Terrorists Once Used Truck Bombs. In Nice, the Truck Itself Was the Weapon.
From France to Israel, Islamist militants are realizing that empty vehicles crashed into crowds can kill as many civilians as cars or trucks packed full of explosives.
Large trucks packed with explosives have become a grim trademark of modern terrorism, killing 241 U.S. service personnel in Beirut in 1983 and ripping through the United Nations compound in Baghdad in 2003, killing 22, including the world body’s top diplomat in Iraq, Sérgio Vieira de Mello.
But as militants from groups like the Islamic State and al Qaeda look to kill as many civilians in as many places as possible, they’re skipping the cost, expense, and risk of obtaining explosives and instead simply using normal trucks as more mundane — and cheaper — weapons of war. And as the carnage in Nice, France, has made clear, trucks that aren’t used as bombs can kill as many people as those that are.
The shift toward using empty vehicles as weapons was first seen in Israel, where Palestinians have in recent months smashed cars into groups of Israelis in Jerusalem and elsewhere, killing and wounding scores, including several Americans.
The attacks generally need little coordination, few logistics, and no large planning cell to carry out. This has been borne out in France, where two unrelated car attacks by men who claimed inspiration from radical Islam killed one and wounded 23 in the cities of Nantes and Dijon in December 2014. Then in January, a 29-year-old French citizen of Tunisian descent drove into four soldiers guarding a mosque in Valence. In each case, the drivers were found to have acted alone.
Yet another car driven by a so-called “lone-wolf” militant struck two Canadian soldiers near Montreal in October 2014, killing one and injuring the other. The driver, again, had no ties to radical groups.
“The uncomfortable reality is that few counterterrorism laws or measures can address the weaponization of everyday life due to the unrelenting call to terror,” an analyst note published by the Soufan Group concluded Friday.
It’s something American authorities have been worrying about for years. A December 2010 warning from the Department of Homeland Security said terrorist groups were looking to launch “vehicle ramming attacks—using modified or unmodified vehicles—against crowds, buildings,” and other places where large groups of people congregate.
The potential attackers required “minimal prior training or experience,” the report warned, and such assaults “can be conducted with little to no warning.”
That’s precisely why militants around the world had already begun encouraging their compatriots to use vehicles in attacks. In October 2010, two months before the release of the DHS report, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula released the second issue of its English-language magazine, Inspire, which featured two articles written by a militant named Yahya Ibrahim imploring readers to use trucks to kill groups of civilians. One article, titled “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” talks about using “a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.”
Now, the sheer scale of the carnage in Nice that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel managed to cause with a simple rented truck could have ramifications for how law enforcement treats such mundane objects of transportation.
“It is an accessible means of attack, and in terms of using it as a means of harming a lot of people, now it’s in the playbook,” said Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert and senior advisor to the president of Rand Corp.
Investigators in France are still looking at any possible ties the French-Tunisian driver, Bouhlel, may have had to terrorism but so far haven’t found signs he worked for, or was in direct communication with, Islamic State or al Qaeda leaders abroad. Like several of the attackers during the November rampage in Paris that left 130 dead, he did have a history of petty crime and assault.
The attack in Nice comes amid a wave of Islamic State-inspired violence from Europe to Bangladesh to the United States in recent weeks that has claimed dozens of lives. The terrorists in those attacks have used machetes, explosives, and guns.
Matthew Henman, the head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, said in a statement Friday that the use of such a large truck, “at an ideologically symbolic event, represents an evolution in the use of the tactic and potentially indicates a higher level of operational planning.”
While so-called lone wolves or small groups using commonplace items like cars or knives to carry out attacks are notoriously difficult to track, the killer in Nice rented a huge 19-ton truck, which some analysts say could be a way in for law enforcement to track his movements or find more information on his ties to Islamist leaders abroad or fellow militants already inside France.
“A reasonable staff would be pulsing the question, ‘Is there a way for us to put in triggers to detect things like truck rentals?’” said Matt A. Mayer, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and former counselor to the DHS deputy secretary.
“Are we going to connect vehicle rentals with the terrorism watch list? Technologically, it is feasible; we do so with people getting on airplanes,” Rand’s Jenkins said, though he questioned whether tracking the credit card transactions on such a small scale would be politically palatable.
Photo credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP/Getty Images
Correction, July 15, 2016: The car-ramming incident near Montreal happened in October 2014. A previous version of this article said the attack occurred in October 2015.