Throughout the world, terrorist entities and radical Islamic jihadist groups, such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State (ISIS) are adopting newer tactics of terrorist acts. Two of the most recent tactics terrorists are using are: vehicle ramming or car-ramming attacks and using liquid explosive gels hidden inside vehicle tires.
A vehicle-ramming attack is an assault in which a perpetrator deliberately rams a vehicle into a building, crowd of people, or another vehicle. According to Stratfor Global Intelligence analysts, this attack represents a relatively new militant tactic which could prove more difficult to prevent than suicide bombings.
Deliberate vehicle-ramming into a crowd of people is a tactic used by terrorists, becoming a major terrorist tactic in the 2010s because it requires little skill to perpetrate, cars and trucks are widely available, and it has the potential to cause significant casualties. Deliberate vehicle-ramming has also been carried out in the course of other types of crimes, including road rage incidents. Deliberate vehicle-ramming incidents have also sometimes been ascribed to the driver’s psychiatric disorder.
Vehicles have also been used by attackers to breach buildings with locked gates, before detonating explosives, as in the Saint-Quentin-Fallavier attack.
According to the American Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the tactic has gained popularity because “Vehicle ramming offers terrorists with limited access to explosives or weapons an opportunity to conduct a homeland attack with minimal prior training or experience”. Vehicles are as easy to acquire as knives, but unlike knives, which may arouse suspicion if found in one’s possession, vehicles are essential for daily life, and the capability of vehicles to cause casualties if used aggressively is underestimated.
Counterterrorism researcher Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Slate that the tactic has been on the rise in Israel because, “the security barrier is fairly effective, which makes it hard to get bombs into the country”. In 2010, Inspire, the online, English-language magazine produced by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula urged mujahideen to choose “pedestrian only” locations and make sure to gain speed before ramming their vehicles into the crowd in order to “achieve maximum carnage”.
Vehicle attacks can be carried out by lone-wolf terrorists who are inspired by an ideology, but who are not actually working within a specific political movement or group. Writing for The Daily Beast, Jacob Siegel suggests that the perpetrator of the 2014 Couture-Rouleau attack may be “the kind of terrorist the West could be seeing a lot more of in the future”, a kind that he describes, following Brian Jenkins of the Rand Corporation, as “stray dogs”, rather than lone wolves, characterizing them as “misfits” who are “moved from seething anger to spontaneous deadly action” by exposure to Islamist propaganda. A 2014 propaganda video by ISIS encouraged French sympathizers to use cars to run down civilians.
According to Clint Watts, of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, where he is a senior fellow and expert on terrorism, the older model where members of groups like Al Qaeda would “plan and train together before going to carry out an attack, became defunct around 2005”, due to increased surveillance by Western security agencies. Watts says that Anwar al-Awlaki, the American born al-Qaeda imam, as a key figure in this shift, addressing English-speakers in their own language and urging them to “Do your own terrorism and stay in place”.
Jamie Bartlett, who heads the Violence and Extremism Program at Demos, a British think tank, explains that “the internet in the last few years has both increased the possibilities and the likelihood of lone-wolf terrorism”, supplying isolated individuals with ideological motivation and technique. For authorities in Western countries, the difficulty is that even in a case like that of the perpetrator of the 2014 Couture-Rouleau attack, where Canadian police had identified the attacker, taken away his passport, and were working with his family and community to steer him away from jihad, vehicle attacks can be hard to prevent because, “it’s very difficult to know exactly what an individual is planning to do before a crime is committed. We cannot arrest someone for thinking radical thoughts; it’s not a crime in Canada”.
Commenting on explosive gels hidden inside vehicle tires, Office of the US Director of National Intelligence said, terrorists may pursue efforts to use explosives made of liquid gel, for example VBIEDs to conduct mass-casualty attacks. Such assessment is based on interest communicated via online platforms and in terrorist publications, as well as on previous VBIED-related incidents and attacks. Such type of explosives are typically constructed using common vehicles found locally, making them inconspicuous and potentially difficult to detect just by observation. Such explosives have been used effectively overseas, and previous attacks serve as examples of how they might be employed in the West.
In 2014, a foreign terrorist organization published instructions for building and deploying VBIEDs. The magazine specifically encourages targeting mass gatherings and identifies which VBIED is best suited for killing individuals as opposed to destroying structures or facilities. It encourages using VBIED components that do not trigger security tripwires and waiting to construct the device until several hours before the operation so that security is unaware of attack planning.
Since 2009, there have been 10 incidents demonstrating sustained intent to use VBIEDs in the United States, including the attempted bombing in Times Square, New York, in May 2010 that used a VBIED containing approximately 300 pounds of explosives, as well as a plot emanating from Lubbock, Texas, in 2011 that involved procuring explosive precursors to conduct an attack in New York City.
What are the tactics to counter threats posed by similar terrorist attacks?
According to the Office of the US Director of National Intelligence, a collective approach between government and industry stakeholders can ensure an effective and proportionate response to prevent similar attacks or minimize the effects. For these certain issues need to be taken into consideration:
Special events and their associated security footprints often encompass not only a central location or venue, but also much of the surrounding area, including adjacent buildings, roads, sidewalks, multi-use paths, and mass transit.
Consider pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, physical security measures, and conventional traffic principles to prevent vehicle access or limit proximity to a site by closing as many roads as possible in the surrounding area of the event.
Crowds may have to be screened prior to event entry. Flows of people typically bottleneck at predictable locations such as security checkpoints and public transit stations.
Anticipate locations where large crowds (demonstrators and protestors) might not regularly gather.
Review security modifications to ensure emergency response routes are not impeded.
Ensure all potential security and response stakeholders are familiar with changes made to a venue and its surrounding areas.