National Security & Defense

Why We’re Seeing More Truck Attacks

Investigators at the crime scene in lower Manhattan, November 1, 2017. (Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)
Jihad the easy way: It doesn’t take much know-how or money to ram a vehicle through a crowd.

‘As the Crusaders continue to wage their vicious campaign on the lands of Islam, they are constantly reminded of the painful reality that [their fight against Islam] will be met with . . . vehicles that unexpectedly mount their busy sidewalks, smashing into crowds, crushing bones, and severing limbs.”

So reads the introduction to the fourth installment in the “Just Terror Tactics” series, a semi-periodical column featured in Rumiyah, the ISIS propaganda magazine. Elsewhere in the segment, which is a guideline for tactics that radical Muslims outside the Middle East can employ to kill the enemies of Islam, it details two methods these lone wolves can use to obtain guns in the West: First, the terrorist can “ram . . .  one’s vehicle through the [gun] shop’s door when it’s closed,” allowing him to seize “as many weapons as one can take.” Second, the terrorist “could follow the shop owner after he’s closed for the day, ambush him or run him over with a vehicle,” and then pilfer his keys and gain access that way. To date, no would-be terrorist has followed those directions. At least not in America.

Yet the “Just Terror Tactics” segment from the November 11, 2016, issue, which details how to use vehicles as the main weapon in an attack, feels eerily familiar. Here are a few excerpts:

‐An appropriate way should be determined for announcing one’s allegiance . . . so that the motive of the attack is acknowledged. An example of such would be simply writing on dozens of sheets of paper “The Islamic State will remain!”

‐In a bid to ensure utmost carnage upon the enemies of Allah, it is imperative that one does not exit his vehicle during the attack. Rather, he should remain inside . . . until it becomes physically impossible to continue by vehicle. At this stage, one may exit the vehicle and finish his operation on foot.

‐Having a secondary weapon, such as a gun or a knife, is also a great way to combine a vehicle attack with other forms of attacks.

‐One of the prerequisites of a successful operation is the remembrance of Allah and the sincerity of intending the attack solely to please Him.

Syfullo Saipov seems to have followed these directions almost to the letter while carrying out his attack in New York City earlier this week. Found in his truck was a piece of paper bearing the message “The Islamic State will endure”; he departed his vehicle waving BB and paintball guns following a collision that ended his rampage; and he shouted praise of Allah until police took him into custody.

So too did Khalid Masood, who back in March drove an SUV into pedestrians walking on the Westminster Bridge in London. After his vehicle crashed into a railing, he departed his car and stabbed a police officer. And so did Khuram Shazad Butt, Rachid Redouane, and Youssef Zaghba, who three months later launched a similar attack at the London Bridge: After killing three pedestrians, the attackers abandoned their wrecked van and stabbed four people in Borough Street Market, all the while yelling, “This is for Allah!” Notably, police found 13 Molotov cocktails in the van; the third installment of “Just Terror Tactics” — published in the January 6, 2017, issue of Rumiyah — recommends them, even including a description of how to construct and use them.

The examples are numerous. Over the past several years, from Ohio State University to Barcelona, Europeans and Americans have witnessed a rapid increase in vehicle-ramming attacks by those operating in the name of radical Islam. According to a survey of the data, there have been approximately 16 such attacks since 2014, half of which occurred during 2017. Even within the wider scope of lone-wolf jihadist terror attacks outside the Middle East, the percent of those conducted using a vehicle is increasing. According to the European Union’s Europol terrorism-data-gathering report, there were 17 terror attacks in the EU in 2015. None involved vehicle-ramming (except the attack in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, France, though the vehicle was rammed into gas cylinders at a factory, not pedestrians). In 2016, two of the 13 attackers used a vehicle. In 2017? Half of all the terror attacks, six of twelve, were vehicle-rammings.

Why are truck attacks on the rise? And why have they so quickly become the weapon of choice for lone-wolf terrorists like Saipov?

It turns out that the life and influence of most terrorist groups follow a similar pattern. Consider al-Qaeda. It began as a handful of radical fighters within a wider organization — here, soldiers in the war against the USSR in Afghanistan — and expanded by absorbing small pockets of like-minded individuals into a strict hierarchical organization. At its peak, al-Qaeda conducted attacks abroad by meticulous planning at the top level handed down to devoted followers willing to carry them out. The leaders kept these foot soldiers loyal by imbuing them with a twisted view of Islam marketed as “enlightenment.”

In September 1999, during what many consider to be al-Qaeda’s most potent era, the members of the U.S. Commission on National Security in the 21st Century anticipated a break in this traditional format in a report on the future of American national security policy. It predicted that future terrorists would be “even less hierarchically organized, and yet better networked, than they are today.” This “diffuse nature,” they wrote, will lead to “a greater incidence of ad hoc cells and individuals, often moved by religious zeal, seemingly irrational cultish beliefs, or seething resentment.” They were correct in their assessment of al-Qaeda, which lost its infrastructure and began to spread out into local cells and then lone wolves during the early 2000s and on. Today, ISIS is at the same stage.

The reason for the flattening hierarchy is lost territory, which necessitates a strategy adjustment.

In both cases, the reason for the flattening hierarchy is lost territory, which necessitates a strategy adjustment. Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Daniel Byman, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, explained that while depriving them of territory helps us in the long run, it also “increases the Islamic State’s desire to conduct international terrorism.” As ISIS’s goal of creating and expanding an Islamic State becomes increasingly unlikely, “it will require high-profile actions to stay relevant,” leading to more lone-wolf-style attacks. In pursuit of this horizontal, worldwide strategy, ISIS leaders have begun broadcasting its brand of radical Islam to a wider base, utilizing social media, small cells in European countries, and, yes, adjusting the focus of its propaganda magazines.

Take Rumiyah: It first emerged in September 2016 as a replacement for Dabiq magazine, which, since ISIS was on track to lose control of Dabiq, Syria, would soon become an embarrassing title for propaganda meant to inspire confidence in the organization’s efforts. The name change wasn’t the only difference, though. While both publications encourage violence against infidels, Dabiq focuses on recruitment to the organization, often calling on “true Muslims” to travel to Iraq and Syria to join the caliphate. Rumiyah, however, encourages “true Muslims” to join the ideology through random, individual jihads in their home country.

Hence vehicle-ramming attacks. While guns and bombs, the old standard for acts of terror, are highly effective weapons, the level of know-how and preparation required to use these tactics limits the degree of their use to highly dedicated lone-wolf attackers. Essentially, these attackers were coming to ISIS, which limits the number of attacks that ISIS can inspire overseas. Now, however, ISIS is making the first move, approaching would-be jihadists and assuring them that it doesn’t take guns and bombs to carry out their message: Even the enterprising, everyday follower of radical Islam can spread the message of ISIS through tactics ISIS itself uses at home, such as Molotov cocktails and vehicle-ramming. In this way, they enabled a rapid growth of self-made terrorists who could create their own jihad, all from the comfort of their own home.

ISIS’s intense global marketing of radical Islam is rapidly becoming invasive.

In light of this increased frequency, and Saipov’s more recent attack, we find ourselves arguing about the best way to stop vehicle-ramming attacks. The blunt answer: It’s not easy. Saipov and his fellow lone-wolf attackers are but a few members of a large, global brotherhood inspired by ISIS’s call to arms and its promise that spreading its message isn’t as hard as it seems. Defeating ISIS on the front lines in the Middle East will help in the long run, but men are far easier to destroy than ideas, and ISIS’s intense global marketing of radical Islam is rapidly becoming invasive.

Remember that Saipov came to Islam only after he moved to the United States. His downward spiral toward radicalization was initiated and exacerbated by Rumiyah and other ISIS propaganda, and it continued against the better voices in his life. One of those voices was his imam in Florida, who told reporters that he noticed Saipov was misunderstanding the faith. The imam attempted, to no avail, to steer Saipov’s study back on track. In many ways, Saipov is an example of the most terrifying element of radical Islam: Even after ISIS is defeated, and the Middle East is freed from its clutches, its ideology will live on.


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