The new tactic driving terrorism

How complicated does a terrorist act have to be? Do terrorists have to master complicated technologies to achieve their ends? No, all it takes is a car. Borealis weighs in on vehicular ramming attacks.

Using a car or truck as a weapon isn’t unique to 2020. A 2018 report from San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute identified vehicle ramming as an increasingly common terrorism tactic. ISIS and Al Qaeda, in particular, encourage followers to drive into unsuspecting pedestrians. The rationale is as simple as it is ruthless: Obtaining a car is easier (and less likely to raise suspicion) than buying guns or explosives, and radicalized acolytes need little-to-no training or planning to carry out the attack.

Read more: 5 Drivers Have Hit Colorado Protesters With Vehicles This Summer

More Quick Hits:

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News has just come out that Saudi Arabia sent a hit squad to Canada to kill former counter terrorism officer Saad al-Jabri. What should Canada do in reponse?

Canadian University to end cooperation with law enforcement, citing racial bias

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Should criminology students do placements with law enforcement institutions? Their professors apparently don’t think so.

I married an extremist: My life with Hizb-ut-Tahrir

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Borealis talks to a Canadian who found herself in this situation and what she decided to do.

Phil Gurski

2 thoughts on “The new tactic driving terrorism

  1. Part 2
    Hi Phil
    [One of the benefits of COVID lock in is that I can roam the internet providing comments of no particular significance but which keep me amused between bouts of Netflix abuse.]
    You say there is no easy solution. That may be correct; and whatever measures are adopted will not stop every attack. Short of returning to a society in which everyone is on foot, vehicular attacks will still continue. I seem to recall reading some years ago about a man who drove a horse and buggy into a crowd to make a political point and do recall people riding horses into crowds in the late 1700s for the same reason. Using cars and trucks as weapons is adopting contemporary transport technology as weapons. Two hundred years ago, it was a horse. Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, used elephants against the Romans in 218/217 BC, yet, I know, that was military. The point, however, is using vehicles as weapons.
    Although using a vehicle is a simple and easily accessible method of attack, it is not the case that attackers get up, stare into their coffee and decide to ram a vehicle into a crowd, leap into it and drive off to do the deed. Vehicular attacks, like most, if not almost all, terrorist attacks are rarely spontaneous.
    Unlike making explosive, which requires preparation as you point out, most vehicular attackers own the weapon or have access to it. This is the same for assailants who use firearms in acts of PMV: many own the weapon they use, so there is no “going off to buy one just before”.
    Mostly, attackers act come after a period of psychological preparation in which others around the perpetrator observe changes in belief, attitude and behavior, word and deed. This is the phenomenon of “leakage” Dr J Reid Meloy refers to in identifying indicators of radicalization and intent. But there are even more subtle signs.
    Dr Meloy’s work was published in, I recall, about 2015 or thereabouts. However, about a decade before I saw detailed in a [non-public] presentation not only “leakage” but “seepage”. These are even more subtle indicators that a person is radicalising and reaching a crisis point that may lead to an attack.
    These indicators – seepage and leakage – can be reliably used to identify people well in advance and do provide an opportunity for interdiction. They are known to some intelligence services and law enforcement agencies, but also, many choose to ignore them. They are considered “too academic”, despite their efficacy. Such indicators are used to make discreet enquiries, welfare checks and provide interventions that are more social welfare than law enforcement.
    [As an aside, oddly, some jurisdictions use modified lists, such as the VERA system to justify continued detention of people convicted of terrorism charges or to impose liberty restricting conditions on the convict’s release or in the case of an accused, bail. These assessments, usually conducted by psychologists, however, are not well grounded theoretically or in practice, and are often little more than voodoo. The lists themselves reveal a misunderstanding of ideology and radicalisation. There are better and more reliable ways to make such assessments. But I digress.]
    So, we can identify people likely to fall off the rails, as it were, if we develop an indicators list – which involves, words, deeds, behaviors that indicate beliefs, attitudes and imperatives to act, along with the person’s world view and how their perceive themselves and their place in the world. Skillful analysts and investigators can identify such things from blog posts, memes circulated, or reports from associates, families and friends. So, while we will not be able to prevent all attacks, we can develop and sharpen the tools to act early to prevent many more. As an example, an astute monitor would have flagged the Christchurch killer from blog posts he made in 2015.
    This is really not unusual or an unknown approach. When a person seeks a security clearance, assessors usually look at “risk factors”: money, alcohol, drugs, relationships, worldview, consumption of pornography, sex services, and so on. These indicate values, world view – and self-control, but there are others in the list beyond those. These have been devised from an examination of many cases, and theories about motivation, emotional stability and so on, and are actually quite reliable in identifying people who pose a risk to compromising confidential information.
    Philby, Blake, Hanson, Montes, Ames, Delisle, Snowden, and Ortis all displayed multiple risk factors, but these were ignored. The rest is history. [And in only two cases did a “troubled work history” figure as a feature of the person’s life – but that is not a reliable indicator at all.]
    Finally, many of the risk factors that one sees in cases of espionage are also found in lone actor cases where the person plans or conducts and act of ideologically motivated violence. The reason is that the underlying “springs” that lead a person into the “dark side” are the same. You can spot them. I think I will stop there.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. A few replies:

      I was not trying to suggest that vehicle rammings are new: as you note, they have been around for a while
      On VERA and other tools I could not agree more. We at CSIS had ‘lists of indicators’ as early as 2005 (our first comprehensive ‘radicalisation’ study): my first book ‘The Threat from Within’ encapsulated our research. We knew then that rad is not the same as action. Few who show signs do anything. The challenge is to find the needles in the haystacks and no agency has enough resources to follow everyone.

      I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

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