Vehicle attacks a major challenge
Terror tactic easy to pull o≠, hard to stop
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.