France Attack Aftermath: Security Experts Warn of Uptick in Vehicular Terrorism

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The July 14 truck ramming in Nice, France, was the deadliest attack of its kind, security experts say. Eric Gaillard/REUTERS

Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the Tunisian-born man who drove a truck into a crowd of Bastille Day revelers in Nice, France, on Thursday, killing at least 84 and injuring hundreds, used a tactic that security experts have long warned could be deadly and difficult to prevent. But those experts say they have never before seen so many casualties from a ramming attack in which explosives were not involved, and they expect vehicular attacks to happen more often in the near future.

“As far as I know this is the deadliest vehicle ramming type of attack that we’ve seen,” says Ryan Mauro, the national security analyst for the Clarion Project, a nonprofit that studies Islamic extremism. “This wasn’t a terribly sophisticated plot, as far as we know. It really speaks to how efficient this type of assault is.”

European nations have experienced similar attacks. In Scotland in 2007, a jeep carrying propane canisters rammed into the Glasgow Airport, causing no deaths. Two years later, in the Netherlands, a man sped a car into a parade as the Dutch royal family was passing by, killing seven. In the United Kingdom, two assailants ran over a British Army soldier and then stabbed him to death in 2013. And in Canada, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, a driver killed a soldier in 2014. All but the Dutch attack were considered terrorism.

Rammings in the United States have occurred too, but prosecutors have struggled with whether to label them “terrorism.” In 2006, a driver plowed into people at the University of North Carolina, but no one was killed. That same year, a motorist went on a rampage in San Francisco, killing one. In early 2001, a tractor-trailer intentionally slammed into the Sacramento, California, Capitol building, but no one was hurt. Similar incidents were reported in Rochester, New York, in 2009 and Minneapolis in 2007.

The attack in Nice on Thursday was not the first time France had experienced a vehicular attack. In December 2014, a man ran over pedestrians in Dijon, injuring 11. The next day, in Nantes, a motorist drove into a crowd at a Christmas market, killing one and injuring nine. Officials did not consider either incident a terrorist act.

In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security and FBI released a memo warning law enforcement and emergency responders, saying, “Terrorists overseas have suggested conducting vehicle ramming attacks…against crowds, buildings and other vehicles.” The agencies said assailants would likely target areas where people congregate. “Vehicle ramming offers terrorists with limited access to explosives or weapons an opportunity to conduct a Homeland attack with minimal prior training or experience,” according to the memo.

In the memo, the agencies also said to look out for “unusual modifications” on cars or trucks, the purchase, renting or stealing of large vehicles if the person displays “nervousness during the purchase, paying in cash or lack of familiarity with the vehicle’s operations,” large trucks or equipment “being operated erratically, at unusual times or in unusual locations” and the driving of cars or trucks into closed areas “where crowds are gathered, such as for street festivals.”

In recent years, global jihadist groups have called for such rammings. In a 2013 article in its English-language magazine, Al-Qaeda encouraged these attacks, saying, “The idea is to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” That same magazine has named Bastille Day celebrations as a potential target, according to Gartenstein-Ross.

ISIS has encouraged these attacks as well. One ISIS recruitment video featured someone who CNN identified in a 2014 segment as “a young Frenchman” saying, “Kill them and spit in their faces and run over them with your cars.” And in a speech that ISIS released in 2014, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, the extremist network’s spokesman said: “If you are not able to find an [improvised explosive device] 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 U.S. has long feared these vehicular attacks. David Wachs, president of Concentric Security, a Maryland- and Alabama-based security company, says that prior to 9/11, barriers around buildings, called bollards, were in place primarily for traffic purposes. After the attacks, bollards became bigger, heavier and thicker in order to withstand ramming attacks. “Now you’re trying to stop vehicles with ill intent,” Wachs says, “as opposed to stopping a grandmother or a drunk who might just happen to veer off.”

Wachs has also noticed a greater call for perimeter barriers since the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, particularly outside of entertainment venues. “Any place there are large gatherings of people, it is being addressed and at least considered more and more in this country,” he says. “There is a much higher awareness.”

The standard bollard can stop a 15,000-pound vehicle traveling at 50 miles per hour, Wachs says. Security companies also look to place bollards far away from buildings in order to minimize the “blast effect” if the vehicle is carrying explosives.

A French prosecutor on Friday said the Nice attacker’s truck was refrigerated and weighed 19 tons, more than double the weight that the average bollard can withstand. For an infrequent event such as Bastille Day, Wachs says, temporary concrete barriers could have been used, but “it’s a fairly expensive proposition to truck those in, move them around,” and such measures are less secure than the sturdier permanent ones.

In the aftermath of the Nice attack, Mauro, from the Clarion Project, says he expects an increase in ramming assaults. Compared to acquiring a weapon, he says, “getting into a car is much easier, much safer and in many cases going to be even more effective.”

As he puts it, you can look out for guns, but “[ramming] causes more fear for their enemies, because you can’t ban cars.”