This past week, the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) disseminated a report on the increasing frequency with which extremists are utilizing trucks and other vehicles as weapons by ramming them into pedestrians or other public gatherings of people. The document, titled “Vehicle Ramming Attacks: Threat Landscape, Indicators and Countermeasures” was sent to local law enforcement on Tuesday, May 2 and urges “vigilance” by local authorities. The report was published in various US and foreign media outlets.
According to the document, over the past three years at least 173 people have been killed and more than 700 wounded in 17 ramming attacks around the world. Of these, 13 resulted in fatalities. Nine of the 17 attacks were carried out in the past 10 months. The most devastating attack was carried out last Bastille Day (July 14) in Nice, France, when a radicalized individual drove a commercial truck at a high speed along the pedestrians-only Promenade des Anglais, killing 87 people. The assailant was shot dead by police. Other vehicle ramming attacks in Europe include the December, 2016 attack at a crowded Berlin Christmas market in which 12 people were killed and this year’s London attack as well as a less publicized one in Stockholm, Sweden.
“No community, large or small, rural or urban, is immune to attacks of this kind by organized or ‘lone wolf’ terrorists,” read the TSA report.
Indeed, vehicle ramming attacks have occurred in far flung places as well, most notably in Urumqi, China, when two extremists rammed into a crowd at an outdoor market, killing 43 people. The assailants also threw improvised explosive devices at the victims during the chaos. The vehicles then collided and exploded.
The jump in the frequency of attacks appears to coincide with ISIS leader Abu Mohammed Al-Adnani’s call in September 2014 for adherents to kill “infidels” by any means possible, including, “smash(ing) his head with a rock, or slaughter(ing) him with a knife or run(ning) him over with your car.”
TSA assesses that venues most at risk of attack include locations where “large numbers of people congregate, including parades and other celebratory gatherings, sporting events, entertainment venues, or shopping centers.” In addition, “commercial vehicles — distinguished by their large size, weight and carrying capacity — present an especially attractive mechanism for vehicle ramming attacks because of the ease with which they can penetrate security barriers and the large-scale damage they can inflict on people and infrastructure.”
The ease with which an attack can be perpetrated using a vehicle is obviously one of the main reasons that terrorists have opted for this method over the past few years. There is no telling when a person could suddenly rent or purchase a vehicle-or commandeer one-and use it as a killing machine. In addition, such an attack requires little if any planning and can be carried out by one person, thereby reducing the ability of law enforcement to detect a plan involving multiple co conspirators. The use of “loan wolves” in perpetrating terrorist attacks is the preferred modus operandi these days, as terrorists seek to move with stealth, avoiding months of planning meetings, email trails and extensive foreign travel.
The report notes that companies operating commercial vehicles and vehicle rental agencies in particular should be alert for any unauthorized modifications. For example, any commercial vehicles with reinforced front fenders or bumpers merit particular attention and operators should notify law enforcement authorities should they discover suspect or sudden modifications.
Rental agencies should make note and alert authorities should potential renters make unusual inquiries about the weight or maximum speed of trucks. Similarly, rental agencies should be alert to patterns of behavior that, although not indicative of impending terrorist activity, could be pursued by terrorists to perpetrate a crime. Such activity may include the presentation of obviously false or forged documentation, rental truck retrieval by one person and subsequent abandonment of the vehicle or return of the vehicle with significant front-end damage. The last example could be a sign of a staged or practice ramming event, a “dry run”.
As always, should a commercial vehicle rental agency or other commercial vehicle operator have additional questions or to report suspect activity, the TSA and the FBI urge you to contact them or your local police department without delay.