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Preventing terrorism-by-truck in America would be ‘extremely difficult,’ officials say

Police officers and rescued workers stand near a van that ploughed into a crowd leaving a fireworks display in the French Riviera town of Nice on July 14, 2016.
(VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of the terrorist attack in Nice, France, law enforcement officials here say preventing violence by attackers using common vehicles could prove a challenge.

“It is extremely difficult to protect pedestrians from events such as the one in Nice. We enjoy living in a free society and with that comes inherent risks,” said Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, a veteran of counter-terrorism work.

Hutchens acknowledges that in countries such as Israel, a different level of security exists on a daily basis with constant bag inspections at restaurants and other public gatherings. “I hope we will never get to that place,” she said.

Locally, police across the region are on heightened alert, as is always the case following such a large-scale attack, but officials said they had no intelligence to suggest any attack is planned.

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But the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s counter-terrorism chief said the recent series of attacks, including the one in Nice, are going to lead law enforcement in the region to reassess security for events with large crowds. which are inviting targets for potential terrorists.

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“We have to strike a balance between privacy and protection, and we are starting to move the pendulum toward the protection side,” said Chief Scott Edson, who oversees the Special Operations Division.

“Do we have radio cars at fixed positions for the event?. Do we bring in K-rails to block the path to the crowd from vehicles? Do we set protections for a parade or marathon or something? Those are all now planning consideration in this society,” he said.

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Intelligence, he said, can prevent an attack. But that may not be enough in cases in which attackers “are so alone they don’t communicate or when they do it with encryption,” he said.

Edson said additional security measures would come at a cost to governments and event sponsors. “Any kind of planned event in which there are soft targets, we need to reevaluate and contain that event to make it safe for the public,” he said.

At high-level government facilities and even the Academy Awards in Hollywood, approaching vehicles must zigzag through series of barriers that prevent any vehicle building up speed by driving directly down the road.

We have to strike a balance between privacy and protection, and we are starting to move the pendulum toward the protection side.”

Los Angeles County Sheriff Chief Scott Edson

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Since Timothy McVeigh used a Ryder rental truck packed with ammonium nitrate to attack the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people, counter-terrorism officials have run a scenario with trucks entering downtown L.A. and exploding in the ports and at Los Angeles International Airport.

Local officials say the danger of a vehicle as a weapon was brought home when in 2003 a confused 86-year-old man drove his car the length of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, plowing through a crowd of terrified summer shoppers, killing nine people and hospitalizing 50 others.

Brian Levin, a counter-terrorism expert and professor at Cal State San Bernardino, said both Al Qaeda and Islamic State have delivered messages to followers calling for them to use vehicles as weapons absent other means.

Islamic State senior leader Abu Mohammad Adnani in 2014 directed the targeting of various westerners including the French: “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”

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Counter-terrorism experts say the measures to prevent such attacks are often more than an open society can endure.

“A lot of these measures of protection impose on a free society and ultimately don’t show that much benefit,” said Brian Jenkins, a terrorism expert and senior advisor to Rand Corp. “The question with any measure is: Is this going to protect society?” Jenkins said.

richard.winton@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter at @lacrimes.

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