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Can We Stop Terrorist Vehicular Attacks?

Robin Simcox
Sunday, October 22, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Among the many terrifying forms of violence ISIS and other terrorist groups are using, one of the newest, and deadliest, is the use of cars and trucks to run down innocent people. So far, governments have struggled in vain to stop this type of attack. Robin Simcox of the Heritage Foundation analyses the threat and identifies a range of policies that can make it less deadly.


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Editor’s Note: Among the many terrifying forms of violence ISIS and other terrorist groups are using, one of the newest, and deadliest, is the use of cars and trucks to run down innocent people. So far, governments have struggled in vain to stop this type of attack. Robin Simcox of the Heritage Foundation analyses the threat and identifies a range of policies that can make it less deadly.


It has been two months since Younes Abouyaaqoub rammed a van into a crowd of shoppers in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas tourist area. Hours later, five members of the same terrorist cell drove a car into a crowd of pedestrians in the nearby town of Cambrils. The attacks killed 16 people and injured 137. The Spanish attacks mark a trend that is increasingly common in Europe: Islamist terrorists carrying out attacks by acquiring a truck, van, or car and turning it into a weapon.

Europe has suffered from Islamist violence for decades, but this type of attack is a relatively new phenomenon. So far, vehicular attack plots have proved undetectable: There is yet to be an occasion targeting Europe (at least publicly disclosed) where authorities were able to get wind of the plot beforehand and prevent it. The consequence has been 132 people killed and 742 more injured. Unless European security agencies and law enforcement can reverse this trend, there will be yet more victims. And, as events in Edmonton recently proved, other countries outside Europe are likely to suffer similar attacks.

A Developing Trend

I recently examined all Islamist plots and acts of violence between January 2014 and May 2017 and identified six vehicular attacks with a provable Islamist motive. Europe has suffered another five vehicular attacks in the four months since my research concluded, demonstrating the increased popularity of this kind of attack. There were no such attacks in 2014 (terrorism-related charges in the Dijon vehicular attack were not pursued), one in 2015, and three in 2016. Yet there have been seven so far in 2017. (There was also an attack this year that specifically targeted Muslims outside a mosque in London.)

Yes, vehicular attacks constitute only a small fraction (7 percent) of the known terrorist plots Europe has faced since January 2014. However, these types of attack are disproportionately effective. Vehicular attacks have caused 45 percent of all injuries and 37 percent of all deaths in Islamism-inspired plots since January 2014. Civilians are most commonly the victims, although police and military personnel are targets, too.

Certainly it is doubtful that those committing these atrocities are on the Islamic State’s A-list.

Rakhmat Akilov, who hijacked a delivery truck and drove it into civilians in Stockholm in April 2017, said that the Islamic State ordered his act (which killed five and injured fifteen). The Islamic State also claimed credit for the Barcelona and Cambril attacks, saying their “soldiers” carried them out. Other types of linkage to the Islamic State are also apparent. A video of Anas Amri—who plowed into civilians at a Berlin Christmas market with a truck in December 2016—was released pledging allegiance to Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the Islamic State does not seem to have directed the majority of these cases.

Certainly it is doubtful that those committing these atrocities are on the Islamic State’s A-list. There is no evidence that any had trained or fought abroad in conflict zones like Syria. Indeed, the Spanish attacks could have been even worse if the terrorists had not accidentally leveled their own bomb-making factory the day before they carried out their attacks.

Vehicular attacks have varied in terms of their geographical location, with France (five times), Spain (twice), the UK (twice), Germany and Sweden all affected. However, what is arguably just as noticeable is the geographical roots of the perpetrators. Nine of the 11 plots have a North African connection, specifically to Morocco, Algeria, or Tunisia.

This trend is in most part explicable by the type of immigration Europe—especially France and Spain—has experienced. It is, however, somewhat unusual to see North Africans appear in British plots. (Salman Abedi, the suicide bomber in this May’s non-vehicular attack in Manchester, was of Libyan descent.) The UK has historically experienced more immigration from South Asia, and the perpetrators of Islamist plots there reflect this. According to a Henry Jackson Society study, 52 percent of Islamism-related offenses committed between 1998 and 2015 were by those of South Asian ancestry. Just 8 percent were of North African ancestry—and even these numbers seemed to be going down. Whereas those from North African countries committed 10 percent of Islamism-related offenses between 1998 and 2010, this declined to 4 percent between 2011 and 2015. Whether the involvement of North Africans in successful attacks in 2017 is a new trend or statistical quirk will only become clear with time and more research.

The terrorist threat posed by refugees and asylum seekers is an ongoing question of particular pertinence to Europe, which has taken in such vast numbers in recent years. My data demonstrated that 22 of the 142 European plots (15 percent) between January 2014 and May 2017 featured refugees and asylum seekers. When it comes to vehicular plots, asylum seekers carried out two of them (18 percent). While from an admittedly small dataset, this ratio is broadly in line with the overall number of plots featuring refugees or asylum seekers in Europe.

The two plots featuring asylum seekers highlight the difficulties European countries are facing with how to handle cases involving individuals whose applications for asylum have been rejected but the state has been unable to deport.

The first case involved Anas Amri. He had headed to Italy in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia. The chaotic situation in his country of origin meant Italy did not have a stable partner with which it could work with to arrange his deportation. Italy housed Amri in a migrant center—which he subsequently tried to burn down. He was in jail for four years, where he made a variety of threats against other prisoners and attempted to instigate uprisings.

Upon his 2015 release, Amri decided to try his luck in Germany. By March 2016, he was under surveillance as a possible national-security threat. He had an asylum application denied that June, but he was not deported because he did not have a passport. Months later, he committed his attack.

It is a similar story with Rakhmat Akilov, who had applied for permanent residency in Sweden in 2014. Unsuccessful in this application, Sweden gave him, in December 2016, a deadline of four weeks to depart, a request he ignored. Swedish police became aware of the case in February 2017, but Akilov had disappeared from his registered address—a common occurrence in deportation cases. He committed his attack in April.

Even if authorities had tracked Akilov down, Sweden would not have been able to do much about it. Akilov was an Uzbek citizen, and the European Court of Human Rights has consistently thwarted attempts by European countries to deport national security threats to countries with questionable human rights records. Indeed, an Uzbek based in Sweden can only return by choice and without Uzbek authorities’ knowledge.

Next Steps

Clearly, then, Europe faces a series of security and legal conundrums.

Legislative changes are under consideration to better guard against vehicular attacks. For instance, the British government is weighing an additional measure of requiring that individuals who rent vehicles have their names checked against terrorism watch lists beforehand.

Naturally, terrorists have ways around this. For starters, only five of the eleven attacks seem to have involved a rented vehicle: Some perpetrators already owned the vehicle or, as was the case in Berlin and Stockholm, simply stole it. Perhaps such legislative measures seem faintly ridiculous. Clearly, the main problem in Europe is Islamist ideology rather than it being too easy to hire vans. Yet as this ideology is not disappearing anytime soon, implementing practical measures in the meantime that make it harder for terrorists to kill is necessary.

There have been some immediate, visible responses to this spate of vehicular attacks. London’s Metropolitan Police can now use ‘Talon,’ a mat with steel spikes that can be quickly rolled out onto roads to puncture the tires of a vehicle being driven by a potential attacker (the innovative part is that it is designed to bring the vehicle to a very controlled stop). Talon is expected to be used more and more when there are significant gatherings of people—although in congested cities such as London, where significant gatherings of people are almost unavoidable whatever the occasion, this is no panacea.

The UK has installed protective barriers on bridges across London, with similar measures implemented in Edinburgh and Oxfordshire. France did the same months ago. It is also increasingly commonplace in Italy. While the precise nature of the planned attack was undisclosed, even Finland erected barriers outside a popular Helsinki church in response to a possible plot there.

Gaining intelligence as early in the planning phase as possible is ultimately the only way to avert attacks consistently.

Other measures may be necessary. For instance, the Amri and Akilov cases clearly show that European countries do not have the necessary capacity required to deport national-security threats. The UK made extraordinary efforts to negotiate Deportation with Assurance arrangements with countries to which they wished to deport terror suspects. This was in response to the European Court of Human Rights consistently preventing these deportations due to those countries’ poor human rights records. Other countries may wish to replicate the UK’s efforts.

Gaining intelligence as early in the planning phase as possible is ultimately the only way to avert attacks consistently. Therefore, governments must share intelligence with each other, rapidly when possible, and countries mutually threatened by terrorism need to carry on deepening their intelligence-sharing relationships. Intelligence agencies must be funded appropriately so they have the manpower to run down leads (which has not always been the case in Europe). Furthermore, provided there is sufficient legal oversight, authorities must be able—by hook or by crook—to access suspects’ phones and the encrypted communications within them.

Furthermore, those arms of the state in contact with radicalized individuals must be trained to be aware of signs of potential extremism and be encouraged to voice concerns to the appropriate agencies. This is why, in the UK, Section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 “places a duty on certain bodies,” such as schools, to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.” It is a duty of care issue similar to if teachers suspect gangs are drawing in their pupils or they are at risk of sexual exploitation. This, too, is an approach other countries should consider.

The use of vehicles to commit terrorist attacks is a relatively recent development in Europe and one that, thus far, authorities have not been able to counter effectively. However, there is no room for defeatism; passivity will only guarantee that the tempo of Islamist-inspired attacks remains as stark as it is presently. Instead, European governments must implement responsible measures that will help combat the threat.

Robin Simcox, the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Fellow, specializes in counterterrorism and national security policy.

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