Threefold rise in vehicular attacks in Western countries indicates cars are terrorists’ weapon of choice

By Nikita Malik and Tom Wilson

The Henry Jackson Society has today issued analysis of information on the attack in Westminster on Tuesday morning.

Vehicular attacks

This incident of course followed the car attack on the Palace of Westminster on 22 March 2017, and is another instance of a democratic institution being targeted – an increasing trend since the attack on the Canadian Parliament in 2014.

  • Vehicular attacks stood out in attacks in the West in both 2016 and 2017 as a low-tech method that has the potential to inflict a high casualty rate, while also proving difficult to detect in the planning stage.
  • In 2016 there were four vehicular attacks in Western countries. Overall, attacks involving vehicles accounted for 7.4% of attacks that year.
  • In 2017, however, this method of attack spiked. There were 14 vehicular attacks across Western countries, 20.6% of all attacks recorded that year – more than three times the number in 2016.

We have also seen the use of vehicles spread from being primarily a method of attack restricted to Islamist terrorism to one used by other ideologies. In 2016, all four vehicular attacks in Western countries were perpetrated by Islamists. In 2017, of the 14 attacks involving vehicles, four were carried out by those on the Far Right.

Terrorism Preparedness

The Protect section of the Government’s counter-terrorism (CONTEST) strategy was designed to strengthen protection against a terrorist attack and reduce vulnerability, particularly of critical infrastructure.

  • While Tuesday’s attack illustrates the effectiveness of bollards, it also highlights the potential vulnerabilities in public spaces, often referred to as “soft targets”:
  • There will be debate around the ‘hardening’ of public spaces, which will focus on fortifying these areas; and preparing the public to deal with crises.
  • Potential points of attack and parallel targets (mosques, synagogues, churches, and other areas of worship) must be offered adequate protection.
  • Some will argue for full, secured perimeters where applicable, saying that this would allow for better policing. However, this could often only be achieved by cordoning off areas so that they are only accessible by the public on foot – a move which will arouse concern that we are changing our way of life in reaction to terrorism.
  • Where cordoning off is simply not possible and vehicles must have access, people involved in terror incidents have the capacity to alter the course of events. Therefore, the training of people in crisis response, including training on how to physically react when a crisis occurs, as well as psychological training, is another possible option.

Birmingham and the West Midlands

Indications are that the perpetrator of the attack is from the West Midlands. Although details are still emerging, Henry Jackson Society research has previously identified Birmingham as a trouble spot for extremism and terrorism-related offenders:

  • The West Midlands had the UK’s second-highest number of individuals convicted for Islamist terror-related offences between 1998 and 2015 – beaten only by London.
  • Between 2011 and 2015, the proportion of such offenders who came from Birmingham increased by 8%.
  • Birmingham has also been on the periphery of the Islamic State networks behind attacks in France and Belgium. Mohammed Abrini, an accomplice to the Paris and Brussels attacks visited Birmingham; and Zakaria Boufassil and Mohamed Ali Ahmed, two men from Birmingham, were convicted for knowingly providing Abrini with funds intended for terrorism.

Birmingham’s terrorism problem is highly concentrated in particular areas:

  • Three quarters of Birmingham’s terrorism offenders came from just two parliamentary constituencies: Hall Green and Hodge Hill.
  • Part of the explanation is demographics: more than three quarters of all terror-related offenders in England hail from the country’s 50% most deprived places.
  • 62% were also from areas where the Muslim population was above 20%.
  • While this does not prove a causative link, it could suggest that extremism is more likely to take root where there is a combination of deprivation, and ethnic or religious segregation.

However, not all deprived and segregated areas become terror hotspots on this scale. Leicester is quite deprived and has a large Muslim population but has nowhere near the same kind of problem with extremism, so these factors alone cannot explain what has happened in Birmingham.

Other factors include networks which can help pull individuals into terrorism, such as have existed in Birmingham since it was a focal point for Kashmiri militancy in the 1990s. It is possible the networks and relationships developed during this period may have sown the seeds of the high levels of terrorism convictions seen from the city’s residents. [1]

[1] Henry Jackson Society, Islamist Terrorism: Analysis of Offences and Attacks in the UK (1998-2015).

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