We are still a long way from knowing anything with certainty about this morning’s attack on an Air Product’s facility in France. There are some items being reported in the news that probably will not change and some items reported earlier are already being contradicted with some authority.
What We Appear to Know
Newer news reports (here, here, and here) all seem to agree that there was only one person in the car that drove through the gate of the Air Products plant. They all also continue to report that there was a decapitated body associated with this attack and it was located outside of the facility, so it would appear that the decapitation preceded the attack.
News reports continue to report the sounds of an explosion associated with the attack, but none of the news photos show any signs of fire or damage associated with an explosive device or explosion of chemicals at the site. The New York Times report states:
Thierry Gricourt, an insurance adviser who works down the street from the plant, said it was a small explosion. “We heard a noise a little before 10,” he said. “It was not very loud; we did not know it was an explosion.”
The French authorities have ‘the driver’ of the car in custody. They report that he is Yassin Salhi (though no official spelling is available) who had been under French intelligence surveillance a number of years ago. Apparently he had been determined not to be a threat.
Finally, and the best news, Air Products reports that all of their employees are present and accounted for. There are no reports of employee injuries in the news reports. Apparently the person who was attacked outside of the plant was not an Air Product employee, but no one has identified that body yet.
I am beginning to suspect (based only on news reporting) that there may not have been an explosive device involved in the attack and it doesn’t look like there were any explosions of chemicals stored, used or produced at the facility. What people may have been reporting as an explosion may have been the sound of the vehicle hitting one of the buildings on site.
According to CNN the French are reporting that that building contained gas cylinders. If any of those cylinders had been knocked out of the building by the force of the vehicle impact, that may account for the reports of ‘gas bombs’ being thrown from the vehicle.
The front gate of most chemical facilities is going to look like the weak spot in the perimeter as long as the attacker is not interested in preventing damage to his vehicle. While most high-risk facilities will have processes to stop vehicles from driving through the gate, they are frequently not used on a day-to-day basis because they impede the normal flow of people and materials through that gate.
While there may be some places in a chemical facility where serious damage can be done by driving a car into equipment, they will be few and far between. Most facilities have already put up barricades to protect those areas from damage from forklift drivers. Where unprotected areas do exist they require detailed knowledge of the facility to find and identify.
This was an effective attack on the individual that had his head placed on the facility fence, but it was not an effective attack on the facility by any serious measure of efficacy. The plant has been shut down for the remainder of today, but it will probably be open and operational on Monday. It will only take that long due to the number of people and organizations that will be involved in the investigation of this incident.
The bigger question is what effect will this have on chemical facility security here in the US. I am sure that DHS and the CFATS folks will be taking a hard look at the results of the investigation. Depending on what type of security measures were in place and/or in use at the front gate of the facility, DHS may suggest changes to some security measures at CFATS covered facilities.
I mentioned the possibility of DHS requiring an immediate increase in security measures as a result of this attack. I have an email into DHS asking about this, but have heard nothing back yet; they may be kind of busy. I think such an upgrade is reasonable in the short term; we don’t know enough about the attack yet.
In the longer term a lot is going to depend on whether or not this attacker was directed to assault this facility by IS or al Qaeda, or whatever group or if this was a trained operative on a self-directed attack, or a self-radicalized individual striking out at a target of opportunity. The first will certainly justifying a requirement for long-term increases in security measures. The latter would probably not. The middle case will cause the most consternation in regulators and facility owners.