By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
The 14 July Bastille Day terror attack in Nice, France is the third major terror attack in France during the last year according to globalsecurity.org, an intelligence and security think-tank.
Media reports 84 killed and many more wounded.
In addition to Bastille Day July is also a prominent month in the French holiday season because of the Tour de France bicycle race, a month-long international event contested on open roads in daily “stages” that usually cover over 100 miles. Professional bicycle racers from around the world compete in “The Tour” which is the most famous event in bicycling.
The Tour de France is a unique spectator event because of its geographic scale and almost entirely unrestricted access to the sporting venue, the open roads of France. These features make the event impossible to secure from terrorist threats such as roadside bombs, suicide bombers, car/truck bombs, air attack, sniper attack, mass shooting and other threats.
In February 2016 bicycle racing expert and journalist Caley Fretz quoted researcher David Murakami Wood for publication Velo-News, “I don’t mean to be too alarmist, but the Tour de France is almost impossible to secure.”
The Tour de France race organization, a company named ASO, does not provide overall security for the event. The security role is performed largely by a mix of French national law enforcement, regional police forces, local law enforcement and even some volunteers on the lowest level.
A special national police unit, the Gendarmerie national, is the primary security asset for the Tour de France. This unit includes a special motorbike contingent called the Republican Guard or Garde républicaine.
The primary role of the Republican Guard motorbike units is protection of the riders from spectators and control of external traffic.
The bicycle racers in the Tour de France are accompanied by several hundred support and marketing motor vehicles that drive slowly in front of and behind the bicycle racers in a long, slowly moving procession. This large group is divided into three sub-groups; the publicity caravan that precedes the race, the race peloton or group of bicycle racers, often segmented into smaller groups as riders attempt to accelerate away from the main group in smaller sub “breakaway” groups- this group also includes press motorcycles, cars belonging to officials and the Republican Guard security motorcycles- and finally a trailing support caravan of cars belonging to the bicycle racing teams.
The race itself moves along the route with unrestricted access to the athletes from the sides and above the riders. This makes them vulnerable to both accidental and intentional collisions with spectators. Both have happened on a regular basis in the Tour de France.
It is the threat of unrestricted access to competitors that makes the security challenge at the Tour de France unique. This is combined with the high media profile, including live television and Internet coverage of the event. These factors make the event an optimal target for extremists and terrorist attacks.
Given the escalation of terrorist style attacks in France and southern Europe, an uncontrolled influx of foreign national refugees that could conceal trained insurgents or lone wolf insurgents and the high media profile of the Tour de France in a dynamic and unsecured setting, it is almost inevitable that these factors converge in some type of willful, injurious act. This could include a mass-casualty event with both spectators and competitors.
Effective countermeasures to reduce the likelihood of a terrorist attack on the Tour de France competitors and spectators include increased aerial surveillance of the route via remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) and helicopter, fixed wing surveillance aircraft equipped with sensors to detect unusual materials and activity.
Interestingly, race officials have begun using FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared) viewers to inspect bicycles that have been equipped with miniature electric motors that may illegally assist in propelling the competitors’ bikes. The detection for this “mechanical doping” could also be employed by security personnel to find abnormal thermal activity from radioactive devices and other threats.
However, these proposed route surveillance techniques are only for threat detection. Threat eradication upon detection is even more difficult given the proximity of spectators and competitors. If a terrorist threat were detected, acting against the threat would result in the inevitable disruption of the event. Any armed response also presents the challenge of avoiding peripheral casualties in a dense spectator setting.
The primary countermeasure to terrorist attacks on the Tour de France is prevention. Thankfully for the Tour de France most attacks in France have been located in close proximity to immigrant populations. The Tour de France route has been in more rural settings so far.
Foreign correspondent for The New Yorker George Packer wrote, “France has all kinds of suburbs, but the word for them, banlieues, has become pejorative, meaning slums dominated by immigrants. Conceived as utopias for workers, they have become concentrations of poverty and social isolation. The cités and their occupants are the subject of anxious and angry discussion in France.” It is from and around these immediate areas where most of France’s immediate terrorist threat emanates based on an examination of previous attacks.
In conclusion, the inability to provide increased route security without compromising the traditional format of the Tour de France set against the backdrop of a rising frequency of terrorist activity within French borders presents an ominous portend; that a terrorist attack at the Tour de France in the near future is almost a statistical inevitability.