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Why cars make perfect weapons for terrorists

It's not an accident that terrorists are using vehicles to kill.


Published Jun 6, 2017   Updated May 23, 2021, 4:10 am CDT


Saturday’s London Bridge attack that killed seven and injured nearly 50 more is the latest in a rising new trend in international terror: vehicular attacks.

Nothing has yet been revealed about the motivations of the three assailants, who drove a white van into a crowd of pedestrians on London Bridge before stabbing dozens of people at the nearby Borough Market. But their tactic of choice was reminiscent of previous attacks carried out by ISIS militants or aspirants. The group has for years billed car rammings as a low-tech, highly “effective” option.

In March, a terrorist claimed by ISIS rammed an SUV into a crowded sidewalk on London’s Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer at the gates to Parliament building. He killed five before being shot to death by London police.

Last December, a Tunisian national whom ISIS claimed as one of its “soldiers” rammed a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 and injuring nearly 50 more. In July, a Tunisian resident of France used a rented cargo truck to run through a crowd in the coastal city of Nice, killing 86 and wounding hundreds more. In November a Somali-born student at Ohio State University crashed his car into a group of students before stabbing several of them with a butcher knife.

Using cars to kill is not an Islamic State invention and has been employed by other terror groups for years. During last year’s “lone-wolf intifada” in Israel, Palestinian assailants used cars and bulldozers to kill and injure people in more than 48 separate incidents. In 2010, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security issued an unclassified document describing the phenomenon after al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula urged its adherents to attack crowded locations using cars.

ISIS uses social media, an English-language online magazine and instructional videos to teach its supporters across the globe how to find the right knife, the right car, and the right target. They urge followers to carry out “bloodbaths” on soft targets to attract wide media attention.

“The more gruesome the attack, the closer one comes to achieving the desired objective,” read an article in the group’s English-language magazine Rumiyah last year. “The overall objective of any just terror operation is to bring horror and misery to the enemies of Allah, and to remind them that their efforts to wage war against Islam and the Muslims will only lead to more and more mujahidin appearing in their very midst, ready to strike them mercilessly on their own soil.”

Former senior CIA analyst Paul Pillar told Reuters that, while concern has long focused on “sophisticated or high-tech methods of terrorist attack, the most readily available methods for killing a lot of innocent people have always been simple and require no sophistication or training.”

“This includes mowing people down with a vehicle on any crowded city street. Locations might be chosen that have some other political or religious significance — such as a Christmas market, or the vicinity of a national parliament—but there always are vulnerable public places with lots of people,” he said.

ISIS is often eager to monetize on the attacks, especially since it’s been losing ground and territorial claims to a “caliphate” in the ongoing war in Syria and Iraq. Observers say that when ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other terror groups are defeated on the battlefield, the splintering of those groups may fuel more terrorism abroad.

“When they are defeated in Syria and Iraq we are all going to face difficulties and nobody knows where the ISIS fighters will go to,” Saudi Arabian Interior Ministry spokesman Mansour al-Turki, who was meeting with French officials on counter-terrorism, told a group of journalists in Paris in March.

“I think we will be entering the next phase of terrorism which is through social media and lone wolves,” he said.

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*First Published: Jun 6, 2017, 4:30 am CDT