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Security Agencies Faced With 'Low-Tech' Terrorist Strategies


In some parts of Europe, it seems the threat of terrorism has become a constant presence. Just last week, attackers drove vehicles into crowds in Barcelona and the Spanish seaside town of Cambrils. Fourteen people died. NPR's Frank Langfitt covered that attack, and it is the fifth he has covered since March. He's now back in London and joins us to talk about these attacks in Europe and what, if anything, can be done to stop them. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: I'm fine. So I understand you are standing on the scene of one of these attacks you've reported on. Tell us where you are.

LANGFITT: I am, and you know the scene very well from your time here. I'm on Westminster Bridge. This was the first attack I covered back in March. And this is of course right by Big Ben. And what happened back then is a man drove an SUV down the sidewalk, eventually killing five people. He stabbed a police officer to death inside the grounds of Parliament. And up until then, as you'd remember, there was really very little terrorism in the U.K. in earlier years.

But since March, there've been four attacks here in the United Kingdom. There was the bombing outside the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. And then we've had vehicle attacks on London Bridge here on Westminster Bridge and also up at Finsbury Park near a mosque.

SHAPIRO: One common thread here seems to be the use of vehicles. What else do these attacks tell us about the way terrorism in Europe is changing?

LANGFITT: Well, sort of, you know, looking at the nature of these vehicle attacks, what's happening is instead of sort of highly planned, more sophisticated attacks which we've seen earlier, these attacks are becoming a lot more diffuse and using very simple tools like rented vans and knives. And the advantages for the attackers are kind of - are fairly evident. One is - easy to rent out a van. You don't need training for these sorts of attacks, not a lot of planning. They're effective, and of course they're hard to detect.

You know, if you're making a bomb, police here will be looking to see if you're buying certain special chemicals. There's a way to track it. But, you know, rent a van; that's just an ordinary sort of thing. The plots are also very simple and easy to copy, which is one of the things we've been seeing a lot now.

SHAPIRO: Well, as you've said, these attacks are harder for police to prevent than the large-scale ones involving explosives. So what can authorities do?

LANGFITT: Well, one of the things they are doing - and this is the reason I'm on the Westminster Bridge right now. And that is, they're building big concrete barriers. So it's changed a lot even in the last two months. Ordinarily, you'd be walking here, and the streets are wide open. Now they have huge concrete barriers on both sides of the road, so there's no way that a vehicle can get in there. The other thing is - they've done this on other bridges. I'm looking upstream now, and even up in Hampton Court Bridge, which is actually out of town, upstream on the Thames where I ride my bike near Henry VIII's palace, they have barriers up there as well.

One of the things, though, with these barriers of course, Ari, is their limitations. I was talking to a guy who is an expert on British jihadis. He works at a think tank, the Royal United Services Institute. His name is Raffaello Pantucci. And here's what he said yesterday when we were having lunch.

RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI: The difficulty with them is, where do you stop putting them up? There's many, many places where people will congregate. And the difficulty is, on the one hand, these areas, by their nature, have to be accessible to the public. But then the other one is a practical question of expense, you know? If you're a small city, is this necessarily an appropriate allocation of resource?

SHAPIRO: London is so known for the Keep Calm, and Carry On approach to World War II. Is there a sense that people are responding to terrorist attacks now in a different way than when they were less common?

LANGFITT: You know, I think people are more on edge, Ari, and I'd say they're just a lot more aware, and they are not surprised by these anymore. So this is a city that's been through the IRA bombings, through the Blitz. I don't think it's changed the way people approach things, but they're just more aware of it. And they're not surprised now when it happens. It's sort of beginning to become - and it's terrible to say this - a bit routine.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking with us from Westminster Bridge in London. Thanks, Frank.

LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.