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The new tactic driving terrorism

How complicated does a terrorist act have to be? Counter-terrorism veteran Phil Gurski weighs in on vehicular ramming attacks.

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

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By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

3 replies on “The new tactic driving terrorism”

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.

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.

Hi Phil
A long comment in two parts
Part 1
You make a few interesting points about using vehicles as weapons in acts of politically motivated violence. You make a couple of claims that I do not entirely support.
But first, a little history and then to your points. Using vehicles as weapons in acts of politically motivated violence is not new. As you likely know, in 2004 a certain Marvin Heemeyer used a bulldozer to demolish several buildings in Granby, Co. as the culmination of his feud with town authorities.
Heemyer modified a bulldozer by attaching steel plates and concrete in an effort to armor plate it. Mr Heeymeyer is a hero to the ethno-nationalist anti-government violence threatening right in the US, as a symbol of resisting governmental oppression. The date of his attack (04 June, 2004) is celebrated as “dozer day” or “kill dozer”. [See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marvin_Heemeyer%5D
The image of a bulldozer is used in extreme right memes and flags, as a modification of the extreme-right trope Gadsden flag. See: https://knowyourmeme.com/photos/1472229-gadsden-flag-dont-tread-on-me.
The first use of a vehicle in a jihadist attack in a Western nation, was in the US in 2006. On March 3, 2006, Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar, an Iranian-American, intentionally, drove a sport utility vehicle into a crowd of people on the campus of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He claimed that he wished to “avenge the deaths of Muslims worldwide” and to “punish” the United States government. He later wrote a letter in which he said that he “was aiming to follow in the footsteps of one of my role models, Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, who obtained a doctorate degree”. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_UNC_SUV_attack.
Why Taheri-azar selected a vehicle as a weapon has not been explained publicly, as far as I know. I have seen speculation on web sites that he used a vehicle for the sorts of reasons you identify: it was easy to procure. He is reported as believing, so the speculation goes, that it would be difficult for him to obtain a firearm in the US. Although that sounds preposterous and bizarre, I have read statements from aspiring terrorists who make that same claim.
[As an aside, Taheri-azar is a Shi’a and was not very knowledgeable about Islam or that his hero, Atta, would have regarded him (Taheri-azar) as an apostate. But Taheri-azar’s motivation is clear and so his action is politically, indeed ideologically, motivated violence and counts as terrorism. It demonstrates that to be motivated to undertake an act of PMV one need not be an expert in the belief system one is supporting, in this case, Islam.]
The next time this tactic appears is as an article in the AQAP magazine, Inspire 2, published 11 October 2010.
Under the somewhat lurid title, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine”, the article
outlines how to plan vehicle attacks and modify a vehicle to do so. Although the article comes across as fantasy and as the result of watching “Ben Hur”, it speaks of the enemies of Allah and provides tips on how to select a target and how to maximize damage and casualties by welding additional metal structures to the vehicle.
As far as I know, at least in Western nations, jihadis and the extreme right in the US are yet to specifically modify vehicles to increase their lethality and effectiveness. A real-time proximate link between a tactic being advocated in a magazine and it being used is, according to academic research, weak. See: “From Inspire to Rumiyah: does instructional content in online jihadist magazines lead to attacks?” DOI: 10.1080/19434472.2019.1707848.
The first incident following the publication of the “Mowing Machine” article occurred in London on 22 May 2013 when Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale ran their vehicle into Lee Rigby. In Australia, in a specifically Australian turn, in 2015 Sevdet Besim planned not only to ram a car into a police officer before beheading him, but pack explosives into a kangaroo and loose it on police (or a crowd) during ANZAC day commemorations. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-28/anzac-terrorist-plot-kangaroo-explosives/7121424 and https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-06-30/sevdet-besim-pleads-guilty-anzac-day-terror-plot/7557574.
So, what can we take from this? That the tactic, at least in the West, as an act of PMV, may have started with an anti-government conspiricist (2004), but was also used by an aspiring jihadi early on (2006). Then it appears to have once again been adopted by jihadis (2013) and then, likely independently, by the extreme right. Whether it is an example of technology and tactic transfer is not clear; but that after the first attacks (in 2006 and then 2013) the feasibility of this tactic became clear. On this, see: “I Did My Bit”: https://academic.oup.com/bjc/article/59/1/1/5052837, which also has a list of attacks. US intel assessments of this tactic can be found here: https://info.publicintelligence.net/LAJRIC-VehicleAttacks.pdf and https://publicintelligence.net/tsa-vehicle-ramming-attacks-2019/ and https://info.publicintelligence.net/TSA-VehicleRamming.pdf and https://publicintelligence.net/ocia-vehicle-ramming-attacks/.
End Part 1.

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