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Toronto van attack bears hallmarks of recent ramming attacks abroad

Police and firefighters on scene near the Yonge and Finch area where multiple pedestrians were hit by a van on April 23, 2018. CITYNEWS/Roger Petersen
Summary

A terrorism expert says there is likely not a "top-down" solution to vehicle ramming attacks

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – From Nice, to Berlin, to Stockholm, to London, so-called vehicle ramming attacks have emerged as the preferred method for those intent on harming others in recent years.

In most cases, a lone perpetrator rents or steals a vehicle, usually a large truck or van, and deliberately plows through a busy pedestrian area.

The pattern played out most recently in Toronto, where a man drove a rental truck onto a sidewalk on Yonge Street Monday afternoon, killing 10 people and leaving 15 others injured.

Neither police, nor Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale have yet commented on the motivation for the attack, and no connection to international terrorist groups has been drawn.

Dr. Chris Erikson, an instructor at the University of British Columbia who studies terrorism, says vehicle ramming attacks have become so prevalent partly because “they’re really easy to do.”

He explains that while assembling bomb parts or collecting firearms would raise red flags in most countries, renting a van is a normal part of everyday life.

“It’s really, really, really hard to restrict without putting really draconian measures in place that kind of go against the whole purpose of an open society,” Erikson says. “It’s a tricky situation. It’s definitely not an easy one to control.”

One of the deadliest vehicle ramming attacks occurred in July 2016, when a cargo truck drove into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France, killing 86 people and injuring 458 others.

Erikson says terrorist organizations like ISIS have picked up on the effectiveness of such attacks, and have been encouraging supporters to perpetrate them through online forums.

“Any time that there is anything that looks remotely successful, the conversation switches to ‘hey, here’s a new tactic that we can use.’ And there is encouragement for people who want to do this kind of thing to do this kind of thing.”

While cities like Glasgow have installed expensive security bollards in high traffic areas to mitigate the damage caused by vehicle ramming attacks, Erikson says there is likely not a top-down solution to this problem.

“Terrorism, I think, emerges from a sense of extreme frustration… it shows up because there is a gripe, legitimate or not, that nobody is listening to. And I think that we owe it to ourselves just as individuals to train ourselves to listen to what’s around us.”

25-year-old Alek Minassian of Richmond Hill, Ontario remains in custody following the Toronto attack. He was not previously known to police.