Taking Stock: What the US is Learning from Europe’s Spate of Urban Truck Attacks
On May 4th, the US Transportation Security Administration issued an unclassified report entitled “Vehicle Ramming Attacks: Threat Landscape, Indicators, and Countermeasures” to local law enforcement agencies and US Department of Homeland Security counterparts. The report warned truck owners and rental agencies to remain aware of potential hijackings of vehicles intended for mass killing. For the first time, the effects of truck attacks widely felt in Europe rippled across the pond, reaching the US national security apparatus from the local to federal levels. The document also noted that since 2014, more than 170 died and 700 wounded in 17 ramming attacks around the world, but the phenomenon most have witnessed in the past few years has a deeper, bloodier past.
A Brief History, Global Perspective, and Potential Causes
History reflects a high number of truck-related incidents stretching back decades. Often, trucks served as a tool to facilitate access to fortified areas or cripple symbolic hard targets with force. An example of both government and symbolic targeting transpired in Kashgar, China in 2008 when two assailants of the East Turkmenistan Islamic Movement, a Uighur separatist group, drove a garbage truck into scores of Chinese police, proceeding on foot to stab stunned officers with knives and toss two explosive devices into a police station. The event, which happened leading up to the Olympic Games, claimed 16 lives. A similar event happened again in 2011.
According to the Global Terrorism Database, the largest publicly available dataset on incidents labeled as terrorism, from 1990, no more than five incidents occurred each year until 2014, when the count doubled to 10. Then in 2015, the GTD documented 35 attacks, a more than three-fold increase from the previous year.
Palestinians and Israelis witnessed truck tragedies many times before, as Palestinian extremist groups like Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad employed vehicle-ramming attacks against Israeli security forces or Israeli citizens. One example is the 2015 bus stop attack along Herzl Boulevard in Jerusalem when Palestinian Abed Al-Muhsen Hassuna deliberately tried to run over Israeli civilians, injuring 14. A comparable incident occurred against Israeli Defense Forces in January of 2017.
But recent attacks in major cities like Nice, Berlin, and London, which use the truck as primary killing weapon, appear influenced by extremist propaganda. A common reference point for terrorism experts, as Peter Bergen noted back in January of 2017, is an article in Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s magazine, Inspire, which encouraged supporters to mow down civilians in Western countries with large, powerful vehicles. It stated, "To achieve maximum carnage, you need to pick up as much speed as you can…to be able to strike as many people as possible...”
Other leaders, such as Al-Qaeda’s commander, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, or a senior official of the Islamic State (IS), Abu Mohamed Al-Adnani, have called for lone wolf attacks against Western targets as recently as 2015 and 2016, following the Boston Marathon bombings and coalition military strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria. The do-it-yourself terrorism propaganda is as opportunistic as it is frequent, and makes it harder for law enforcement to establish organizational links or motive.
The Recent European Truck Attack Phenomena
Now after the recent Stockholm incident, the fourth time in a nine-month window after Nice, Berlin, and London, these truck-style events are starting to form a category of their own. An overview of the Bastille Day, Berlin Christmas Market, Westminster Bridge, and Stockholm attacks may explain the timeliness of the TSA report and recently heightened US awareness of these types of attacks.
July 14, 2016 - The Bastille Day Attacks in Nice, France
On July 11th of 2016, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian national, rented a cargo-style truck from a company to the west of Nice, France. Three days later, during the national holiday, Bastille Day, throngs of people gathered on the coastline’s Promenade des Anglais to observe a fireworks display. At around 11 p.m. local time, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel began his assault driving east along the main road, swerving to hit walkers. The attacker then entered a pedestrian area, killing tens more. French police caught up with the vehicle, exchanged fire, and killed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. By that time, 84 people were murdered and many more injured.
December 19, 2016 – The Christmas Market Attacks in Berlin, Germany
A 24-year-old Tunisian national named Anis Ben Mustafa Ben Outhman Amri hijacked a transport services truck early on December 19th of 2016, murdering its Polish driver in the process. That same day, Amri set off for the Breitscheidplatz Christmas Market in the evening. Arriving at the location at 8:14 p.m. local time, Amri barreled through a crowded market at 40 miles per hour, killing 12 civilians. After the attack, Amri fled to Tiergarten, a large park in southern Berlin, to evade the authorities. Four days later, Italian police shot Amri dead.
March 22, 2017 – The Westminster Bridge Attack in London, England
In the early afternoon, 52-year-old English native Khalid Masood, formerly Adrian Russell Ajao, checked out of a hotel and set off for London in a rented 4x4 Hyundai Tucson. Crossing the Westminster Bridge at around 2:40 p.m. local time, Masood deliberately veered onto the sidewalk, killing two people and injuring several. Stopped by a guard rail, Masood exited the vehicle and ran into the House of Commons yard, stabbing an unarmed officer. The attacker was then shot to death by British police.
April 8, 2017 – The Stockholm Attack in Stockholm, Sweden
In the middle of day, 39-year-old and Uzbek national Rakhmat Akilov stole a beer delivery truck near Central Stockholm. Guiding the truck to Queen Street, which is frequented by pedestrians, Akilov turned to hit civilians before slamming into the Ahlens clothing store. After leaving four dead, the assailant fled the scene. The Swedish police apprehended Akilov a few hours after the incident.
Three notable commonalities emerge, which gave the US national security apparatus cause for concern. Firstly, there were suspected connections to IS, as IS claimed responsibility for all the attacks. Ongoing investigations have yet to reveal specific radicalization mechanisms, extent of IS support networks, and level of premeditation. A recent article in Der Spiegel claims that the Berlin attacker took orders directly from IS. Regardless of the direct connection to IS, these acts underscore, at the very least, the influence of anti-Western propaganda at the level of the individual, a globally-accessible threat.
Secondly, the primary weapon in all events were large trucks or sport utility vehicles. Other weapons were discovered after the fact, such as poorly constructed bombs, handguns, and knives, but many were not used. The low level of weapons technology suggests poor access to more destructive materials or the capital to pay for it. In the absence of financial means, the assailants may have seized a convenient opportunity.
Most notably though, the vehicles were either hijacked or rented from unsuspecting companies, giving attackers the ability to masquerade as benign actors. The deceptive tactic is hard to interdict, as the window before an attack is short, and, with few accomplices, there is little trail for law enforcement to pursue.
Lastly, the locations of the attack, and relatedly the targets, are strikingly similar. All locations except Nice, the second largest coastal city behind Marseilles, are the largest by population of their respective countries. Further, in all cases, the attackers honed in on well-traveled, pedestrianized zones, such as wide walkways or open markets. These recent attacks targeted less symbolically significant areas than locations critical to and trusted in daily life.
Urban Security Moving Forward
What, then, is the purpose of a truck attack and why did the US alert transportation companies and law enforcement entities? On the one hand, the truck attacks meet the criteria of a fear-spreading spectacle, which aims to attract attention and undermine the state’s ability to provide comprehensive security. However, the truck attack model is less effective in meeting those objectives than an armed rampage or coordinated bombing, like the Mumbai massacre of 2008 or Bataclan Theater assault of 2015, especially if bloodshed or attack longevity are the main indicators.
On the other hand, evidence of the recent truck attacks suggests an objective that cuts deep into the fabric of society: an erosion of the trust-based system of social rules that allow a city to thrive. The urban space and public life within it are being targeted, leading people to reassess how they participate in public spaces.
David Kilcullen projected that cities, hubs of intense activity, would become the next battleground between substate actors and the government. The people-packed city, a metabolic ecosystem, in Kilcullen’s view, will become increasingly hard to secure, as it requires a high rate of flow to function. As traumatic events like those witnessed in Nice, Berlin, London, and Stockholm relitigate how much civil liberty individuals are willing to trade off for the state’s security, how can the state protect public spaces of mass transit, relaxation, and interaction without arresting movement?
In the face of these looming questions, the coming assault on urban life is reaching globalized cities at an alarming rate. With technology at the fingertips, each individual is susceptible to persuasive narratives and dangerous ideas from halfway across the world, and the US knows it is just as desirable a target as Europe, if not more. As more citizens gain frighteningly simple access to a range of (un)common tools of destruction – the weaponized ram in truck form – the more this type of phenomenon will occur.
The US could learn lessons from Europe’s truck attacks and reexamine the process of how individuals gain access to high-powered vehicles. As the recent TSA report suggests, with virtually no preventive measures for such an attack, US security institutions, transportation industry, and citizens must maintain a high level of awareness before institutional procedures are put in place. Even considering that progression of security, there is still a chance of success in carrying out an attack when such vehicles with destructive capability trespass on their quotidian use unexpectedly. The real challenge for law enforcement entities and intelligence agencies is how to mitigate such disaster without totally rewiring the city’s social and urban code.