By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student
On Halloween 2017, a horrific terrorist attack took place in New York City. Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old man inspired by the Islamic State, drove a rented pickup truck down a crowded bike path along the Hudson River. After crashing into a school bus, he got out of the truck and began chasing after pedestrians with two guns – later determined to be a paintball gun and a pellet gun. This attack killed 8 and wounded 11, the deadliest terrorist attack in New York City since September 11. Vehicle ramming attacks are brutal, effective, and hard to anticipate or defend against.
In this article, the term “vehicle ramming attacks” (hereafter, VRAs) encompasses any terrorist attack that utilizes the kinetic force of a vehicle to strike its target. This excludes vehicle-borne explosive devices. Some data sets use a broader definition of “vehicle” than I will use here. For example, the University of Maryland Global Terrorism Database considers the September 11th attacks an example of a VRA because the kinetic force of an airplane was used against several targets. This article examines attacks with land vehicles, such as cars, trucks, tractors, and buses, in order to understand how extremists with limited means can still perpetrate a devastating attack with relatively few resources.
The publicly available information from the Global Terrorism Database contains records of VRAs from 1970 through 2018. Because the scope of this analysis is limited to attacks with land vehicles, records that involved planes and helicopters were eliminated, leaving a total of 146 incidents. The charts below show key trends in the number of attacks over time, as well as perpetrators and locations.
VRAs were a relatively rare occurrence from 1970 to 2013. The first spike in VRAs took place in Israel and the West Bank from 2014-2015, followed by a second spike with origins in North America and Western Europe in 2016. The 2014-2015 spike can be attributed to a larger “wave of terror,” where a combination of deteriorating economic conditions and setbacks in Israel-Palestine peace negotiations led to a sharp increase in attacks by Palestinians against Israeli targets. A trend toward unsophisticated tactics and weapons led to a rise in vehicular attacks, perpetrated by individuals motivated by a nationalist struggle.
The second spike captured by the Global Terrorism Database can be attributed mainly to jihadists, particularly those claiming allegiance to the Islamic State. References to vehicle ramming attacks can be found in jihadist sources going back, at least, to 2010, when al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula called on supporters via their magazine Inspireto use this tactic. However, such attacks were sporadic until the Islamic State began losing territory and encouraging its supporters to conduct retaliatory strikes in Western countries. The first attack in this vein was the 2016 attack in Nice, France, which killed 12 and wounded 67. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for this attack and used it as an example for what its followers could achieve. This attack kicked off a wave of similar attacks in countries around the world, including the United States, Sweden, Austria, Spain, the United Kingdom, and Germany.
Several researchers have suggested that vehicle ramming as a tactic has spread like a virus, largely through media and social media networks: “the coverage of VRAs in the media and in online discussion forums on websites has encouraged others, often with wholly different political and religious motives, to engage in VRAs.” This theory may explain why jihadists were responsible for the second spike of VRAs across North America and Western Europe in 2015, and why white supremacists and other far-right extremists in the US have shown increasing interest in the tactic since 2017.
In 2017, white supremacist James Fields drove into a crowd of anti-racism demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one. This incident was a harbinger of vehicle-based violence against protestors in the United States. Ari Weil, a researcher with the University of Chicago’s Project on Security and Threats, has found at least 104 incidents of people driving vehicles into protests in the United States from May 27 (the start of protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s death) through September 5. While all these actions have targeted anti-racism protestors, the motivations of the perpetrators differ from case to case, and more will become known as these cases are investigated and prosecuted. The image below presents a meme that circulated widely across Facebook in favor of these attacks against protestors.
Using a vehicle as a kinetic weapon has several key advantages that will continue to be attractive to violent extremists. First, vehicles are more accessible than numerous other types of weapons – many people own a vehicle or can easily rent one. There is no assembly require, unlike with vehicle-borne explosives, where the bomb must be manufactured and the vehicle may need to be modified. Additionally, no special expertise is required other than the ability to operate the car, and generally the attack can be carried out with little expense. These features make vehicles particularly appealing to lone-actor terrorists, who can easily carry out such an attack on their own. Vehicles are also chosen because they are effective, both in casualties and psychological impact. Several VRAs recorded in the Global Terrorism Database caused double-digit fatalities, and in one case over 100 people were injured. A final attractive aspect of VRAs is that they allow for follow-up attacks. In several cases, after the vehicle was driven into its target, the perpetrator exited the vehicle with another weapon and attacked the crowd.
Defending against VRAs is difficult. Vehicles are highly accessible and used by millions of people every day. Additionally, there are generally very few indicators that someone is planning to commit a VRA. More complex terrorist attacks tend to have multiple points of interception – perpetrators discussing the attacks online, conducting surveillance, or making purchases of suspicious materials. But VRAs are generally conducted by a single person, with little forewarning and little opportunity to interdict the attack. Therefore, risk mitigation tends to focus on hardening security by identifying likely targets and adding barriers and additional security personnel.