice have distributed flyers to local businesses highlighting potential suspicious activities. People working in vehicle rental businesses have been told to be aware of those who have a reluctance to provide personal information, who use cash for a large transaction or who question the exact dimensions or fuel capacity of a car.

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