Vehicular Terrorism: The Threat Behind the Wheel

Recent vehicular attacks in France and Germany clearly highlighted the viability of vehicle ramming as a legitimate terrorist tactic.
Vehicular Terrorism: The Threat Behind the Wheel

Executive Summary

Recent vehicular attacks in France and Germany clearly highlighted the viability of vehicle ramming as a legitimate terrorist tactic and one that should be a focus for law enforcement, especially during special event planning. These attacks vividly demonstrate how challenging it can be to stop a vehicular attack once it has been launched. The attacks also signal a new strategy in Islamic terrorism that uses small cyber-connected cells of radicalized Muslim militants.

The sudden increase of this activity leading up the 2016 Christmas holidays resulted in significant countermeasures by law enforcement and security personnel throughout the United States. In New York City, police dispatched heavily armed counterterrorism officers to stand guard at crowded pop-up Christmas markets in Union Square, Bryant Park and Columbus Circle only an hour after news of the attack in Berlin. Other cities followed with similar tactics.

In Chicago, police parked their vehicles diagonally at the corners of Daley Plaza to block any vehicular access to a Christmas market being held there. In San Francisco, motorcycle and mounted horse units patrolled high-traffic shopping areas. In Los Angeles, law enforcement placed rows of two to three cars or other large equipment in front of large event entrances, which included two massive parades in West Hollywood this year. In Boston, at the scene of the marathon bombing and throughout other cities in Massachusetts, authorities went on a heightened state of vigilance.

The alert remains high and countermeasures are extended into the 2017 New Year. On Dec. 28, 2016, the Nashir Media Foundation, a pro-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group, urged ISIL supporters “to carry out attacks on targets such as markets and hospitals in Europe over the Christmas holiday period and urged Muslims to stay away from Christian celebrations.”

In a message posted online to “Islamist ‘lone wolves’ in Europe,” the Foundation said, “Their celebrations, gatherings, clubs, markets, theaters, cinemas, malls and even their hospitals are all perfect targets for you.” Although not specifically citing vehicular attacks, the message was clear… Attack by all means possible.

However, New Year terror threats came shortly after ISIL promised to bomb Christians and their churches in the United States, Canada, France and the Netherlands, stating, “We will make your New Year mayhem with bombings and trampling attacks.”

Countermeasures by law enforcement for New Year’s Eve in New York City included extra security being added not just in New York City, but New Jersey as well. There were extra security checkpoints across the Times Square area. Over 7,000 police officers patrolled the area, and the NYC sanitation department blocked strategic intersections with 65 large garbage collection and sand trucks to stop truck-driving attackers like those in Germany and France.

Over 100 patrol cars were also used as blocking vehicles. To limit vehicular traffic, extra public transit service was provided to and from the city until 2 a.m. New Year’s Day. NJ Transit provided extra service to and from New York City from New Year’s Eve until 6 a.m. New Year’s Day, along with extra evening and late night bus routes in and out of Port Authority Bus Terminal.

Similar countermeasures for the New Year’s Day Rose Parade in Pasadena, California followed the increased alert. These included barricades, water-filled barriers at some streets, security checkpoints and clandestine measures designed to stop terrorists from crashing cars into crowded areas.

Continuing and increasing countermeasures are planned between Friday, Jan. 20, and Monday, Jan. 23 to and from Washington, DC, for the Presidential Inauguration. These preparations cover not only the ceremony at the National Capitol, but also the many Inaugural Events within the District of Columbia during the celebration.

A vehicular attack is easy for anyone to launch with little or no planning. Active shooter tactics target crowds who are contained, vehicle ramming tactics are not hampered by this requirement. Crowds of people are ubiquitous in every city in America, regardless of holidays, special events or general workdays, and security personnel and law enforcement must be prepared for evolving terrorist tactics that remain unconventional but are simple and easily supported logistically.

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