Understanding and Mitigating the Vehicular Assault Threat

Understanding and Mitigating the Vehicular Assault Threat
January 19, 2024 sdcpm
Vehicular Assault Threat - TorchStone Global

Understanding and Mitigating the Vehicular Assault Threat

By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart

On January 15, two Palestinian men armed with knives launched an attack in which they reportedly stabbed the owners of three vehicles and then used the stolen vehicles to run over pedestrians in the Israeli city of Ra’anana. The attacks wounded at least 17 people and resulted in the death of a 79-year-old woman. The incident occurred shortly after students were released from school for the day and seven of the victims were children and teens.

The two suspects were arrested and identified as men from a small town near Hebron in the West Bank. Hamas has claimed credit for the attack, although statements made by the men to Israeli authorities appear to indicate the pair were self-directed Hamas sympathizers, rather than operatives acting under direct Hamas control.  The men reportedly told interrogators that they initially discussed conducting knife attacks but later decided to use vehicles to create a larger number of victims.

Vehicular assaults have been a staple of Palestinian terrorism in Israel since the summer of 2008, and scores of such attacks have been conducted in Israel since that time. However, vehicular assaults are not limited by any means to Israel, and militants have used them in terrorist attacks in North America, Europe, and China.

Like any form of attack, vehicular assaults do not appear out of a vacuum—they are the result of an attack cycle that can be detected and thwarted. Furthermore, there are steps that people can take to protect themselves from such attacks.

A Selective History of Vehicular Assaults

While criminals and unstable individuals have used vehicles in assaults for many years now—the high-profile 1995 tank rampage in San Diego comes readily to mind—the first use of a vehicle in an intentional terrorist attack in recent time that I can recall was a March 2006 incident in which a grassroots jihadist drove a Jeep Cherokee into a group of students at the University of North Carolina to avenge Muslim deaths overseas.

The tactic spread to Israel in the summer of 2008, when Palestinian militants frustrated by their inability to smuggle bombs into Israel conducted a string of vehicular assaults against targets inside Israel. Two of the attacks even involved the use of heavy construction equipment instead of passenger vehicles. Since that time, Palestinian militants have conducted scores of vehicular assaults targeting Israelis.

August 2008 Uighur militants in Kashgar, a city in China’s restive Xinjiang province, slammed a large cargo truck into a formation of police officers as they were on a morning run. The assailants then drove the vehicle through the front doors of a police station and began attacking its occupants with knives and grenades. The final death toll from the attack was 16 with another 16 injured. Five years later, Uighur militants conducted a vehicular assault against the crowd in Tiananmen Square that left five dead, including three of the perpetrators.

October 2010 Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine seized on the idea of vehicular assaults in its second edition. In an article titled “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” the author recommended that grassroots jihadists buy a large pickup truck and weld butcher blades to the bumper to “mow down the enemies of Allah.”

May 2013 Two jihadists ran down British soldier Lee Rigby with a vehicle and then attacked him with knives, killing him near his unit’s barracks in Woolwich, a district of London. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed the attackers were following the instructions provided in Inspire and hailed the Rigby murder as proof of the group’s global influence.

October 2014 A grassroots jihadist ran two Canadian soldiers over with his car in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, killing one before being shot dead by police. Instead of being motivated by al Qaeda, the attacker claimed to have acted on behalf of the Islamic State, which was rising in prominence that year.

As 2014 came to a close, two more Islamic State-inspired vehicular assaults occurred in France. The first attack occurred on December 21 in Dijon in which 5 people were wounded, two of them seriously. The second attack targeted shoppers at a Christmas market in Nantes, on December 22, killing one person and injuring 11 others.

Vehicular assaults leaped back into public consciousness in July 2016 when an Islamic State sympathizer drove a heavy truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France. The attack was the deadliest vehicular assault ever, killing 86 and wounding over 400 others.

December 19, 2016 Another significant attack occurred when an Islamic State supporter shot and stabbed a truck driver dead who was resting at a truck stop and then used the stolen truck to plow into crowds at one of Berlin’s Christmas markets, killing 12 pedestrians and injuring another 55.

March 2017 Central London was rocked by a vehicular assault. The driver hit and killed four pedestrians on Westminster Bridge before crashing his vehicle outside the British Parliament and stabbing a police officer to death before being shot dead. The British Parliament was the site of a second vehicular assault in August of 2018 that injured three.

April 2017 An Uzbek Islamic State supporter drove a truck into a department store in Stockholm Sweden, killing five.

October 31, 2017 An Islamic State supporter drove a rented pickup truck for approximately one mile down a bike path in lower Manhattan, striking runners, and bicyclists. The attack killed 8 and injured 11 others.

A white supremacist drove a vehicle through a crowd of anti-Fascist protesters on August 12, 2017, in Charlottesville, VA, killing one and injuring 35. The attack is a reminder that terrorist tactics can be used by extremists radicalized by any ideology, as was the April 2018 attack by an Incel extremist who drove a van through crowded sidewalks in downtown Toronto, killing 11 and injuring an additional 15.

In another non-jihadist attack, an Aum Shinrikyo supporter conducted a vehicular assault against a crowd near a Tokyo shrine on January 1, 2019.  He claimed the attack was retaliation for the execution of an Aum Shinrikyo leader involved in the group’s deadly terror campaign in the 1990s.

June 6, 2021 A white supremacist used his pickup truck to run down a Pakistani family standing at an intersection in London Ontario, killing 4 and wounding one.

September 2022 A left-wing extremist conducted a vehicular assault against a street festival in McHenry, North Dakota, killing an 18-year-old man he claimed was a member of a “Republican extremist group.”

Not the Weapon of First Choice

While the Islamic State’s online Rumiyah magazine has claimed vehicular assaults are among the most lethal forms of attack, that claim is far from true. While tragic and traumatic, most vehicular assaults result in relatively modest death tolls. Many of the assaults in Israel have produced no fatalities and far more Israelis have been killed by armed assaults or suicide bombings than by vehicular assaults.

In locations where it is relatively easy to obtain firearms and explosives, attackers prefer these more deadly tools. Still, in places where it is difficult to obtain them, such as China, Europe, and Israel, vehicles are a less desirable, though more readily available weapon. Indeed, Rumiyah and Inspire magazines have both noted that one advantage of vehicular assaults is that the means of attack are legal and easier to obtain than guns or explosives in many places.

This means that those plotting vehicular assaults face less risk during the weapons acquisition phase of their attack cycle and are thus less vulnerable to detection and arrest. Furthermore, vehicles can be stolen, borrowed, or rented, making an attack relatively inexpensive to conduct. For example, the two assailants in the January 15 Ra’anana attack only needed to acquire two knives before launching their attack.

Vehicular assaults that have created double-digit death tolls tend to include large trucks, such as those used in the Xinjiang and Berlin attacks. However, a lighter vehicle can occasionally create a large casualty count like in Toronto, when there was a relatively heavy crowd of people on the sidewalk and few places to escape from the vehicle. The Westminster Bridge attack also occurred in a place where pedestrians were channeled and had very little chance of escape.

The deadliest vehicular assault of all, the July 2016 attack in Nice involved both a heavy truck and a long straight stretch of road packed with people celebrating a major national holiday. Once the Nice attacker began his assault, he was able to achieve a high rate of speed. There were no obstacles to stop him, and he was able to drive his heavy truck through a densely packed crowd for over a mile before finally being stopped when police shot him dead.

Based on the success of the rampage in Nice, Rumiyah recommended that would-be assailants obtain large trucks for attacks. However, one constraint on that recommendation is that it is difficult for an inexperienced person to drive a large truck, and those wishing to rent a large truck typically require a commercial driver’s license. Another constraint is that in many cities, large trucks are only allowed to travel into the city during hours when there tends to be limited pedestrian traffic.  Consequently, we have seen follow-on attacks that involved smaller vehicles, like the rented pickup used in the October 2017 Manhattan attack.

Protecting Yourself from Vehicular Assaults

Although individuals are unlikely to be able to spot attackers as they progress through their attack cycle (although authorities may) there are still things individuals can do to protect themselves from vehicular attacks.

One key step is adopting the proper mindset. This entails recognizing the fact that vehicular assaults are a very real, though uncommon threat, and that you must maintain an appropriate level of situational awareness when you are in a location where an attack is possible, such as a crowd on the street in a big city. When in such locations I also recommend mentally noting things that could provide protection from a vehicle and potential avenues of escape.

Situational awareness is an important component of attack recognition—and the quicker someone recognizes an attack is occurring, the more time they will have to take action to avoid the threat. Indicators of a vehicular assault can include an engine revving, tires screeching, crashes, and people running and screaming.

In the event of a vehicular assault, most people will struggle to outrun a vehicle in a straight line, so it is best to run at a right angle away from the path of the vehicle. Vehicles, especially large trucks struggle to change direction rapidly. Potential victims should also consciously attempt to put objects such as buildings, trees, lampposts, fire hydrants, garbage bins and even parked vehicles between themselves and the path of the attacking vehicle.

If the vehicle crashes and stops, it is best to continue to move away from it because the driver could emerge from the disabled vehicle with a knife or other weapon and begin to attack bystanders.

As always, even if you are wounded, you should continue to move away from the scene of the attack, rather than stay put and get run over if the vehicle is put into reverse or get attacked if the driver leaves the vehicle.

The world is and always has been a dangerous place—vehicular assaults are merely one of the threats facing people today. Vehicular assaults can be deadly, but they are not an ideal method of attack. By understanding what vehicular assaults are and how they work, people can take steps to avoid them—or at least mitigate their impact.