Does homicide come any simpler than this? Get behind the wheel of a vehicle – the heavier, the better – find a crowded environment and start running through the crowd. Forget intricate planning, difficult logistics, false documents and all the other intricacies of big-league terrorism, just go!
The full panoply of Western counter-terrorism measures are geared towards halting big-league terrorism. We endlessly monitor the internet and eavesdrop on cell-phones across the world – looking for hints of an attack. Legions of investigators and analysts pounce on every scrap of information and we rush to prevent major attacks from occurring.
But what are we to do with lone individuals whose decision to attack may even be on the impulse of the moment? How are we given early warning of an attacker who doesn’t bother to garner firearms or mix explosives, who doesn’t seem to confer (usually) with his confederates or conduct detailed reconnaissance and rehearsals of their attack?
On March 3rd, 2006 Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar took an SUV and drove it into a crowd of students at the University of North Carolina’s Chapel Hill campus, injuring nine people. In August that year, Omeed Azis Popal went on a spree with an SUV in San Francisco and ran over 18 people. Authorities might not have taken much notice, but the world of terrorism did. A pair of attacks soon followed in Jerusalem in 2008.
By 2010, the late Anwar al-Awlaki of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula advocated the tactic in his ‘How to’ internet magazine along with some tips on how to make the tactic more lethal.
Admittedly, some Jihadis still prefer an old-fashioned approach and will use a vehicle to open an attack before dismounting and stabbing the stricken. Assorted Palestinians made use of the tactic in Israel in 2011-2014, London witnessed the savage murder of Lee Rigby in 2013, and Canada saw the murder of WO Patrice Vincent in 2014.
The use of a heavy transport truck on the crowded Promenade des Anglais in Nice on Bastille Day in 2016 marked the full arrival of the tactic. The terrorist killed 86 people in his attack and 434 were injured. Notice was served to every aspiring terrorist in the world. So far in 2017, we have seen lethal incidents in Jerusalem, London, Antwerp and Stockholm. We are going to see a lot more.
Lone Jihadists are already exploiting gaps in our defences, particularly if they keep their mouths shut and stay off the internet before delivering their attack. Passive defences – crowd control barriers and anti-vehicle bollards – have limited effectiveness.
What defences do work? The Israelis have found that gun-fire does once an attack begins; all we have to do is ensure a lot more people are routinely armed. No doubt this will be a popular solution in political circles…
As an alternative, perhaps politicians might like to embrace a variation on collective responsibility. The Jihad is, after all, a political ideology as well as a religion. Ignore the religion and attack the ideology; perhaps with the automatic summary deportation of Salafists, Muslim Brotherhood members and Wahhabis in response to every attack.
This might not sound attractive either, but as vehicular terrorist attacks continue to increase, the demand for action of some kind is going to grow stronger and stronger.