A low-tech terror attack in Barcelona follows a familiar grim script

Attending to the injured in Barcelona.
Attending to the injured in Barcelona.
Image: Reuters/Quique Garcia
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Update 3:34pm: Two suspects have been arrested in connection with the Barcelona terrorist attack. An additional suspect was killed in a shootout with police on the outskirts of the city. Authorities confirmed a driver ran into two officers earlier in the day, though it’s unclear if the incident was related. ISIL has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Update 2:31pm: Police director Pere Soler i Campins confirms at least 13 people are dead and 50 others are injured in the Barcelona terrorist attack.

Update 1:19 pm: Official numbers from a press conference with Catalan police confirm at least one person is dead and 32 others are injured after a van crashed into a crowd of people at the bustling Las Ramblas promenade in Barcelona. Suspects are being sought in connection with the incident.

A van drove into a crowd of people in central Barcelona today (Aug. 17). Reports suggest that there could be at least 13 fatalities, with more injured, in what police described as a “massive crash.” The attack is being treated as terrorism, according to authorities.

The attack took place around 5pm local time in Las Ramblas, a popular tourist area. Emergency services have told people to avoid the area and have requested the closure of nearby train stations, Reuters reports. Unconfirmed reports suggest the perpetrator fled on foot after the attack. Sky News says that armed men have taken hostages at a restaurant nearby.

While details of the Barcelona attack remain unclear, it follows a disturbing pattern: the use of vehicles to kill and enact terror. Last weekend, a white supremacist rammed his car into counter-protestors in Charlottesville, US, in an attack the Attorney General said meets “the definition of domestic terrorism.” Two months earlier, attackers rammed a vehicle into a crowd in London Bridge and then got out to stab a number of people. Since July 2016, vehicle-ramming attacks have killed more than 100 people in Nice, Berlin, London, Stockholm, and elsewhere.

These attacks are devastatingly simple. Attackers don’t need bombs or much training—just a car, basic driving skills, and the will to plow into a crowd. These kinds of attacks have escalated since a July 2016 incident in Nice, France, when a man drove a truck through a large crowd in the southern French city, killing more than 80 people.

The Nice attack was quickly followed by a tragedy at Ohio State University, when a refugee residing in the US drove a vehicle into a group of students, and then attacked them with a butcher’s knife. In December 2016, an attacker drove a truck into a busy Christmas market in central Berlin, killing 12 people and injuring around 50 more. The ISIL terror group claimed responsibility for both.

In the November 2016 issue of the ISIL’s Rumiyah magazine (pdf), it said: “Though being an essential part of modern life, very few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner.” The article contained an image of a rental truck and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

There have been nearly as many vehicle ramming incidents in the past three years (including those targeting the public, police, and military) as there were in the preceding decade, according to Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Preventing these attacks can be nearly impossible, given the ubiquity of civilian vehicles and public crowds. As Alain Winants, former head of Belgian intelligence, told Newsweek,”You can’t close off an entire city.”