- Publication had urged use of trucks in attacks since 2010
- France attack flags risk officials face at large public events
The use of a truck as a weapon in France didn’t come as a surprise to counter-terrorism experts who have watched attacks involving vehicles surge in recent years.
There were more than 70 worldwide in the two years ending in 2015, according to a database maintained by the University of Maryland. Three others had already occurred in France in the last two years.
It’s become a weapon of choice in areas where guns and bombs are hard to obtain. An al-Qaeda guide to motivate home-grown terror attacks recommended the use of heavy vehicles.
“The idea is to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah,” said a 2010 magazine called Inspire, allegedly written by members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. “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.”
An attack similar to that in Nice, France on Thursday killed at least 84 people and highlighted the risks to large, public gatherings days before thousands will convene in Cleveland for the Republican nominating convention.
Because the danger from vehicles is well known, federal and local law enforcement have protocols to protect large public events from trucks, said John Halinski, a former deputy administrator at the U.S. Transportation Security Administration who is now a security consultant.
“When you have events like that, you should barricade off the streets,” Halinski said. Photos of the carnage in Nice appear to show that precaution wasn’t taken, he said.
No group has taken credit for the Nice attack, whose perpetrator drove a 19-ton rented refrigerator truck through crowds celebrating Bastille Day. But “this sort of action is the sort of action advocated by terrorist groups on online media,” Paris anti-terrorism prosecutor Francois Molins told reporters.
U.S. officials set up barricades and roadblocks routinely at the largest public gatherings, such as July 4 on the National Mall in Washington or New Year’s Eve in New York’s Times Square, Halinksi said.
FBI Director James Comey has been warning for months that the group known as Islamic State is encouraging supporters to kill wherever they are, rather than travel to Syria or Iraq.
Needle in Haystack
Testifying with other senior U.S. officials before the House Homeland Security Committee on Thursday, Comey said the challenge for law enforcement and intelligence agencies is harder than finding a needle in a haystack.
“It’s to find pieces of hay in that haystack that may become a needle and disrupt them before they move from consuming to acting on that poisonous propaganda,” Comey said.
The use of vehicles in attacks is growing rapidly, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. There were 157 such assaults from 1970 through 2015, and 70 of them occurred in just the past two years, according to the database. The group’s list of attacks includes aircraft as well as motor vehicles.
While vehicle-impact attacks have been used prominently by Palestinian militants in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank, such attacks have also occurred in the West, said Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre. The three other vehicle-impact attacks in the past two years in France were conducted by suspected Islamic militants, killing one and wounding 21.
A Department of Homeland Security and Justice Department bulletin for local police departments warned about vehicle attacks in 2010, noting that there had been at least two in the U.S. since 2001. “Vehicle ramming offers terrorists with limited access to explosives or weapons an opportunity to conduct a homeland attack with minimal prior training or experience,” the agencies said in the document.
“This is something our homeland security professionals are always concerned about,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Friday, when asked about the Nice attack.
The 74-page second edition of Inspire issued in the fall of 2010 included a detailed guide for carrying out an attack with a large vehicle or truck. Such attacks could be done in “the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Denmark, Holland” and other countries sympathetic to Israel, it said.
It urged the attacker to carefully study potential targets and pick areas where people can’t easily escape. “The ideal location is a place where there are a maximum number of pedestrians and the least number of vehicles,” it said.
It also warned that it would be difficult to escape afterward. “Hence, it should be considered a martyrdom operation,” it said. “It’s a one-way road. You keep on fighting until you achieve martyrdom.”
While most truck drivers in the U.S. aren’t required to pass a security clearance, those working in the most sensitive areas receive background checks. Drivers who work in ports must obtain the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, which is issued by TSA. The agency also assesses any driver who is certified to carry hazardous waste.
Trying to expand these programs in order to prevent terrorists from using trucks to kill people in the U.S. wouldn’t be an effective solution, according to Rick “Ozzie” Nelson, a former National Security Council official who now serves as a senior associate for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Would-be terrorists would simply try to steal trucks or radicalize someone who has already received TWIC approval, he said.
“How do you determine when an individual crosses the line from rhetoric to violent action?” Nelson said. “You either have to be in somebody’s head or it requires a level of surveillance that we as a society aren’t willing to accept.”
There is no way to completely prevent attacks on the lightly guarded flanks of society, ranging from airport areas outside of security to nightclubs and restaurants, Nelson said.
“Terrorists are going to take the path of least resistance,” Nelson said in an interview. “Being able to pick out a threat profile in something as ubiquitous as automobiles and trucks is an almost impossible task.”