The widespread use of vehicles as weapons

Project Name: The Widespread use of Vehicles as weapons
Client: Publications
Publication Date: December 31, 2017


There was an incident on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virginia, where several white-nationalist groups protested the impending removal of a statue relating to the American Civil War (1861-1865) of Confederate General Robert E Lee.[1] They clashed with counter-protesters; eventually, police and the National Guard cleared the scene. Then a Dodge Challenger driven by a twenty-year-old from Ohio drove into the crowd of protestors killing one thirty-two-year–old woman. The driver has been remanded in custody and is charged with second-degree-murder.

The US authorities have branded the incident as a terrorist one which in actual fact fits easily into its legal framework, whereas in many other countries it would probably be deemed as a pre-meditated murder and hate crime as opposed to an act of terrorism. US National Security Advisor General HR McMaster who was speaking on NBC’s Morning Show called the racist, deadly violence in Charlottesville heartbreaking and an act of terrorism. He went on to say, ‘I think what terrorism is, is the use of violence to incite terror and fear. And, of course, it was terrorism.’ He appears to be the highest-ranking official yet in the administration to label recent events in Charlottesville as terrorism

Executive Summary

Terrorists using vehicles as weapons is not a new concept as many countries have been subjected to them over the years, however it has been a growing problem in Europe and the US. The concept of using vehicles as terrorist weapons may have emanated from al-Qaeda’s Yemeni branch which encouraged its Western recruits to use trucks as weapons. A 2010 webzine article, ‘the Ultimate Mowing Machine’ called for deploying a pickup truck as a ‘mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.’

In September 2014, Daesh spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani called for lone wolf attacks using improvised weaponry, ‘if you are not able to find an IED 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.’

The greatest loss of life was caused by the Tunisian lorry driver in Nice in France where over eighty people were killed. The list of terrorists who have used vehicles since al-Qaeda’s call to use them includes; Chapel Hill Virginia, Jerusalem, Nice, Ohio State University, Berlin, London (Westminster Bridge), Stockholm, London Bridge and London (Finsbury Park mosque) and now Barcelona.

It remains a difficult issue for police forces to deal with, however some routinely armed forces are advised to shoot the driver of any vehicle, regardless of other occupants, which may be about to or is carrying out an attack. However, the reality is that the majority attacks occur without any of the security services being able to counter them. One French policeman was able to fire a few rounds at the cab of the truck in Nice when it started its run, however he did not hit the driver who then killed eighty four people before he was finally trapped by police and shot dead.

Another development has been the promotion by al-Qaeda to derail trains as a means to perpetuate its terrorist violence in the West and indeed the world. An article in the UK Times newspaper runs a story on al-Qaeda’s wish that its supporters target trains with homemade ‘derailment devices’ to inflict mass casualties in a bid to regain the prominence it has lost to Daesh.’ [1] A recent post in al-Qaeda’s online propaganda magazine, ‘Inspire,’ clearly points out that due to the fact that there are thousands of miles of tracks all over the countries they serve, it provides a very easy option for a would-be jihadist to carry out a terrorist act without it being a ‘martyrdom’ operation. It is difficult to provide security which can monitor even a small portion of the track and other infrastructure outside railway stations, which gives the terrorist freedom of movement to carry out covert reconnaissance missions before deciding on where and when to place a derailment device or object.

Undoubtedly there will be many members of the security services and police who, given the choice, would have advised the media not to run such a story promoting attacks against rolling stock but will acknowledge that there remains a right to freedom of speech. The fact that the article, which has also been run in other UK daily newspapers, will come to the attention of radicalised persons who may, even now, have been inspired by the relative simplicity of such a venture, will acknowledge that they give the perpetrator a high chance of carrying an attack out without detection. The al-Qaeda terrorist pamphlet mentioned devotes 18 of its 97 pages to methods and techniques which could derail a train. The Times report stated, ‘it can be built without using any electronic tools ‘so as to remove any traces for suspicion’ and does not require ‘martyrdom.’ It notes: this can be performed by a single person multiple times.’ It adds, ‘it is time we instil fear and make them impose strict security measures to trains as they did with their air transportation. There will be a state of terror, fear and lack of security among the masses.’

The current and most effective modus operandi by terrorists has been the use of motor vehicles which have had a deadly effect, both in terms of casualties and the instilment of continuous fear the attacks produce. However, more and more nations are installing various blocking measures which prevent vehicular access to pedestrian areas and so it is becoming steadily more difficult for terrorists to find unprotected areas. Rail networks are clearly going to be an easier target of opportunity for future attacks. It is not a new concept as Europe’s deadliest terrorist attack was the bombing of the commuter train system in Madrid in 2004 which killed 192 people and was attributed to an al-Qaeda-inspired cell. London’s 7/7 attacks were suicide bombings on Tube trains and a bus which killed 52. Daesh directed an attack on the Maelbeek metro station in Brussels last year while a Daesh supporter tried and failed to detonate a suicide nail bomb at its central railway station.

Railway stations, either overland or underground, do not have anything like the security measures which are found in airports and are therefore more easily accessible and more vulnerable venues, not to mention the thousands of miles of tracks which the rolling stock uses. Whilst trains and the infrastructure around them have always been a target for terrorists, many will see it as being unwise to bring unnecessary attention towards such a vulnerable facet of a country’s public transport. This and other media reports which have broadcast this weakness in the rail network in the name of Journalistic freedom are likely to have reappraised and reminded potential terrorists of it which in turn may accelerate an attack or indeed a series of attacks on it. However, it does allow rail companies, in consultation with the police and security services, an opportunity to review their existing security procedures against terrorist attacks and implement more security measures to protect passengers, rolling stock and infrastructure with a particular emphasis on how to protect trains from objects placed on tracks designed to derail them.