Some thoughts on the Berlin truck atrocity

A black Scania R-type tractor unit with the owner's name 'Ariel Suraski' on its headboard, and a broken windowOn Monday evening, someone hijacked a 40-tonne Scania articulated lorry, murdered the driver, and then drove it into the Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 people. Police arrested a suspect, an asylum seeker from Pakistan, but have since released him, having found no forensic evidence linking him to the truck; latest news is that the police are seeking a Tunisian they have named only as “Anis A”. The truck, which was carrying steel girders on its trailer, is owned by a Polish haulier and the owner’s cousin was the murdered driver. The so-called Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) claimed responsibility and both they and al-Qa’ida have encouraged Muslims to carry out similar attacks.

As might be expected, the media has been full of talk of protecting public places from similar attacks in the near future. A number of public buildings already have barriers designed to stop trucks from ramming them, but rarely are pedestrian shopping centres so protected. I read this article by Dominic Casciani on the BBC News site, which notes a number of sometimes subtle barriers, such as the letters spelling “ARSENAL” outside the club’s Emirates Stadium in north London. A number of such barriers have been tested to withstand a 7-tonne truck being driven into them, and both the tests depicted on that page show 7.5-tonne trucks, a mainstay of home and shop delivery but actually the smallest type of vehicle recognisable as a truck in Europe. The standard domestic haulage truck in the UK is rated at 44 tonnes; in Europe, as with the truck used in Berlin, 40 tonnes. Standard rigid truck weights are 18, 26 and 32 tonnes (the latter normally used for tippers). Clearly, some of these barriers will not in fact withstand attacks by trucks that are more than double the weight (especially if laden) they were tested for.

The Guardian claimed this morning that Scania had been contacted with questions as to why the truck’s automatic braking system had not prevented the disaster. One might ask why the same did not happen in any number of on-road collisions, such as when a truck whose driver was looking at his mobile phone ploughed into the back of a queue of traffic. Not all trucks have such devices; what they more often have is alarms which beep or buzz when the vehicle goes over a lane marking, or is anywhere near another vehicle or object, which is a huge annoyance to the driver as such situations (especially at slow speeds) do not always equate to danger. The owners probably did not anticipate such a situation as they are in a country where terrorism is rare, and most hauliers do not currently need to consider this situation as a priority. Load, vehicle and diesel thefts and, in the case of drivers going to England, illegal migrants are a bigger problem than hijacking or terrorism.

Third, I do not believe ISIS are really responsible for this. If they were really responsible, they would have mounted more than one attack at more than one location, perhaps at Christmas markets across Germany. Whatever else could be said about ISIS, they are not a rag-tag outfit or a splinter group and if it’s really true that they can smuggle guns or explosives across Europe, it should be asked why they have not used them here. If it really was ISIS, it would not indicate their capability to carry out major destructive attacks, but rather their lack of manpower, organisational capacity and weaponry. Pointing this out would not make for a very sensational story, however, which is why you don’t hear it much from security “experts” in the media.

Fourth, hauliers will have to take a serious look at how they protect their vehicles from this sort of action if there are any more of them. Some hauliers already insist that drivers take their keys out of the vehicle when leaving it, which prevents not only theft but also accidents, as a third party could otherwise move a truck when the driver or other workers are on the back, securing or positioning loads. This would also stop opportunist thefts, for terrorism or any other purpose, but it would not stop a determined terrorist (or gang of them) from killing or expelling the driver. A system which informs the owner if another driver has taken over (e.g. a fingerprint locking system) would offer some protection to the public, but not if the owner is the driver, and it would not protect the driver (who could be retained to activate the fingerprint lock).

Speaking as both a truck driver and a Muslim, I’m appalled by this attack on a country which has welcomed over a million asylum seekers from Syria and elsewhere when other countries have shut them out. It will strengthen the hand of the anti-immigrant Right who have already made gains in poorer parts of Germany where there is less exposure to immigrants and diverse cultures, including the regions around Berlin. However, it’s not in the interests of either the Syrian régime or ISIS for Muslims from Syria or anywhere else to be able to find a home in Europe. It’s worrying that I become the terrorist’s first target and also potentially a target of suspicion; I already do my best to hide my religion from employers so as to avoid awkward questions. The further you get from ‘diverse’ areas around London and other big cities, the more open people are about their bigotry, which as their exposure to other cultures is fairly limited, has never been challenged.

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