Terrorism is nothing new the world over, and terror tactics change and evolve as targeted nations or groups adapt and better defend against their techniques and procedures. One of their current and most successful stratagems is utilizing vehicles, often large trucks, to target densely packed group of pedestrians and mow them down.
All terror attacks are horrifying, but the use of common and otherwise unaltered vehicles as the weapon itself means that these attacks are frighteningly difficult to detect and can be tough to prevent. Considering that we have seen steady increase in both perpetrated attacks using this method as well as calls to further utilize it from leadership elements of various terror groups.
In this article, we will be delving into the history, employment and methodology of direct vehicular attacks on pedestrians as well as expert procedures, defenses and countermeasures you can use to keep yourself and your loved ones from becoming a casualty in a vehicle attack.
Vehicle Attack Defined
A vehicle attack, or vehicle-ramming attack, is when an attacker uses a motor vehicle to deliberately ram a group of pedestrians, building, or another vehicle with the intent of causing death and injury.
Strictly speaking a vehicle-ramming attack also includes attacks made via ramming a vehicle through a gate or barrier in order to deliver an explosive, but for the purposes of this article we will be examining only direct attacks on pedestrians in the open or in buildings.
You may think they’re not that big of a deal but ramming attacks can still produce dozens or hundreds of casualties, as the 2016 vehicle attack in Nice, France bloodily illustrates.
Ramming attacks require very little skill to execute, require no contraband, no prior operational experience on the part of the attacker and need no support network to bring to fruition. This makes early detection of a lone terrorist or small cell very difficult prior to an attack.
There are few places on earth where there are not motor vehicles, and even fewer where there will not be throngs of people clustered together in a big, juicy target. This makes vehicle attacks a constant and pervasive threat.
Methodology of Vehicle Ramming Attacks
A vehicle ramming attack is as simple as it sounds: a vehicle, usually a larger one like an SUV or smaller commercial box truck, is actively guided into and over or through a target; most often times a densely packed throng of people who are near the route of ingress. This is as destructive as it sounds.
The location of the attack will be chosen and the attack itself timed to correspond to the greatest number of pedestrians, and ergo potential casualties, present.
This means crowded sidewalks of metropolitan areas during morning commutes, lunch hours, or evening rush hours. Any densely populated area celebrating a major holiday, festival or some other social event will also be a prime target.
Once the location and timing of the attack is determined, the attacker will only have to procure a vehicle prior to zero hour and wait. If he does not own one he can rent one. If he cannot rent one he can steal one. Motor vehicles are quite literally ubiquitous in the West.
Once he is underway only providence or a tip from an insider or possible associate can alert authorities to what is coming. The pre-attack indicators of such events all the way up to the attack actually starting are minimal and difficult or even impossible to discern.
It bears repeating that such attacks require little or no preplanning at all: an attacker may simply drive around looking for a clump of targets that are on ground traversable and accessible to his vehicle.
Once the attacker arrives at or discovers the target location, all he must do is depress the accelerator and aim the vehicle at any people in his way, striking them as often and as rapidly as he can until immobilized or intercepted with lethal force.
If immobilized and not incapacitated, a significant fraction of attackers further prolong their assault using knives or guns, wounding or killing any who come within reach, as seen in the 2016 attack at Ohio State University in the U.S. and the 2017 Westminster Bridge and Borough market attacks in England.
Ultimately, only venues and locations that are inherently impassible to ground vehicles or protected by special anti-vehicle barricades are safe from this current model of attack.
Partial List of Vehicle Attacks in 2000s
Below is a partial list of serious direct vehicle attacks throughout the world. As with many techniques and tactics used by terrorists, there is certain faddishness to them: if one of their kind is successful, and it attains any publicity, others inspired and motivated by their example will follow in their footsteps.
Starting around 2005, the popularity of this tactic as for inflicting death by mowing people down has increased drastically. There is no indication that this type of attack will stop in the near term future.
Azor, Israel Attack 2001 – Terrorist drives bus into group of Israeli soldiers at bus stop. 8 killed, 26 wounded. Attacker escaped and was only stopped after police gunfire destroyed tires of bus some 30km away.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S 2006 – Terrorist drives into group of people on the University of North Carolina campus. 9 injuries. Driver turned himself in after the attack, admitted to desire to emulate one of his role models, a 9/11 hijacker, and avenge the deaths of Muslims around the world.
Jerusalem, Israel, July 2nd 2008 – Terrorist drives front-end loader into bus, cars and pedestrians on Jaffa Road. 3 killed, 30 wounded. Attacker shot to death.
Jerusalem, Israel, July 2nd 2008 – Terrorist drives heavy equipment into bus and cars on King David Street. 16 wounded.
Jerusalem, Israel, September 2008 – Terrorist rams sedan into group of civilians and off-duty soldiers standing beside Jerusalem Street. 19 wounded. Attacker shot dead at scene.
Tel Aviv, Israel, May 15th 2011 – Terrorist in truck rams cars and pedestrians on “Bar-Lev” Street. 1 killed, 17 wounded.
Tel Aviv, Israel, August 29th 2011 – Terrorist steals taxi and rams checkpoint outside popular nightclub. Driver disembarks and carries on attack by stabbing civilians and police officers. 8 wounded, attacker wounded.
London, England 2013 – British Army soldier is mowed down by two terrorists in car, then stabbed and chopped to death in street. Soldier, Lee Rigby, died. Attackers shot and wounded before apprehension at scene.
Beijing, China 2013 – A small SUV manned by three terrorists crashes into crowd at Tiananmen Square. Vehicle burst into flames, killing occupants and 2 civilians in crowd. 38 wounded.
Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Canada 2014 – Two Canadian Forces members struck by car driven by lone-wolf terrorist. One killed, other seriously wounded. Ensuing chase resulted in death of attacker by gunshot.
Nice, France 2016 – During Bastille Day celebrations, a large cargo truck driven by terrorist was driven into crowds along the Promenade des Anglais. Swerving back and forth at high speeds, the driver was able to kill 86 and wound 458, only stopping when finally killed by police gunfire. One of the deadliest attacks of its kind.
Columbus, Ohio 2016 – A false-alarm call caused an evacuation of labs at Ohio State University. Students and staff congregating outside building were struck by terrorist driving car, who then dismounted after crashing and continued attack with knife. 13 injured in attack, mostly from car, one of them by stray gunfire from police. Attacker shot and killed.
Berlin, Germany 2016 – Stolen truck driven into Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding 56, including the original driver of the truck who was shot at outset of attack. Attacker escaped, but was killed in shootout with police four days later in Italy.
Jerusalem, Israel 2017 – Truck rams group of IDF soldiers exiting bus in East Jerusalem. 4 killed, 15 injured. Attacker shot dead by soldiers and civilian.
London, England 2017 – Just outside of Westminster Palace a car is driven into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge. 5 killed, 50 injured. After crashing, attacker stabs unarmed police officer to death before being shot and killed by armed officer.
Barcelona, Spain 2017 – Tandem attacks: Van is driven by single terrorist, killing 13 and injuring appx. 130 others. Nine hours later 5 terrorists drive into crowd in Cambrils, killing one and wounding 6. The latter five were by police killed at the scene of the attack while the first was killed sometime later.
The above list represents just a small cross section of vehicle attacks and should impress upon you the frequency, prevalence and risk to life and limb such events entail. Note that they occur all over the world and universally target dense concentrations of people.
In the following section we will discuss a few strategies and procedures for avoiding a vehicular ramming attack, or minimizing harm should one occur.
Procedures to Mitigate Danger of Vehicular Attacks
The elephant in the room when talking about vehicle attacks is simply the omnipresent and looming risk of one.
You can be walking down the sidewalk, nary a threat in sight, and before you can react the jihadi or madman in the Sprinter accelerating up the road behind you has cranked the wheel in your direction with a snarl on his face, snap turning the van on to the sidewalk, mowing down you and others.
That’s scary. Luckily by paying attention and following some basic procedures you can greatly reduce the chances of getting caught by one of these attacks, even if you cannot reduce the chances of one occurring
Check out the following action items:
Listen for sounds of squealing and thumping tires, red-lining engines, collisions and other cues of rapidly accelerating vehicles.
These audio cues may be the only thing that will alert you in time should an attack commence very close to you. Look for vehicles moving jerkily, hopping curbs or lining up on sidewalks or open plazas.
Always walk facing oncoming traffic. This allows you to use your primary sense, vision, to notice any pending danger. Vehicles on the opposite side of the road will have to cross a median, opposing traffic and other obstacles to reach you, and are more likely to target an area adjacent to their lane.
If at all possible, choose to walk on thoroughfares or hang out in open areas guarded by substantial vehicle barricades, or at least cars parked all along its length. This will greatly hinder or completely stop vehicle access to the sidewalk you are on.
Understand that most areas, especially ones outside of major urban centers, are unlikely to have purpose made barricade protection.
MOVE YOUR FEET!
You must move rapidly and decisively to deal with a charging vehicle. If you cannot take cover behind a something that you know will stop a charging vehicle cold you’ll need to dodge it. Sprint sharply at a right angle away from the attacking vehicle’s path.
If you can get inside a sturdy building quickly, do so, but make sure it is not a largely open, glass-fronted affair that the driver can plow straight into. If you can get inside, and away from the front wall, you should be safe from the vehicle itself.
Once an attack has ended, either with the driver escaping or the vehicle coming to a halt, you cannot think you are out of the woods yet: a vehicle-borne explosive blast could be imminent, or the driver may pop out with a gun or knife. All are common follow-on sequences for a vehicle attack.
Do not approach a stopped vehicle. Use the transitional period to get as far away from the danger zone as you can, and take care to put as much ballistic cover between you and the area as you can.
If you carry a firearm or other weapon, be very judicious when it comes to drawing it; police will be blazing to the scene, and you do not want to be mistaken for the perp when they arrive, you with gun or knife in hand.
Use Maximum Caution in the Aftermath
You should at this point in your prepping path have learned the importance of basic trauma and first-aid skills, and made the choice to carry a compact trauma kit on your person.
If you need to render aid to yourself, a loved one or a stranger, you’ll need the tools and the skills to do so. More importantly, do not move into a potential killzone to help victims.
Look and Listen: Is the attack truly over? Are there signs other vehicles may be attacking soon? Where is the driver? Do you hear shooting or screams consistent with a follow-on attack? You must assess, assess, assess before moving back into potential danger.
If all signs point to the attack being over, do not get lazy or sloppy: vacate open areas, sidewalks and roads that could allow a follow-on vehicle attack. If you are going to stay or must stay near the area where the attack happened, it is a good idea to hang around a feature or barricade that can serve as a blockade for a vehicle and cover for gunfire.
Other Considerations for Vehicle Attacks
Since these attacks have become commonplace, you can no longer assume that what you perceive as a simple motor vehicle accident is what it appears to be. We have all seen the stories and videos of elderly, incapacitated or screwball drivers accidentally pinning the accelerator and plowing their car through the front of a shop.
These and other accidents genuinely occur in numbers far exceeding vehicular attacks, but the peril comes in when you consider a vehicle attack may just look like an accident to bystanders, potentially drawing in well-meaning but foolish victims.
This goes for you, too. Should you notice a serious crash, especially one that affects pedestrians or a building, do not rush in. Stay back and take a moment to look at what is happening and then decide.
As I mentioned, the numbers are overwhelmingly on your side that it is what it appears to be, a simple accident, but it is far from impossible in this day, especially in major metro areas, that it was an attack.
Considering the prevalence of follow-on action from terrorist drivers, keeping your distance until you can positively ascertain the situation is prudent. It is no ethical fault to use caution in order to keep yourself from becoming another casualty or victim. That will help no one, including first responders.
A vehicle ram is one of the new bread-and-butter tools of terrorists the world over. Anywhere there are cars and trucks, the potential for an attack of this type exists, though major urban centers or other dense gatherings of people are the most probable targets.
Vigilance is required now more than ever, as attacks of this nature are exceedingly difficult to predict or prevent, so your awareness and quick reactions will be the keys to surviving one of these events. So eyes up, and ears perked: there may be a wolf amongst the sheep in that sea of cars.
Charles Yor is an advocate of low-profile preparation, readiness as a virtue and avoiding trouble before it starts. He has enjoyed a long career in personal security implementation throughout the lower 48 of the United States.