In late 2016, a truck plowed through a Christmas market in Berlin. This kind of attack, known as “low tech, soft target terrorism” is the kind of attack that is virtually unpreventable. Aside from the constant act of gathering intelligence, there is not much that can be done to foresee an attack of this nature.
Attacks perpetrated through using vehicles in crowds is an unfortunate growing trend around the world. These attacks require very little planning and minimal resources. Shiraz Maher, senior research fellow at the International Centre for Study of Radicalization and Political Violence (ICSR) in London, describes these acts of terrorism as “what authorities fear the most – a low tech weapon that can be obtained by anyone and used at any time.”
These acts of terrorism are not only occurring in areas where well-established threats are already in place, such as Afghanistan and Iraq; it is a growing threat in the United States and throughout Europe.
The Department of Homeland Security warned about the growing nature of these vehicle attacks in 2012. “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 department said, urging vigilance against “attempts to infiltrate closed areas where traffic usually moves but where crowds are gathered.”
The “low tech, soft target terrorism” can be carried out by anyone with access to a vehicle, which eliminates the risk of becoming part of a terror unit or risk having to travel to behind enemy lines to perpetrate the attack. NBC News reports that such attacks are “easy to replicate.”
Considering how simple the plan of attack seems to be, it is difficult for law enforcement to track and prevent major attacks like the one in Berlin late last year. NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller claims that “absent intelligence” is a major factor of not being able to prevent the acts of terrorism. “[It’s] the same way you can’t stop someone from shooting into a crowd, there isn’t a magic way to stop someone from driving into a crowd.” He continued, “What we seek to do is minimize the threat in pedestrian malls like Times Square, where you have the largest crowds.”
Aside from the attack in Berlin, this increasingly prominent type of terrorism has been surfacing around the world. In Dec. 2014, two attacks took place in Nice, France where motor vehicles killed one and injured more than 20. Following this attack, in Jan. 2015, French soldiers were struck by a vehicle while guarding a mosque.
Those two attacks were not the only acts of “low tech, soft target terrorism” in Nice. According to BBC News, “dozens of people were killed, including children, when a lorry ploughed into a large crowd watching a fireworks display in Nice to mark the Bastille Day holiday.” The attacker was identified after he fired shots into the crowd. This act of terrorism occurred in Aug. 2016.
London was also the victim of such attacks. In March 2017, a vehicle crashed into pedestrians near Britain’s Parliament. Three were killed when the 4×4 vehicle collided with people on Westminster Bridge. The attacker was subsequently killed by a gunshot.
Brian Michael Jenkins, expert on terrorism and senior adviser to RAND Corporation president, claims: “There are precedents for this [type of attack], and the attractiveness to terrorists is that weapons acquisition is very easy, it doesn’t require you to get a firearm.”
In Nov. 2016, a terrorist vehicle-ramming attack occurred on Ohio State University in the United States. A student crashed his car into a group of people on campus, then proceeded to lunge at another with a knife. The student was killed after he refused to cease the attack, CNN reports.
More recently, in Stockholm, Sweden, a truck attack killed five people in April, 2017. The government of Scandinavia names this an act of terror, or yet another example of “low tech, soft target terrorism.” A hijacked beer truck was driven through a crowd at the center of the capital of Sweden. The government announced that this act of terror is part of an increasingly common method of attack for jihadist terror groups and organizations.
Jihadist terror organizations are increasingly using this attack to perpetrate “low tech, soft target terrorism;” these and other organizations are attempting to spread the message to the world.
According to CNN, in 2011, a document was found on a body of an Al Qaeda operative which stated: “Our objectives are to strike London with low-cost operations that would cause a heavy blow amongst the hierarchy and Jewish communities, using attacks similar to the tactics used by our brothers in Mumbai.” Preventing this type of attack is nearly impossible due to the lack of plans uncovered and the terrorists’ dedication to causing the most harm with little resources.
Recently, an ISIS video was circulated that called for followers on the global scale to “run down Westerners,” according to the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism (ICSVE). The video instructed followers to “fill your cars with gas.” Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine suggested in 2010 that “running over them with your cars and trucks” was a preferred method of attack because of the ease at which terrorists can obtain a vehicle and attack with no warning.
These threats are difficult to prevent, but for now, law enforcement all over the world is preparing to fight these terror attacks and will create counter-terrorism strategies like Britain’s, which involve the creation of “safer places and buildings that are less vulnerable to terrorist attack and, should an attack take place, where people are better protected from its impact,” according to NBC News. Locations with large crowds are the most vulnerable to “low tech, soft target terrorism” attacks, but the impacts are more widespread than just the site of the attacks.