On the evening of June 3, 2017, three assailants drove a van at high speed into crowds on the London Bridge and exited the vehicle to stab other pedestrians at the nearby Borough Market.“London Attack: Theresa May Says Enough is Enough after Seven Die,” BBC News, June 4, 2017, http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-40148737. The attack, claimed by ISIS, left at least seven people dead and 48 others wounded, and followed a call by ISIS on May 17 to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States, United Kingdom and European Union using knives and trucks.CEP, Twitter post, June 4, 2017, 3:53 p.m. EST, https://twitter.com/FightExtremism/status/871137860346404864;
“Islamic State Claims Responsibility for London Attack,” Reuters, June 4, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-security-claim-idUSKBN18V14P?il=0. On June 19, 2017, an assailant drove at a crowd of worshipers near a mosque in north London, leaving at least eight people wounded.“What We Know So Far About the Finsbury Park Terror Attack,” Guardian (London), June 19, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/jun/19/what-we-know-so-far-van-hits-pedestrians-near-london-mosque. Later that day, an armed assailant rammed his vehicle at a police car on the Champs-Elysees street in Paris, seriously injuring himself but leaving no other casualties.Henry Samuel, “Paris Police Launch Terror Investigation After Car 'Deliberately' Crashes Into Police Van On The Champs-Elysees,” Telegraph (London), June 19, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/19/police-operation-way-champs-elysees-paris/.
The attacks were part of a recent wave of vehicular ramming attacks.The U.S. Transportation and Security Agency (TSA) defines vehicle ramming as an “attack in which a perpetrator deliberately aims a motor vehicle at a target with the intent to inflict fatal injuries or significant property damage by striking with concussive force.” On March 22, 2017, terrorist assailant Khalid Masood killed five people and wounded 50 more during a vehicle and stabbing attack in LondonRobert Mendick and Emily Allen, “Khalid Masood: Everything We Know about the London Attacker,” Telegraph (London), March 27, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/03/24/khalid-masood-everything-know-london-attacker/; Kim Sengupta, “Last Message Left by Westminster Attacker Khalid Masood Uncovered by Security Agencies,” Independent (London) April 27, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/last-message-left-by-westminster-attacker-khalid-masood-uncovered-by-security-agencies-a7706561.html. . The following day, a similar attack was thwarted in Antwerp, Belgium.Milan Schreuer, “Man in Antwerp, Belgium, Tries to Drive Into Crowd,” New York Times, March 23, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/23/world/europe/antwerp-belgium-car-attack.html; Erin McLaughlin and Holly Yan, “Antwerp Police Intercept Speeding Car and Thwart ‘Attempted Terrorist Attack,’” CNN, March 23, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/23/europe/belgium-antwerp-car-intercepted/. On April 7, another assailant carried out a suspected terrorist attack, this time in Sweden, hijacking a truck and careening into crowds of pedestrians at the Ahlens Mall in Stockholm, killing four people and wounding 15 more.David Crouch and Helena Bengtsson, “Truck Drives into Crowd in Stockholm, Killing Four People,” Guardian (London), April 8, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/07/truck-crashes-in-central-stockholm-sweden. Similar ISIS-claimed attacks in Nice, Ohio, and Berlin each involved armed assailants using cars and trucks as weapons, charging at pedestrians in crowded civilian areas.Alissa J. Rubin, Lilia Blaise, Adam Nossiter, and Aurelien Breeden, “France Says Truck Attacker Was Tunisia Native With Record of Petty Crime,” New York Times, July 15, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/16/world/europe/attack-nice-bastille-day.html; Mitch Smith, Richard Perez-Pena, and Adam Goldman, “Suspect Is Killed in Attack at Ohio State University That Injured 11,” New York Times, November 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/us/active-shooter-ohio-state-university.html; “Truck Plows into Berlin Christmas Market,” Reuters, last updated December 23, 2016, http://live.reuters.com/Event/Truck_plows_into_Berlin_Christmas_market_2.
Vehicular attacks are not a new phenomenon. Terrorists have carried out car-ramming attacks for more than a decade, in locations ranging from North Carolina“Terrorist Use of Vehicle Ramming Tactics,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, December 13, 2010, https://info.publicintelligence.net/DHS-TerroristRamming.pdf. and Ohio Mitch Smith, Richard Perez-Pena, and Adam Goldman, “Suspect Is Killed in Attack at Ohio State University That Injured 11,” New York Times, November 28, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/28/us/active-shooter-ohio-state-university.html to London,Vikram Dodd and Josh Halliday, “Lee Rigby Killing: Two British Muslim Converts Convicted of Murder,” Guardian (London), December 19, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/dec/19/lee-rigby-killing-woolwich-verdict-convicted-murder. Jerusalem,Jeffrey Heller and Avida Landau, “Palestinian Kills 3 in Jerusalem Bulldozer Attack,” Reuters, July 2, 2008, http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-israel-tractor-idUKL0243020020080702. Tel Aviv,Alexander Marquardt and Bruno Nota, “Terror Attack Outside Tel Aviv Nightclub Filled With 2,000 Teenagers,” ABC News, August 29, 2011, http://abcnews.go.com/International/palestinian-drives-stolen-taxi-israelis-stabs/story?id=14403744. Quebec,Ian Austen, “Hit-and-Run That Killed Canadian Soldier Is Called Terrorist Attack,” New York Times, October 21, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/22/world/americas/canadian-soldier-run-down-in-what-officials-call-act-of-terror-dies.html. Dijon,“French Driver Reportedly Heard Yelling ‘Allahu Akbar’ Slams Pedestrians, Injures 13,” Fox News, December 22, 2014, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2014/12/22/in-tense-france-driver-rampages-in-lyon-area-slamming-into-passersby.html. Nantes,Guillaume Frouin, “Man Rams Van into Christmas Market in France,” Reuters, December 23, 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/uk-france-crash-idUKKBN0K01Q120141223. Graz,Melanie Hall, “Bosnian ‘With History Of Beating Wife’ Accused Of Ploughing Car Into Austria Crowd,” Telegraph (London), June 21, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/austria/11689726/Graz-car-attack-kills-three.html. Vienna,“Vehicle Ramming Attacks,” Transportation Security Administration, May 2017, https://info.publicintelligence.net/TSA-VehicleRamming.pdf; Lizzie Dearden, “Man Who Drove Into Pedestrians Shouting Allahu Akbar ‘Was Just Singing Along To Rap Music While Buying Pizza’ Parents Say,” Independent (London) , October 7, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/vienna-favoriten-car-ramming-attack-allahu-akbar-pizza-against-isis-rap-music-singing-cannabis-a7349876.html. Nice, “Nice Attack: What We Know about the Bastille Day Killings,” BBC News, August 19, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36801671. Xinjiang,“Vehicle Ramming Attacks,” Transportation Security Administration, May 2017, https://info.publicintelligence.net/TSA-VehicleRamming.pdf. Berlin,“Truck Plows into Berlin Christmas Market,” Reuters, last updated December 23, 2016, http://live.reuters.com/Event/Truck_plows_into_Berlin_Christmas_market_2. and Stockholm.David Crouch and Helena Bengtsson, “Truck Drives into Crowd in Stockholm, Killing Four People,” Guardian (London), April 8, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/07/truck-crashes-in-central-stockholm-sweden. The recent uptick in vehicular attacks, however, appears to have been in large part inspired by ISIS’s explicit calls to employ cars as weapons. In May 2017, the U.S. Transportation and Security Agency (TSA) issued a warning to truck and bus companies urging companies to watch out for potential vehicular terrorist assailants and listing more than a dozen car-ramming attacks since 2014 that have collectively killed more than 170 people.CEP has has added to the TSA’s findings, identifying several other terrorist incidents during this period and since 2006. As the TSA wrote in its memo, terrorists groups will likely continue to encourage "unsophisticated tactics such as vehicle-ramming" since these types of attacks are difficult to prevent and "could inflict mass casualties if successful."Jason Hanna, “TSA Warns Truckers: Watch For Possible Ramming Terror Attacks,” CNN, May 5, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/04/politics/tsa-ramming-terror-attacks-warning/.
Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Hamas Call for (and Claim) Attacks
Terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Hamas have called for or claimed responsibility for vehicular terrorist attacks in recent years. Al-Qaeda’s second issue of Inspire magazine, released in October 2010, contained an article calling for vehicular attacks and referring to a pickup truck as a potential “mowing machine” that can be used to “mow down the enemies of Allah.”Yahya Ibrahim, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” Inspire, October 2010. Inspire editor-in-chief Yahya Ibrahim urged al-Qaeda followers to “[g]o for the most crowded location” and “pick up as much speed as you can” in order “strike as many people as possible.”Yahya Ibrahim, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” Inspire, October 2010. An FBI memo released in December of that year noted the emerging danger from vehicular attacks, which may allow terrorists with “limited access to explosives or weapons” the ability to conduct an attack with “minimal prior training or experience.”“Terrorist Use of Vehicle Ramming Tactics,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, December 13, 2010, https://info.publicintelligence.net/DHS-TerroristRamming.pdf.
Other groups have since encouraged the use of motor vehicles as weapons of terror. In September 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani issued a call to kill non-believers using any means at their disposal. “[S]ingle out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of his allies,” he said. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.”Yara Bayoumy, “Isis Urges More Attacks On Western ‘Disbelievers,’” Independent (London) September 22, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/isis-urges-more-attacks-on-western-disbelievers-9749512.html. In November of that year, French foreign fighter Abu Salman al-Faranci appeared in a video reiterating ISIS’s call for followers—particularly in France—to carry out domestic attacks if they could not join ISIS abroad. As Faranci said to his viewers: “Terrorize them and do not allow them to sleep due to fear and horror. There are weapons and cars available and targets ready to be hit.”Duncan Gardham, “ISIL Issued Warning to ‘Filthy French,’” Politico, November 15, 2015, http://www.politico.eu/article/paris-terrorist-attacks-isil-issued-warning-to-filthy-french/.
CEP has documented 31 vehicular terrorist attacks since 2006, collectively resulting in the deaths of at least 170 people and the injury of at least 909 others.
In mid-November 2016, ISIS’s third issue of online magazine Rumiyah included an article calling for its followers to carry out vehicle attacks. The article specified the ideal type, weight, and speed of a car needed for terror purposes, and encouraged attacks on “large outdoor conventions and celebrations, pedestrian-congested streets, outdoor markets, festivals, festivals, parades[, and] political rallies.”“Just Terror Attacks,” Rumiyah, November 2016. Later that month, Somali-born Abdul Razak Ali Artan carried out a car and knife attack at Ohio State University, wounding 11 people. Katie Mettler, “Ohio State Attacker Complained Bitterly in Facebook Post of Treatment of Muslims ‘Everywhere,’ Report Says,” https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2016/11/29/ohio-state-attacker-in-facebook-post-complained-bitterly-of-treatment-of-muslims-everywhere-reports-say/.
Following the wave of vehicular terrorist attacks in 2016 and 2017, ISIS has continued to issue calls to violence and warnings of additional car-ramming attacks. On May 17, 2017, the group released a video threatening attacks in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the United States, especially in New York, Las Vegas, and Washington, D.C. ISIS has also threatened and encouraged vehicular attacks on gay pride parades.“We Will Surely Guide Them To Our Ways,” Islamic State Wilayah Ninawa, May 17, 2017; CEP, Twitter post, June 4, 2017, 3:53 p.m. EST, https://twitter.com/FightExtremism/status/871137860346404864. In June 2017, an account operating under the name of ISIS’s Nashir agency released a renewed call for ISIS supporters to “[r]un over people by vehicles and [c]ut off their necks in any time [sic].”Counter Extremism Project.
ISIS and al-Qaeda are not the only terrorist groups to urge or claim credit for vehicular terrorist attacks. One of the first documented vehicular attacks was carried out by an unaffiliated Iranian-American, who wounded nine people at the University of North Carolina in 2006.“Terrorist Use of Vehicle Ramming Tactics,” Federal Bureau of Investigation, December 13, 2010, https://info.publicintelligence.net/DHS-TerroristRamming.pdf. As the assailant Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar told investigators, he had had carried out the attack in an effort to punish the U.S. government and “avenge the deaths or murders of Muslims around the world.”Associated Press, “Man Is Charged After Driving Into Group of Students,” New York Times, March 5, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/05/us/man-is-charged-after-driving-into-group-of-students.html.
A slew of car-ramming attacks have also been carried out by Palestinian assailants in Israel and the West Bank. In November of 2014, Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups—including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ)—praised a wave of vehicular attacks and called for more. One such image posted online read, “Run [them] over, son of Hebron...and son of Jerusalem. Take your car...and run over the Zionists.”“Vehicular Attack in Jerusalem,” Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, November 6, 2014, http://www.terrorism-info.org.il/en/articleprint.aspx?id=20726.
Recent Vehicular Terrorist Attacks
Terrorists have carried out attacks using cars and trucks in a wide range of countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Canada, China, Germany, Israel, and Belgium. In some cases, assailants have used gas canisters or other explosives to supplement the potential damage from car-ramming attacks. This type of planning could be seen in the June 2007 Islamist attack targeting Glasgow Airport in Scotland,Associated Press, “4 Arrested In Glasgow Incident; Officials Link It To London Events,” USA Today, July 1, 2007, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2007-06-30-britain-saturday_N.htm. the May 2014 attack in China’s Xinjiang province,“Vehicle Ramming Attacks,” Transportation Security Administration, May 2017, https://info.publicintelligence.net/TSA-VehicleRamming.pdf. and the June 2015 attack on a gas plant in southern France. “France Attack: Man Decapitated at Factory near Lyon,” BBC News, June 26, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-33284937.
In other cases, extremists have managed to launch deadly or harmful vehicular attacks using low-sophistication tactics like car-ramming and stabbing. CEP has documented more than two dozen vehicular terrorist attacks since 2000. Of these, the single deadliest attack was the July 2016 Bastille Day attack in Nice, when terrorist assailant Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel killed 86 people and wounded 434 more at Nice’s Promenade Des Anglais.“Nice Attack: What We Know about the Bastille Day Killings,” BBC News, August 19, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36801671; “Vehicle Ramming Attacks,” Transportation Security Administration, May 2017, https://info.publicintelligence.net/TSA-VehicleRamming.pdf.
As the TSA notes, vehicular terrorist attacks are becoming “more commonplace around the globe.”Jason Hanna, “TSA Warns Truckers: Watch for Possible Ramming Terror Attacks,” CNN, May 5, 2017, http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/04/politics/tsa-ramming-terror-attacks-warning/. Indeed, terrorists are increasingly relying on low-sophistication tactics like car-ramming and stabbing to kill or injure large groups of people without easy detection or intervention by law enforcement. These assailants often target locations where large numbers of people congregate, particularly on or around major national holidays, when civilians are likely to be outdoors shopping or celebrating.For more on common terror targets, see CEP’s report, Terror Targets in the West: Where and Why.
Although there is little that can be done to prevent the weaponization of motor vehicles, the TSA has encouraged bus and trucking companies to be vigilant about indicators—like modifications to vehicles—that may suggest a vehicular terrorist attack. The TSA has also encouraged the use of vehicle barriers to prevent vehicles from accelerating into populated areas, protecting large crowds of people from attacks at outdoor venues like concerts, sporting events, and holiday markets.“Vehicle Ramming Attacks,” Transportation Security Administration, May 2017, https://info.publicintelligence.net/TSA-VehicleRamming.pdf.
As CEP notes, far more can also be done by tech companies to counteract calls to violence by groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hamas. After the March 2017 Westminster attack, YouTube was “inundated with violent ISIS recruitment videos,” according to findings by the U.K. government. The British government noted that YouTube failed to block this slew of content, despite the videos being easily searchable and posted under usernames like “Islamic Caliphate.”“Hate Crime: Abuse, Hate and Extremism Online Fourteenth Report of Session 2016–17,” U.K. House of Commons Home Affairs Committee, May 1, 2017, https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmhaff/609/609.pdf. After the June 2017 London Bridge attack, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May called for increased regulation on the Internet, where terrorist recruitment and incitement to violence largely takes place remotely.“Theresa May Says the Internet Must Now Be Regulated Following London Bridge Terror Attack,” Independent (London), June 4, 2017, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-internet-regulated-london-bridge-terror-attack-google-facebook-whatsapp-borough-security-a7771896.html.
In many cases, assailants themselves are active on tech platforms prior to carrying out the attack. Abdul Razak Ali Artan, perpetrator of the November 2016 Ohio State University attack, called al-Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki “our hero” in a message posted to Facebook.Jake Trapper, Twitter post, November 28, 2016, 5:56 p.m., https://twitter.com/jaketapper/status/803417243547799552. Khalid Masood, perpetrator of the March 2017 Westminster attack, sent a message on WhatsApp announcing his intention to wage jihad minutes before launching his assault.Rozina Sabur, “Westminster Terror Attacker Khalid Masood's Final Message Revealed,” Telegraph (London), April 28, 2017, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/28/westminster-terror-attacker-khalid-masoods-final-message-revealed/.
While it is impossible to prevent all vehicular terrorist attacks, more can and should be done to reduce the threat. Tech companies, for one, can do far more to prevent groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, and Hamas from using their platforms to recruit new members and reach their target audiences. These companies can also be more proactive and cooperative with law enforcement about the activity of lone-wolf terrorists on their platforms. Although we cannot prevent each and every vehicular attack, efforts to prevent even a few attacks can have the foreseeably large impact of reducing widespread fear and, most importantly, saving lives.