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  • Eduardo Abril de Fontcuberta - Colaborador de

Lessons learned from the Barcelona Attacks

Year 3 - Week 18

ISSN 2603 - 9931

The World is changing rapidly. Internet, globalism, and also the face of the war on terror. We can see the latest terrorist attacks from a conventional perspective but our conclusions will be tainted by an absolute lack of perspective. We can’t fight against terrorism like we did in Irak or in Afghanistan because the targets these terrorists attack are different, the tactics are different and the terrorists themselves are different too. They have brought the war to our cities and they don’t rely in the leadership and structures of the past. This is new face of terrorism, a much more complex one, that we will have to understand if we want to win, or at least control their threat.

Learning from the past

We all know that it will be impossible to win if we do not learn from the past. The problem is that in the digital World, the far past and the close past can be separated by a couple of years only. What we learned in Siria against ISIS will not work now, and if we do not learn from the latest attacks and change our defensive strategies, we won’t prevent or reduce these attacks in our cities, in our land. The context, the operational environment, is a key element in any terrorist attack planning cycle and we need to learn the lessons from the Barcelona attacks.

Spain is Sun and tourism

August is the month in which tourism floods Spain .Just after mid month, Thursday 17th of August, in the city downtown, and thirteen years after the infamous 11M train attacks in Madrid, Barcelona suffered another terrorist attack, this time claimed by the very same al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State.

We already knew that Al-Qaeda and ISIS had changed their focus from hard targets, that were now heavily protected and that needed long and costly preparations, to hasty attacks on soft targets. These new targets maximize effectiveness, needed a less trained cell, no need for weapons or explosives and any Jihadist could do it. They just needed the will to do it.

This untraceable structure provided security to the cell and mitigated the vulnerabilities of the core structure regarding law enforcement. The new and lower skillset required, permitted the shift of the actual training from physical spaces, like the mosque or the Afghan training camp, to the cyberspace.

This makes the identification of any new recruits really difficult, and considering our laws protecting privacy, a sensitive, complex and even marginally legal, data gathering task.

The new Leaderless resistance concept outlined by Louis Beam, is also basic in understanding the figure of the lone jihadist, but it also explains the impermeability of jihadist structures in Western countries and the difficulties they present to be detected and neutralized.

The “no structure” in Barcelona

The lack of direct logistic channels of financing and leadership, reduced the organizational complexity of the attacks, with a change in the targets: from hard targets to softer ones, and from highly planned and intelligence-based attacks to hasty attacks with little actual planning.

This no structure cell dictated the scenarios in the Barcelona attacks and displays clearly what to expect for the future. They released a unified attack divided in three different attack scenarios as a consequence of the nature of the cell members themselves, and what they already knew of their area of operations.

It is logical to conclude that the presence of a cell, thus, tells us about a higher level of sophistication in planning than the one showed by lone jihadist such as Anis Amri, who perpetrated the Berlin truck ramming last December, 2016, but it does not mean a higher level of training or complexity. They just had some time to get together as a group and this proves another point in which the intelligence services should have been able to pinpoint a group of radicals that were living together much more than a simple lone wolf. Another missed chance and a lesson to learn.

We don’t learn

Curiously enough it was even worse as the explosion of their lab in a countryside house in Spanish Eastern town of Alcanar was wrongly categorized by the Catalonian police as a drugs lab explosion. Why? For political reasons they wanted the national police out of the case so it was easier to relate it with drugs. Only one day later, when a van ploughed into the pedestrians in Las Ramblas de Barcelona, different traces started to lead the suspects of the attack to Alcanar house.

Among the 100 gas bottles found in the house, there was discovered traces of TATP or triacetone triperoxide, the trimer of acetone peroxide. TATP has a whole chapter in al-Qaida’s magazine Inspire 6 (Summer 2011), where it is explained how to produce the explosive and operate it in a bomb.

Online training with explosives has proven problematic, and this probable lack of experience in the manipulation of explosives, drove to the fatal explosion, which not only foiled a bomb rampage in any of the harder targets of Barcelona, such as the Sagrada Familia Cathedral, or the Camp Nou stadium, but was the cause of a whole reconfiguration of the tactics and the targets.

Another lesson we don’t seem to learn. The isolation and self restricted access to the counterterrorism investigative know-how, that some local and regional police forces has, joined forces with the problematic relation of some EU regions with national governments to create an deadly scenario. The rapidly reacting cell, that did not need logistics or command from a larger unit to redefine their targets, launched an attack on a soft target, such as a van ramming on tourists, so quickly that the police forces could not react in time.

Quick Reaction Force

A concept that is clear on NATO doctrine is still far to be implemented in many EU police forces, largely due to excess burocracy and politization of the command structures. In this case, as it has happened before, they needed to be react quickly and they never did.

On the contrary, the cell reacted swiftly to their original plan fallout and knowing the police was on alert, had to turn to one of the by now classical low-tech with scarce planning attacks: using the vans that would had been used for deploying the explosives and mowing down 15 bystanders and injuring to more than a hundred.

Side attacks

About nine hours later than the terrorist attack in Barcelona, another car also loaded with the second unit of the terrorist cell, crashed with a police checkpoint car after running down pedestrians in the seaport area. On this occasion, the terrorists carried knives and cold weapons, as well as fake explosives belts, in a queer similarity with the London Bridge terrorist attack of last June.

The terrorist unit was shot down by police on the spot, but in the process they added a stabbed casualty and a second seriously injured ran down victim. Again, the pattern of target selection is the same than in the Barcelona case: a highly touristic area with low security measures, and again, the tactical choice was a copy of previous attacks in Europe.

Hardening the targets

The difficulties of effectively preventing a low-tech attack are unquestionable, but some action can be taken which includes target hardening physical measures, in this case bolards in the main tourist areas. Curiously enough, and for political reasons, some left wing majors like Madrid´s Carmena refused to install such barriers considering them an escalation in the police state.

The most important lesson from Barcelona attacks should be that of police and citizen cooperation. The creation of a counterterrorism integrated command, now in place in Spain, should be implemented regardless of regional or local political interests. Integrating a citizen channel of communication with the CT unit, without political filtering, so that citizens can send reports of any suspicious acts, should be a key element in early warning detection.

Obviously, the red line between paranoia, panic and awareness is thin, but it must be reached. Saving lives is a cooperative effort and must be perceived as a whole integrated process, a shared responsibility over political influx and in the hands or professionals. A common responsibility.


David Crevillen , Counter Terrorism Expert

CEO de GrupoDC Solution

Vehicular attacks could be prevented but they need comprehensive measures, which go from legal ones like strengthening the requirements for renting vehicles and providing staff with tools for checking basic customer´s background, to citizen training.

The use of this tactic should be framed in what we can define as low-tech terrorism, meaning that the level of sophistication of the attack is limited, due to a lack of technical skills, to the lack of time as it happened in Barcelona where the original plan was a massive bombing in the Sagrada Familia cathedral, but when the explosives prematurely detonated due to a malfunction the terrorist cell had to readapt the plan on short notice to prevent being detained by the police, so they opted by a car ramming attack-

or to be unable to have access to more lethal weapons, such as automatic fire ones. In this way, the classical terrorist planning cycle is significantly reduced, so the disruption of the attack have to focus on two stages: prevention of the attack or management of it.

Prevention of the attack goes through two axis, one oriented to raising citizens situational awareness against suspicious behaviors or potential risks on the streets -an abandoned bag, a suspicious package in a wastebasket or someone parking illegally in front of an official building. Only in that way the eyes and ears of the law enforcement agencies may reach the whole theatre of our cities. Secondly, and in the meantime, it is urgent to carry out a process of redefinition of spaces, specially when it comes to soft targets as malls, houses or worship, parks and public, open, venues: a process of target hardening through techniques as CPTED would be useful and would difficult the success of a potential attack, limiting the odds of it to happen.

Finally, what to do if anything else fails? Unfortunately the only resource in this stage is managing the incident, and again in this sense training is mandatory. The goal is not to create heroes but to minimize the number of casualties once the hell breaks loose. In normal conditions the first ones on the scene won’t be the police, but citizens and in the best of cases, private security agents. Protocols such as Run-Hide-Fight, although very basic, are extremely useful, since they provide the basic guidelines about what to do in order to survive until the police arrives. But also is mandatory, in this way, to be clear on specific training for these immediate responders and their role in minimizing the number of victims, including also notions of programs such as Stop the Bleed for controlling massive hemorrhages (basic TECC) guidelines until emergency services arrives. And finally, specific and adapted training for these first responders to this changing nature of terrorism which includes active threats and is not based anymore on specific targets, but on mass casualties and wrecking havoc.



The Manhattan attack and how can we prevent another

Based on the studies of Islamic Terrorism experts: David Kilcullen, Beatriz Gutierrez Phd and David Crevillen

New York City may well be one of the most secure cities after the 9/11 facts. But prevention of non sophisticated terrorist attacks is as difficult in NYC as they might be in any other big city in the world. A diffuse threat, based on leaderless jihadist wolves with the capability to carry out attacks almost everywhere without needing a high level of planning or technical sophistication.

The problem here is what can we do to minimize the effects of terrorist attacks such as the NYC tourist van ramming?

Since the odds of knowing the exact date, time, and place of a lone jihadist, low-tech attack are close to zero, and since preventing self-radicalization is still as desirable as hard to achieved, probably response should go along two elements, passive security measures and social threat awareness.

Regarding the first element, the doctrine in place was developed for classical terrorist modus operandi such as IEDs and even WMD so it must be updated and be dynamic. It has to be flexible and adaptable to any new method of attack.

It has to contemplate the cultural factors as the presence of armed policeman on patrol will not be perceived in the same way in countries as the United States, Israel, Spain or Sweden. Same can be said for physical barriers such as bolards that might seem a sensible solution in some cultures and felt as an escalation on the police state feel in others.

One key step to be taken in this sense is training, not only for security forces but for citizens too: training regarding the threat, regarding how to prevent it and how to manage an AMOK or armed incident with multiple victims.

From the research of our expects we can draw our conclusions, which would start with the most obvious which is reducing the odds by not allowing the terrorists to have a physical environment to carry out a car ramming terrorist attack . Secondly, trained and aware citizens are key elements in reducing the number of casualties in an active incident by acting as immediate responders, but also aware citizens are key in containing the spreading of the message of terror.

Honestly, nobody can point out one golden rule for put an end to terrorism. But we can affirm that any response that can be successful will involve a multidisciplinary and flexible enough doctrine that involved the citizens in the equation. Only with their involvement and hindsight can we identify those lone wolves.

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