Barcelona’s Las Ramblas district is a hub of activity in the Catalan capital, and this time of year, when all of Europe seems to go on vacation, its tree-lined streets overflow with tourists, locals, and anyone trying to make a buck off of them. On Thursday, that made it an ideal target for a van-driving terrorist who plowed through pedestrians, killing 13 and injuring scores more.
It’s a familiar story by now. Over the past year, terrorists have increasingly used vehicles as weapons, mowing down unsuspecting pedestrians largely across Europe and in the U.S. It’s a tactic without an ideology — while most of these attacks were carried out by jihadists, far-right extremists have adopted the practice, too.
The origin of this trend is often traced back to Inspire, the web magazine published by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which published an article in 2010 entitled “The Ultimate Mowing Machine.” It called for using a pickup truck as a “mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” It went on: “To achieve maximum carnage, you need to pick up as much speed as you can while still retaining good control of your vehicle in order to maximize your inertia and be able to strike as many people as possible in your first run.”
But several years before the Inspire article, Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar rammed into a group of pedestrians on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill to “avenge the deaths of Muslims worldwide.” Then, in 2008, Israel saw two vehicle attacks within three months, one with a BMW and another with a front-end loader that smashed through cars on Jerusalem’s Jaffa Road, killing three.
Over the next several years, attacks by vehicle were still rare, though there were instances in London and Beijing. But in 2014, this brand of terror attack took off. In Israel, France, and Canada, terrorists ran down pedestrians and soldiers on foot. Right around this time, the late ISIS propagandist Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on lone-wolf terrorists in the West to kill with any tool at their disposal.
“If you are not able to find an I.E.D. or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him,” he said.
In November of 2014, a day after 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks across Paris, ISIS sought to exploit the moment with an eight-minute video called “What are you waiting for?” It encouraged jihadists unable to travel to Syria to wage holy war in France. “Indeed you have been ordered to fight the infidel wherever you find him — what are you waiting for? There are weapons and cars available and targets ready to be hit,” militants said in the video.
That message took a while to produce results, with 2015 passing largely free of attacks by vehicle. Then, in the summer of 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drove a massive semi-truck through Bastille Day celebrations in Nice, killing 86 people and injuring more than 450 others. Unlike many of the subsequent vehicle attacks, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel shot a gun as he mowed through the crowds, resulting in a stunning casualty count.
ISIS would eventually claim responsibility and use it to boost the popularity of the tactic. In a November 2016 issue of its English-language magazine Rumiyah, ISIS noted the carnage of the attack in Nice and said, “[V]ery few actually comprehend the deadly and destructive capability of the motor vehicle and its capacity of reaping large numbers of casualties if used in a premeditated manner.”
“The method of such an attack is that a vehicle is plunged at a high speed into a large congregation of (non-believers), smashing their bodies with the vehicle’s strong outer frame while advancing forward — crushing their heads, torsos, and limbs under the vehicle’s wheels and chassis — and leaving behind a trail of carnage,” the article said.
The call was heeded. In late November, an Ohio State University student drove his car into a group of students and then tried to stab them. And a few weeks after that, an ISIS-sympathizing 26-year-old drove a tractor trailer through a Berlin Christmas market, killing 12.
Once the calendar turned to 2017, the rate of car, truck, and van attacks exploded. There have been at least nine of them this year, resulting in nearly 40 deaths.
The spate of car-rammings has emboldened ISIS, and they’ve called on followers to commit more. In May, after a drunk driver killed one person with his car in Times Square, a crime that was not related to terrorism, ISIS put out a call for American jihadists to run over nonbelievers in their cars.
For ISIS, the primary advantage of this tactic is that it requires such little instruction or technical ability. As Stanford terrorism expert Joe Felter said after the Nice attack, “The message for would-be terrorists is that you don’t have to become a bomb maker to successfully execute a mass casualty attack. With a driver’s license and a credit card you can weaponize a rental truck.”
The focus on crowded public areas makes these attacks maddeningly difficult to prevent. Barriers and bollards can be erected in front of high-value targets, but every market and sidewalk cannot be protected. That’s what makes these targets so appealing to terrorists. Not only do they allow for high casualty counts, but by attacking people as they go about their everyday life, terrorists make life more terrifying.
A 2016 brief from the Soufan Group, a New York-based security consultancy, explains:
One of the consequences of mass-casualty attacks such as those in Lahore or Brussels is that all crowded spaces become unsafe. Afraid to gather, people stay home, and society splinters ever so slightly more, eroding the societal resilience that is the best and most lasting counterterrorism measure available.
Given the difficulty of protecting every public space with concrete barriers, those hoping to prevent these attacks need to prevent people from becoming radicalized in the first place, says Jason Burke, author of The New Threat From Islamic Militancy. “It comes down to what we know mitigates the terrorist threat: effective intervention, as far up the process of radicalization as is possible,” he told Newsweek earlier this year.
That’s also important because as soon as a solution to the problem of vehicle-ramming attacks is solved, the terrorists will move on to something else. The latest edition of Inspire, for instance, encourages attacking trains.