Five men were shot dead by Spanish authorities on Thursday after they had apparently been part of a group of terror suspects linked to an incident in Barcelona, which left 30 people dead and close to 100 injured.
Attackers drove a rented van over half a kilometre down a well-known avenue heavily frequented by tourists, mowing down dozens. The dead and injured comprise 34 different nationalities, which belies just how cosmopolitan Barcelona is, as well as the challenge to tourism across Europe.
In the wake of the banking crisis of 2008 and the recession which led to unemployment levels of close to 50% in some Spanish regions, government in Madrid has supported a move to revive tourism in order to drive the economy. While some in Spain complain about the numbers and moan about local culture being negatively affected, the reality is the country was beginning to recover from the recession.
But there's a bigger problem for the region. With terrorists now using vehicles as their main mode of operation, it's virtually impossible to stop rogue or lone wolf attacks. Security personnel have been trained to be on the lookout for unusual purchases of chemicals and other materials used in bomb attacks, but the ubiquitous van or truck or car is very difficult to track as a possible weapon for use in a terror attack.
The biggest challenge too is the seeming link between the van attack and a second incident at the same time elsewhere. Also on Thursday, August 17 2017, police killed five suspected jihadists in a vehicle attack in the town of Cambrils. While lone wolf attacks are presumed to be the actions of alienated individuals radicalised by social connections on the internet and hard to spot, the second attack, which authorities now say is definitely linked to the first, poses a question for Spanish police. How did five attackers (at least) plan and carry out this incident, seemingly unnoticed by those monitoring terror-related activity?
The Islamic State has released propaganda videos and claims that there are "dark days ahead" for the West after bombings in Brussels in March 2016 that killed more than 30. A year later and there have been a number of attacks across Europe, including one in Manchester where 20 were killed by an extremist carrying a bomb in a backpack.
The global nature of both tourism and Muslim attackers has increased in recent years. In a statement released from Iraq on Friday, August 18, Alsumaria news quoted an IS source who claimed preachers in Hawija, the group’s largest haven in southwestern Kirkuk, have threatened the US and Europe with more attacks. When this is taken into account in conjunction with how security forces coordinate actions in EU states, or even within states, there is an obvious problem according to security experts.
The EU has tried to institute a common process of monitoring suspects through the second-generation Schengen Information System (SIS II), which allows these authorities to access and to exchange information on specific types of alerts on persons and objects (such as information on missing persons and on stolen or lost cars, firearms and identity documents) more effectively.
Spanish police have released a social media image of the 18-year-old man believed linked to the van attack.
According to EU documentation, it "offers new functionalities, for example the use of biometric identifiers (eg fingerprints) and new types of alerts, as well as the possibility of linking different kinds of alerts (eg an alert on a person and a vehicle)".
But this is not useful when an attacker can merely drive their own vehicle out of a parking area and into a group of pedestrians on any corner. The EU’s security project, CLOSEYE, is supposed to provide the region with an operational and technical framework that would increase situational awareness and improve the reaction capability of authorities surveying the external borders of the EU.
Another major weakness in the EU's response to terror has been its inability to respond quickly to new threats as the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly. The EU strategy for combating radicalisation and recruitment took years to process. At the same time, terrorists have shifted their methods far more nimbly than the EU security teams.
The Radicalisation Awareness Network, for example, connects practitioners involved in countering radicalisation with a view to exchanging best practices and to pooling knowledge and experience. But the basis of reporting was linked to cutting funding, presuming that weapons would be harder to purchase. That weapon is now a car, a van or a truck. Cutting funding to vehicle-hire companies is impossible and, therefore, the strategic response to IS's new threat is somewhat prosaic and unlikely to be effective in the short term.
Terrorists using a car or an axe are hardly likely to be affected by the EU's monitoring of chemicals being sold, or biological and nuclear materials moving around nefarious areas of the region – or the world.