Ve­hi­cle at­tacks a ma­jor chal­lenge

Ter­ror tac­tic easy to pull o≠, hard to stop

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Do­minique Soguel

basel, switzer­land» In the bat­tle­fields of Syria and Iraq, the Is­lamic State group be­came in­fa­mous for its spec­tac­u­lar variations on ex­plo­sive ve­hi­cles. For at­tacks in the West, it has sug­gested a sim­pler method, en­cour­ag­ing fol­low­ers to use reg­u­lar ve­hi­cles to kill peo­ple on foot.

Ex­perts say at­tacks in which cars or trucks are driven into pop­u­lar pedes­trian ar­eas present a unique chal­lenge for law en­force­ment of­fi­cials as they are nearly im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict and easy to pull off. They re­quire no ad­vanced train­ing, no spe­cial­ized ma­te­ri­als. Al­most any­one can own or rent a ve­hi­cle.

Some feel that these lowtech, lone wolf op­er­a­tions can have the same psy­cho­log­i­cal im­pact as larger, more sen­sa­tional at­tacks.

Four peo­ple were killed and dozens wounded Wed­nes­day in Lon­don with this tac­tic — the worst at­tack on Bri­tish soil since the trans­port net­work bombings on July 7, 2005.

Char­lie Win­ter, a se­nior re­search fel­low at the Lon­don­based In­ter­na­tional Cen­tre for the Study of Rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion and Po­lit­i­cal Vi­o­lence, says what makes such at­tacks so fright­en­ing is the rel­a­tively low bar­ri­ers to en­try. The method was em­braced by alQaeda be­fore be­ing re­vi­tal­ized by the Is­lamic State.

“It makes for a very ef­fec­tive un­so­phis­ti­cated high im­pact, very fright­en­ing form of an op­er­a­tion,” he said. “You don’t need to know some­one who can make you a bomb or buy you a gun in or­der to carry out an at­tack. It’s a very dif­fi­cult thing to fight against. There is no quick fix.”

Bri­tish au­thor­i­ties on Thurs­day iden­ti­fied Khalid Ma­sood as the man who mowed down pedes­tri­ans with an SUV and stabbed a po­lice­man to death out­side Par­lia­ment. The Bri­tish cit­i­zen wasn’t on a ter­ror­ism watch list, al­though he was once in­ves­ti­gated for ex­trem­ism. The Is­lamic State claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack, say­ing he was a “sol­dier” that an­swered its call to at­tack na­tions in the coali­tion fight­ing the Is­lamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Rita Katz, di­rec­tor of the SITE In­tel­li­gence group, says it’s nearly im­pos­si­ble for law en­force­ment to stop Is­lamic State-in­spired at­tacks, es­pe­cially ve­hic­u­larstyle ones like the one in Lon­don. Since 2014, this sim­ple but ef­fec­tive at­tack has been pro­moted in Is­lamic State pro­pa­ganda on­line.

“It’s not a style of at­tack that you can mon­i­tor by in­creas­ing se­cu­rity and in­tel on who has weapons or other at­ten­tion-grab­bing vari­ables,” Katz said. “Ev­ery car sud­denly turns into a pos­si­ble weapon, so it’s re­ally very dif­fi­cult to stop.”

Ve­hi­cle at­tacks, like knife at­tacks, are ag­gres­sively pro­moted by the Is­lamic State and its on­line sup­port­ers. In its Novem­ber is­sue of its on­line mag­a­zine Ru­miyah, the Is­lamic State ex­tolled the virtues of the car as a weapon and sug­gested the Macy’s Thanks­giv­ing Day Pa­rade in New York as a pos­si­ble tar­get.

“Ve­hi­cles are like knives, as they are ex­tremely easy to ac­quire,” points out the on­line mag­a­zine is­sue. “But un­like knives, which if found in one’s pos­ses­sion can be a cause for sus­pi­cion, ve­hi­cles arouse ab­so­lutely no doubts due to their wide­spread use.”

Two weeks later, an Ohio State Univer­sity stu­dent rammed his car into pedes­tri­ans on cam­pus and then got out and started stab­bing peo­ple with a butcher knife be­fore be­ing gunned down by a po­lice of­fi­cer. The Is­lamic State claimed the at­tack, which wounded 11.

The dev­as­tat­ing po­ten­tial of such vi­o­lence was dra­mat­i­cally il­lus­trated last sum­mer in the French beach town of Nice when a cargo truck took to the crowds cel­e­brat­ing Bastille Day in an at­tack that left 86 peo­ple dead and hun­dreds wounded. A truck was also used in last year’s Christ­mas mar­ket at­tack in Ber­lin that killed 12 peo­ple, in­clud­ing the driver of the truck that was com­man­deered.

In the Lon­don at­tack Wed­nes­day, the weapon of choice was an SUV. Katz sees the sim­i­lar­i­ties of these at­tacks as ev­i­dence that Is­lamic State pro­pa­ganda is tak­ing hold and that more needs to be done to counter it. Ex­perts say these at­tacks are gain­ing trac­tion pre­cisely be­cause au­thor­i­ties have their de­fenses up.

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