on security

Stopping Vehicular Attacks in Their Tracks

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
8 MINS READNov 17, 2016 | 08:00 GMT
Police officers stand near the truck used to plow through a crowd in Nice, France, on July 14. Based on the rampage's success, the Islamic State's Rumiyah magazine has encouraged the group's followers to conduct more attacks using large, paneled trucks.
Police officers stand near the truck used to plow through a crowd in Nice, France, on July 14. Based on the rampage's success, the Islamic State's Rumiyah magazine has encouraged the group's followers to conduct more attacks using large, paneled trucks.

The most recent edition of the Islamic State's Rumiyah magazine is causing an international stir. Rumiyah, which means "Rome" in Arabic, released its third installment on Nov. 11. The publication appears to have replaced the Islamic State's Dabiq magazine, likely an attempt on the group's part to shift its followers' attention from Dabiq — a Syrian town steeped in religious symbolism that the Islamic State was on the verge of losing — to prophecies centering on Rome. Unsurprisingly, the new magazine's tagline trumpets the following quote from Islamic State in Iraq leader Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir: "O muwahhidin (mujahideen) rejoice, for by Allah, we will not rest from our jihad except beneath the olive trees of Rumiyah (Rome)."

The content in Rumiyah's latest edition has raised eyebrows for a number of reasons. Not only does it contain threats against Turkey, perhaps reflecting just how deeply Ankara's operations in northern Syria have cut into the Islamic State's supply lines, but it also includes a translation of a statement from the group's top leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The feature that has drawn the most attention, however, is an article encouraging the group's followers to conduct more vehicular assaults. The magazine even included guidance on how to successfully launch such an attack, echoing the second edition of al Qaeda's Inspire magazine. The article went on to highlight the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and other large public gatherings as prime targets, generating a good deal of concern among security professionals worldwide. But it is important to remember that the vehicular attack is not a new tactic and has just as many weaknesses as it does strengths.

A Decade of Destruction

Vehicular assaults reappeared in the headlines in July when an Islamic State sympathizer drove a truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France. But the tactic is actually a decade older, first appearing in March 2006 when a grassroots jihadist drove an SUV into a group of students at the University of North Carolina to avenge Muslim deaths overseas.

Two years later, use of the tactic spread. In summer 2008, Palestinian militants frustrated by their inability to smuggle bombs into Israel conducted a number of vehicular attacks against targets inside Israel, even using two earthmovers in the process. They have relied on this approach ever since, and according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the country witnessed 48 vehicular assaults between Sept. 13, 2015, and Nov. 1, 2016. Similar assaults began to take place elsewhere. In August 2008, Uighur militants in China's restive Xinjiang province plowed a large truck into a formation of police officers. The assailants then slammed the vehicle into a police station and began attacking its occupants with knives and grenades, killing 16 people. Five years later, Uighur militants conducted a similar operation in Tiananmen Square that left five dead, including three of the perpetrators inside the vehicle.

Continents away, two jihadists ran down and knifed British soldier Lee Rigby in May 2013, killing him near his unit's barracks in Woolwich, a district of London. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which had promoted vehicular assaults in an earlier edition of its own magazine, hailed the Rigby murder as proof of its global influence. Not long after, in October 2014, a man ran two Canadian soldiers over with his car in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, killing one before being shot dead himself by police. This time, however, the perpetrator claimed to have acted on behalf of the Islamic State instead of al Qaeda.

As 2014 came to a close, two more vehicular assaults hit French cities on Dec. 21-22. The first attack occurred in Dijon, while the second targeted a Christmas market in Nantes, killing one person and injuring 11 more. Nearly six months later, Austria, too, was dealt a blow when a vehicular assault in Graz resulted in three deaths and 36 injuries.

An Accidental Success

Despite these tragedies, the Rumiyah magazine's claim that vehicular assaults are among the most lethal forms of attack is far from true. In fact, most result in relatively modest death tolls, and many of the Israeli assaults have led to no deaths at all. (In Israel, more people have been killed by armed assaults or suicide bombings than by vehicular assaults.)

Only two incidents in which vehicles were the primary weapon of choice have produced double-digit fatalities. The first was the assault in Xinjiang, which also involved knives and grenades. The second was the July 2016 attack in Nice, the deadliest vehicular assault the world has seen. The attack left 86 dead and over 400 more injured, thanks in large part to a combination of circumstances that worked in the attacker's favor. First, the celebration site — a long, straight stretch of road with no obstacles and a crowd of people — was an ideal venue for a vehicular assault. Moreover, the perpetrator was able to get his hands on a heavy delivery truck with a powerful engine that could move at high speeds. The truck also gave the suspect a pretext to bypass security and stay inside the cordon as he pretended to make a delivery. Once he began his murderous run, police had few means by which to stop the truck while bystanders, stuck in dense crowds, had few escape routes.

It should come as no surprise that in places such as Syria, Iraq or Libya, where more effective killing tools such as weapons or explosives are easier to obtain, militants have eschewed vehicular assaults. But when attackers' options are limited, as is true of many Palestinian militants and grassroots jihadists in the West, they may be forced to rely on less deadly weapons such as knives and vehicles.

As Rumiyah (and Inspire magazine before it) noted, an advantage of vehicular assaults is that the means of attack are legal and easier to obtain than guns or explosives.

To obtain their weapon, those plotting such attacks do not have to take the kinds of risks that make them vulnerable to detection and arrest. Furthermore, vehicles can be borrowed or rented, making an attack relatively inexpensive. (Rumiyah, for example, suggested using a rented moving truck.) This approach is not without precedent: Rental trucks were used to carry out both the 1993 World Trade Center and 1995 Oklahoma City bombings, as well as in the Nice attack.

Based on the success of the rampage in Nice, Rumiyah recommended that would-be assailants rely on big, paneled trucks. By comparison, the 2010 edition of Inspire magazine suggested buying a large, four-wheel drive pickup and welding butcher blades to the bumper, a sight that would almost certainly attract attention from authorities.

Putting the Brakes on Vehicular Attacks

Attackers using legal vehicles may not be as vulnerable to detection during the weapons acquisition phase of the terrorist attack cycle as with other methods, but they still have to complete several other steps in planning an assault. And as they do, they will open themselves up to discovery and arrest. For instance, any plotter would have to conduct preoperational surveillance, visiting a planned attack site in person to determine how to approach it, what obstacles could block them, how traffic flows in the area and where pedestrians could be hit. Security forces keeping an eye out for this type of activity should be able to spot grassroots operatives fairly easily, considering that they typically display poor surveillance tradecraft.

Law enforcement agencies can also warn rental companies to stay alert for suspicious characters looking to obtain certain types of vehicles. The largest truck a person without a commercial driver's license can rent in the United States is a Class 6 vehicle, which can weigh up to 11,800 kilograms (26,000 pounds). Anything bigger requires a deeper vetting process and a commercial license, which suggests that someone following Rumiyah's guidelines for plotting a vehicular attack would likely stick with a Class 6 vehicle or smaller. Authorities could likewise carefully inspect vehicles before permitting them to enter secure perimeters. Strategically deploying spike strips along potential attack routes can halt an assault as well. (The perpetrator behind the Nice attack was able to drive for more than 1.5 kilometers, or a mile, before his killing spree was cut short.)

People can take steps to protect themselves from vehicular attacks. The first is to practice good situational awareness anytime you are on the street, particularly in crowded areas. That is key, because the quicker you recognize that an attack is underway, the more time you have to avoid it. In the event that a vehicular assault happens in your vicinity, run at a right angle away from the vehicle and try to put objects such as buildings, trees, lampposts, fire hydrants and garbage bins between yourself and the attacker. Vehicular assaults can be deadly, but they are not an ideal method of attack, and with the right precautions, they can be stopped in their tracks.

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