EXPERT REACTION: Terror attack in Nice, France

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With another terror attack in Nice leaving at least 80 people dead and many injured, experts respond below to some of the tough questions being asked.

Organisation/s: Griffith University, The University of Queensland, The Australian National University

Expert Reaction

These comments have been collated by the Science Media Centre to provide a variety of expert perspectives and reflect independent opinion on this issue. Feel free to use these quotes in your stories. Views expressed are the personal opinions of the experts named. They do not represent the views of the SMC or any other organisation unless specifically stated.

Kit Bennetts is a Lecturer and PhD Candidate examining critical transport infrastructure security at Southern Cross University. Kit has worked as an Australian police officer and as an intelligence officer in the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service

Are these types of attacks that don’t involve guns or explosives likely to become more common?

      The issue is not the type of weapon employed but rather the change in Modus Operandi (MO).  The Brussels Airport attack in March and the Istanbul Airport Attack of June 2016 saw the terrorists attack ground side (before the usual airport security checks). Both were highly effective in causing mass casualties with concomitant fear in the wider community. They also prompted calls to rethink how we now protect this transport infrastructure.  Using a heavy vehicle is yet another change in MO – moving away from airports and stations and focusing on locations where there is less operational security, yet locations where large – even larger numbers of people gather. The 2015 Paris attack on the Bataclan theatre was an earlier significant move away from the transport infrastructure targets. The emergent challenge may relate to target selection as attackers consider: sports stadiums, concert venues, theatres, street celebrations, religious festivals etc. Perhaps we should focus on vulnerable target opportunities rather than only on the chosen weaponry?  

How can security measures deal with acts that don’t involve conventional weapons?

If attackers select targets such as mass gatherings, outer cordons might need to be set-up to restrict access to the near vicinity of mass assemblies of people – complex and expensive. As DAISH is being ‘squeezed’ on its front-line in Syria and Iraq, it has started to urge its supporters around the world to remain where they are and use what means they can to further the cause.  

Profiling by Police, Homeland Security and Intelligence Services along with effective liaison between European and other democracies; is critical to controlling and preventing the new terrorist approach. This profiling should move beyond the current suspect group (e.g. young Muslims of middle-eastern origin), to include vulnerable loners, disaffected, mentally compromised and alienated people who can be quickly radicalised and motivated by the skilful exploitation of their particular vulnerabilities. Many of these people will have crossed the path of police and support services and may have a history of petty crime and/or domestic violence. This will be complex and may challenge strongly held values in liberal societies.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 8:46pm
Dr David Caldicott is an Emergency Consultant and Senior Clinical Lecturer in Medicine at the Australian National University

The medical systems in France are well-equipped to deal with atrocities such as those in Nice. They regularly practice for mass casualty events, and a location such as Nice, with its international profile and numerous regular international visitors would have a well-practiced disaster plan in place. The extraordinarily efficient response to the Paris attacks of November 2015 can be in part explained by the fact that on the very day of those attacks, a major exercise had rehearsed for precisely such an event. Similarly, numerous medical professionals in France have had the opportunity to deploy and gain relevant experience in theatres such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is very unlikely that a specific vehicular event such as the one in Nice had been anticipated.

In France, as in the USA, medical first response is provided by both the fire brigades and traditional ambulances, both of which are seen on site in the response. Although an all hazards approach to mass casualties is employed in training, a non-conventional attack mandates the consideration of additional features in addition to those seen in civilian or natural disasters.  It is not at all uncommon for a primary event to be designed as a prelude to maximise the lethal effects of a secondary device or event. The reported payload of weapons and hand grenades of the vehicle used suggests that there was a second phase to be played out, prevented only by the rapid neutralisation of the perpetrator. 100s of patients simultaneously fleeing the scene can frequently be injured through simply falling over, or being crushed where there is an obstruction to egress. Where ‘choke points’ occur, either by architecture or malicious action, there is a high risk of such secondary events.

Terrorism has long evolved beyond the traditional IED, and we must anticipate that it will continue to do so. Any device, or physical entity, that can cause harm to multiple civilians, regardless of its original purpose, can be adapted and redeployed to terrorist effect. Responding to mass casualty events inevitably takes its psychological toll on the most hardened of professionals; that toll is accentuated when rapidly becomes apparent that the source of the disaster has been a fellow human being, and the action has been deliberate.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 8:37pm

Dr Tristan Dunning is a political scientist in the School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry at the University of Queensland

Why France? France seems to have been especially hard hit among European countries

France is being targeted for a variety of reasons:

First is its active military intervention in the Middle East (e.g. bombing ISIS in Syria) and North and West Africa (e.g. Libya and al-Qa'ida in Mali) over the last few years. In this light, is it really all that surprising that ISIS and al-Qa’ida and so forth would strike back?  Unlike the UK, in addition, France does not have the luxury of being on an island and is party to the Schengen agreement allowing free travel within the European Union meaning that it is much more difficult to police its borders.

Second, exacerbating the fall out of these military interventions is the legacy of French imperialism in the Middle East and Africa.  ISIS, for instance, consciously invokes the abolition of current borders of the Middle East – ostensibly dictated by the Sykes-Picot agreement between the French and the British in 1916 dividing the former Ottoman Empire into spheres of influence, and a byword for treachery in the Arab world – as a raison d’etre.  People in North Africa and the Middle East have not forgotten the depredations that occurred during colonisation and various wars of independence (hundreds of thousands of Algerians, for example, were killed by the French colonial authorities in the Algerian War of Independence from 1954-1962).

Third, another legacy of French colonisation is the massive influx of Muslim immigrants from former colonies, some of whom France has failed to integrate.  Around 10% of France’s population is Muslim. In other words, we are talking in the realm of six million people, so only a small percentage would need to be radicalised to render this a not insubstantial number. Moreover, Young Muslim men, in particular, are disproportionately represented among France’s unemployed and incarcerated and are, thus, alienated from the wider society. It is analogous to the status of African Americans in the United States.

Fourth, some of the laws enacted by France stressing the country’s secularism or laïcité have sometimes been interpreted as directly targeting the Muslim community (e.g. the ban on wearing the niqab or facial veil). This, in turn, has helped to alienate small parts of the Muslim community in France; again, it only requires a minuscule amount of people to cause trouble and result in the entire community being tarred with the same "extremist" brush.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 7:15pm
Dr David Romyn is a terrorism expert from the School of Psychology, Griffith University

Are these types of attacks that don’t involve guns or explosives likely to become more common?

Yes. As well as pro-terrorism literature (e.g. Inspire magazine) has promoted this very type of attack (using a vehicle to drive into crowds) in recent years, and there have been other examples of this sort of attack being perpetrated. Given the difficulty in obtaining firearms in most locations, and the difficulty in acquiring materials and skill needed to make explosive devices, there has been a trend towards attacks by other means. Particularly with explosives, there are many cases where either the perpetrator was identified because they'd attempted to purchase a key item, or the device they attempted to use failed to detonate. Because of this, there appears to be an increase in attacks using methods such as knives or cars. These non-conventional attacks are usually much less harmful than conventional attacks, but that does not appear to be the case in Nice."

How can security measures deal with acts that don’t involve conventional weapons?

"This is particularly difficult, because the security measure will depend largely on the weapon used. Simply putting more security personnel on the ground might stop an attack using a knife, but wouldn't stop an attack like the one in Nice. Barriers restricting vehicle access would prevent attacks in certain locations, but this would also not be feasible in other locations. Small concealable weapons such as knives are harder to detect, but also a lot less likely to be as effective as a gun or a bomb. In the end, whatever method is used needs to focus on making an attack less likely to be successful. The research I've conducted has found that likelihood of success (or, of failure) is a major consideration for those selecting a location to attack.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 6:42pm
Professor Clive Williams is from the Centre for Military and Security Law at The Australian National University

The Bastille Day attacker in Nice seems likely to have been a supporter of Islamic State (IS).

Indicators are:

  •  Use of a vehicle to conduct an attack - as advocated by IS.
  • The driver is reported to be a French Tunisian Muslim; Tunisia has been a major source of recruits for IS.
  • France continues to be a high-priority target for IS.

Reasons why France gets targeted:

France is seen by many Muslims as a country that is anti-Islam because of its past colonial history, job discrimination against Muslims in France, the disproportionately high number of Muslims in French jails, and its large number of disaffected young Muslim men. (The French ban on face covering is also seen as discriminatory against Muslim women.)

French security forces are engaged against IS in Syria and Iraq, and more recently in Libya where IS is trying to build a second front.

France has a weak security intelligence capability and has been relying on putting police and troops on the streets to deter terrorism. This still leaves the initiative with the terrorists who obviously still have enormous opportunities to target the French people.

France is accessible from Middle East and North African areas where IS has a significant presence and capability.

Attack weapon

Use of a vehicle as a terrorist weapon means that there does not need to be much attack lead-time and it does not provide the usual indicators associated with a planned terrorist attack. Vehicle attacks can be almost spontaneous and based upon opportunity targets.

Such attacks can be made more deadly by the addition of explosives but that requires more lead-time with the likelihood of being detected in the planning phase.

Implications for Australia

As a member of the US-led coalition against IS and another prime IS target country, Australia needs to introduce vehicle exclusion zones when there are public events in Australia – an obvious potential target for vehicle attacks being ANZAC Day parades.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 4:24pm
Professor Andrew O’Neil, an academic expert on terrorism and international relations at Griffith Business School, Griffith University

As the dust settles on the Nice attack, inevitable questions will be asked about whether French authorities were sufficiently vigilant in safeguarding targets outside Paris.
But the uncomfortable reality is that no country – no matter how effective its counter-terrorist planning – can prevent large-scale attacks of this nature occurring in an era where mass casualty terrorism has become the norm.
Counter-terrorist authorities will be scanning for any links to ISIS, which has focused increasingly on inflicting mass casualty attacks on Western targets as the organisation’s grip on its self-declared ‘caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq has become less certain.
Another strong suspect must be the group known as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, aka Ansar Al Sharia in Yemen. This organisation masterminded the targeted attacks on the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, which was spearheaded by two French born brothers of Algerian descent.  
Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is by far the most combat-active of Al Qaeda’s ‘franchises’ and is known to have a deep network into Europe, and France in particular.
The shocking events in Nice have emerged as France’s second deadliest terrorist attack in history, with the most deadly occurring late year in Paris.

Last updated: 03 Nov 2016 3:55pm

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