The setting for Tuesday’s terrorist attack in Manhattan had a familiar feel for Atlantans, especially those who walk and bike the city’s intown neighborhoods.
Eight people were killed and nearly a dozen injured when a 29-year-old immigrant from Uzbekistan drove his rental truck over a curb on West Houston Street and onto a popular bike path through the heart of New York City — a stretch of asphalt very similar to Atlanta’s popular Beltline.
“We all know that’s a possibility,” Gov. Nathan Deal said Wednesday when asked about the danger of something similar happening on the Beltline. It’s almost impossible to predict.”
And just as difficult to prevent.
The method, weaponizing a vehicle to mow down unsuspecting cyclists and pedestrians, is widely touted. From Manhattan and Charlottesville to London Bridge and Nice, truck attacks have become a staple of the terrorist handbook.
Atlanta, which has become more pedestrian and bike-friendly in recent years, is every bit as vulnerable.
“We’ve been monitoring and analyzing attacks not only in the U.S., but also around the world,” said Atlanta police spokesman Carlos Campos. “Ultimately, it is difficult to stop people who are determined to do harm. As law enforcement, our most important charge is to learn from these incidents, figure out areas of improvement and ensure we have an effective response if it does happen here.”
More than 1.7 million people utilized the Beltline’s Eastside Trail last year, according to the non-profit that oversees it.
But accessing the Beltline by vehicle is not easy. In a fortuitous move made before the spate of truck attacks, bollards — metal poles secured deep in the ground — were installed where the trail crosses roadways. A row of three bollards block vehicular traffic at entry points near the Krog Street Market and Piedmont Park.
Beltline CEO Brian McGowan said the bollards will be placed at all street intersections as the trail expands.
In a recent interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Police Chief Erika Shields discussed the challenges of combating attacks so simple to execute.
“It’s very hard for any of us to anticipate what some of these individuals have proven themselves capable of,” Shields said.
For big-scale events, APD has started using garbage trucks to cut off avenues where a driver could easily access large swaths of people.
But what about the day-to-day risk? Deal pointed to improved coordination between state, local and federal law enforcement.
“To prevent these kinds of things you have to have a lot of intelligence,” he said. “We have to be sure that, if we see something, we say something.”
Truck attacks have grown increasingly popular among terrorists in this decade, tracing back to a 2010 article in an al Qaeda magazine titled, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine.” It suggested using a four-wheel drive pickup, “the stronger the better,” to “mow down the enemies of Allah.”
Campos said staying a step ahead of terrorists remains a significant challenge. “The tragic event in New York is another painful reminder that our work in this area is far from done,” he said.