The Barcelona terror attack reveals the increasing desperation of radicals as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) murderous empire crumbles in the Middle East. Unlike mega-attacks that targeted iconic structures or critical infrastructure and produced mass casualties - characteristics of the Al-Qaeda network and ISIS on the ascendant - using vehicles to mow down civilians is terror on the cheap. Such attacks, carried out in Nice, Berlin, London and Stockholm before they hit Barcelona, take little organisation, involve relatively few plotters and do not cost much. A far-flung and amorphous group of people, some self-radicalised, plug into the plans of terrorist organisations. They seek to send out a message of defiance in the West even as masterminds go into strategic retreat on the main Arab battlefield.
Yet, the fact that ISIS is under mortal pressure offers no consolation to victims and their families. Every successful terror attack undermines society's sense of well-being, harmony and trust. What is being witnessed now is a broadening of the terrorist arena. Although the attack on the Iranian Parliament did target a symbol of state power and the outrage at Istanbul's airport besieged a symbol of national power in recent times, civilian areas such as avenues and streets have come to the fore. These public spaces are impossible to police comprehensively, yet they are of everyday use.
In the circumstances, Western societies are called upon to step up their surveillance efforts and re-examine whether their preventive security laws are stringent enough. It simply will not do for them to hold on to the civil libertarian safeguards that are both necessary and possible in normal times, but which become a part of the political arsenal of terror in abnormal times. It attests to the moral and social mores of Europe that most of its people are willing to accept the presence of religious minorities in spite of the deadly wedge that terrorists wish to drive between the peace-loving. This is as it should be, but Europe owes it to itself to leave no stone unturned in stopping terror rather than handling its aftermath.
Elsewhere, countries must prepare to move from fortifying strategic targets to safeguarding as much of civilian space as they reasonably can. Singapore continues to move in that direction with the increasing emphasis on the use of concrete bollards at public events. Bollards or security barriers that reinforce security against hostile vehicle attacks send a clear message to terrorist planners that the state is following events abroad closely and reacting accordingly. Securing broader swathes of public space narrows the options that terrorists possess. Such moves might not succeed in deterring those desperate to mount a suicide attack, but they reduce its chances. Singapore must not let down its guard.