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Hell on Wheels: Vehicular Ramming Attacks As The Tactic Of Choice
By Steven Crimando, CHS-V

Nightmare on West Street
On Halloween, Tuesday October 31, a 29-year-old Uzbek national committed the first deadly terrorist attack in New York City since 9/11. Traveling at a high rate of speed in a rented Home Depot flatbed pickup truck, Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov executed a well-developed attack plan and pulled off Manhattan’s West Side Highway (West Street) onto the scenic bike path that runs between the roadway and Hudson River waterfront. Plowing through the groups of pedestrians and cyclists for 17 blocks, Saipov left two dozen people covered in tire tracks and blood, ultimately killing 8 and seriously injuring 12 more. All of this unfolded in the late afternoon shadow of the Freedom Tower, with Ground Zero and the 9/11 memorial only blocks away.

The attack, which Saipov later disclosed to police from his hospital bed, had been several weeks in the making. It was cut short when he collided with an occupied school bus, injuring several on board. Exiting the vehicle while shouting “Allahu akbar,” he began waving two handguns, (later found to be a pellet gun and a paintball gun). Saipov was shot and wounded by the police, arrested and transported to a city hospital. Notes later found in the truck, along with statements made to the police, indicated that he planned to continue mowing down pedestrians along a much longer route that would have taken him onto the Brooklyn Bridge. New York City Police Department (NYPD) Deputy Police Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrrorism, John Miller said in a press briefing that the attack was carried out in the name of ISIS and that the Saipov “followed almost to a T, the instructions that ISIS has put out on its social media channels before with instructions to their followers on how to carry out such an attack.” Days after the attack, ISIS pronounced Saipov a "soldier of the caliphate," its weekly newspaper.

The Tactic of Choice
Since motor vehicles are ubiquitous and people are generally comfortable around them it can be difficult to fully appreciate the incredibly destructive nature of vehicular attacks and their capacity for creating mass casualty events. Vehicular Terrorist Attacks (VTAs), also referred to as vehicle-ramming attacks, are those instances of mass violence in which a perpetrator deliberately rams a motor vehicle into a building or crowd of people. Vehicles have also been used by attackers to breach security around buildings with locked gates when initiating bombing and/or shooting incidents. This tactic is certainly not new and examples of vehicular attacks date back at least to the early 1970’s.

Such attacks have dramatically increased in their frequency over the past three years. Salafi-Jihadi terrorists have increasingly employed vehicle ramming as a low-cost, low-tech weapon of mass destruction. At holiday celebrations in France and Germany, in crowded tourist areas in Spain and the UK, and on an ordinary day at Ohio State University, violent extremists have used cars and trucks to plow into unsuspecting crowds, in several instances following on with knives or firearms to inflict even more carnage. Crowds at large public gatherings and popular outdoor venues are soft, target rich environments.

From 2014 through October 31 of this year there were 23 terrorist vehicle ramming attacks, resulting in 204 deaths and 861 injuries.i They also include the include the numbers of killed or injured in the vehicle assault in Charlottesville, Virginia in August targeting counter-protesters at a white nationalist rally; an incident U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said met the definition of domestic terrorism. In May, a man driving in New York’s Times Square plowed into a crowd during lunchtime, killing one person and injuring 22. While authorities said the incident was not terrorism, the Islamic State, inspired by the crash, used it to warn that more attacks on the nation’s largest city and popular tourist destinations would follow.

Although vehicular ramming attacks represent only a small fraction of the overall number of causalities from terrorist attacks worldwide, the ease of executive combined with the difficulty in detecting or deterring such attacks has made this attack method a particularly challenging problems for the law enforcement and intelligence communities. In May, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued an unclassified report, "Vehicle Ramming Attacks: Threat Landscape, Indicators, and Countermeasures" providing guidance on detecting and deterring vehicular assaults. The report warned that, “No community, large or small, rural or urban, is immune to attacks of this kind by organized or ‘lone wolf’ terrorists,” and that locations particularly vulnerable are those with “large numbers of people congregate, including parades and other celebratory gatherings, sporting events, entertainment venues, or shopping centers.”ii

Strategic Aspects of Vehicular Terrorist Attacks
The strategic objectives of terrorism include creating the maximum degree of social, economic and psychological disruption. Attacks at large public gatherings using weapons as common and accessible as cars and trucks can have a very chilling effect on the population. Such attacks disrupt public celebrations that foster community cohesion and national unity. They can deter shoppers, sports fans and concert-goers, as well as others who become fearful of public settings producing serious societal and economic consequences.
From the terrorist’s perspective, creating a fear of people simply coming together in large public gatherings plays well into an overarching strategy to change the national character of their enemies, create a climate of fear and distrust, and force the population and its leaders to become increasing divided in their opinions regarding the level of risk and appropriate options for response. The true weapon of terror, of course, is fear, but more specifically ambient fear that is always operating in the background. When every car or truck on the street can potentially be used as a weapon, and every public gathering viewed as a target, the pervasive and constant fear that ensues aligns well with the terrorist’s agenda.

The Terrorist’s Playbook
Immediately following the shooting incident in Orlando in June 2016, considered the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) published a special edition of their online magazine, Inspire, as an operational guide urging true believers to carry out more attacks against the general population in America, specifically targeting large public gatherings. Shortly after, the ISIS urged followers to wage vehicle attacks on the West in three issues of Rumiyah magazine released in October, November, and December 2016, providing detailed tactical guidance for vehicle ramming and knife attacks in a series of installments titled “Just Terror Tactics.” Subsequent AQAP publications provided further guidance about which types of vehicles would be most effective. One issue featured a glossy, full-page photograph of a Ford F-350 pickup under a banner headline calling the truck “the

Ultimate Mowing Machine.”
Motor vehicles are easy enough to own, rent, borrow or steal. Accessing a vehicle does not raise the same red flags as attempting to acquire firearms or bomb-building materials. The 2012 FBI report, “Terrorist Use of Vehicle Ramming Tactics,” suggests that the skill level necessary to execute a successful vehicle attack is extremely low compared to an operation using firearms and/or explosives.iii Vehicles can be moved around easily without suspicion. No specialized training or covert financing is needed to plan and conduct an effective vehicle attack which may yield a similar casualty count as a more complex and costly bombing or shooting attack. There is an extremely low threshold for conducting a devastating vehicular attack, and terrorists now have a well-developed template for planning and executing such assaults referred to as the “playbook.”
The tactical plan promoted by both ISIS and al Qaeda is both simple and deadly. It requires no permissions, funding or communication with the organizations’ core leadership. True believers are encouraged to formulate and execute these plans independently employing

The following action steps:
1. Target Acquisition: The publications suggest the identification of crowded areas, such as festivals, parades and outdoor markets, and explains that attacks against civilian targets are more devastating and strategically useful than government or military targets. Locations where there are a maximum number of pedestrians and with the fewest vehicles are thought to be ideal. Like mass shooting attacks, locations that are both populated and confined, where victims have limited opportunity to flee or would cause a stampede injuring others while trying to flee, are also desirable.

2. Timing: The magazines also suggested that attacks be timed in conjunction with important anniversaries and symbolic events in order maximize their psychosocial impact. Those events or gatherings associated with holidays with religious or patriotic symbolism are especially valuable.

3. Vehicle Acquisition: The publications suggested that the attacker buy, rent, borrow, or steal a truck rather than a car. At least one article provided specific recommendations for certain models of large, heavy trucks that would still be easy to maneuver in crowded or tight spaces.

4. Secondary Weapons: Rumiyah and Inspire both encouraged the use of secondary weapons, specially a knife or firearm to continue the attack when the vehicle is stopped. Great detail has been provided in selecting the best type of knife for an attack, as well as how to most effectively strike with an edged weapon and which areas of the victims’ bodies were the most lethal targets. The use of secondary weapons not only increased the scope of the attack, but would likely draw fire from responding police or military personnel, ensuring martyrdom.

5. Martyrdom: An Inspire article dating back to 2010 directed that vehicle ramming attacks should be martyrdom operations and directed attackers to continue fighting to their death. Surrender or capture were unacceptable outcomes and missions ending without martyrdom were likely to be considered failures.

6. Allegiance: Both ISIS and al Qaeda have instructed their followers to make sure that their allegiance to the groups was clearly known through pronouncements and written notes left behind and/or thrown from the vehicle during the attack. An issue of Rumiyah specifically instructed that the phrase “The Islamic State will remain!” be used to reinforce the attacker’s allegiance and to promote the image of an enduring Caliphate.iv

Protecting the Public from Vehicular Terrorist Attacks
The increasing use of vehicles as a weapon in terrorist attacks presents a daunting challenge for policy makers and others tasked with protecting the public. Such attacks are nearly impossible to prevent, since anyone with access to a truck or car can turn it on a crowd of unsuspecting civilians.

Defense against Vehicular Attacks
Like active shooters, terrorists using vehicles as weapons choose soft targets, such as those filled with carefree tourists. Vehicle attacks can be executed spontaneously, and planned attacks may not provide many pre-incident indicators useful to law enforcement or intelligence analysts. Early detection of terrorists on the pathway to a vehicle attack may be impossible in open societies. A VTA is very difficult, and possibly the most difficult type of terrorist attack for law enforcement to prevent and protect the public from.
A combination of both active and passive defense measures may be necessary to mitigate this risk, but not necessarily prevent attempts at vehicular attacks. Passive measures include installing barriers and buffers that would prevent a crowd strike, whether purposeful or accidental. These include both passive and operable barriers:

Fencing: Construction fencing may slow but not necessarily stop a hostile vehicle from reaching pedestrians, but can provide buffer keeping pedestrians further from likely strike zones.

Vehicles: Large construction or public works vehicles, such as dump trucks loaded with sand or stone, can be used for road closures in the areas around large events or along parade routes. The use of vehicles creates a flexible options that can be quickly deployed or redeployed as needed.

Stationary Barriers: There are several types of stationary barriers and the selection of the most effective type must be based on several factors requiring a thorough evaluation of the perceived risk. Walls, permanent bollards, and other architectural features can be designed to work with the environment to reduce the possibility of vehicle/pedestrian contact.

Moveable Barriers: Jersey Barriers are an example of moveable barriers. Made of concrete the barriers standing 2.6 to 3.5 feet tall are designed to prevent vehicles from crossing into oncoming traffic to prevent or reduce the damage done in highway crashes. They are easy to construct, position/reposition, and been effectively used for anti-terrorism purposes. Large moveable bollards ranging in form from concrete blocks to large, heavy decorative planters also can be effective countermeasures.

Operable Barriers: Wedge and beam barricades, raised and lowered by electrical or hydraulic power are more complicate, expensive and require more maintenance than stationary barriers. They are used more often for facility protection than to protect special events or temporary crowds.

Active measures are most effective when used in concert with passive measures. Active measure involve technical surveillance of high risk areas by a combination of commercial, public and law CCTV and security video from commercial, public and law enforcement sources, along with direct action.

Surveillance: Monitoring the environment before, during and after an incident through a variety of means helps provide the situational awareness necessary detect any useful indicators of a ATA. This includes:
Pre-incident Surveillance: Useful for hostile surveillance detection, reconnaissance of potential target areas and potential rehearsals or dry runs of threat activity.

Incident Surveillance: Important to real-time situational awareness for law enforcement and first responder deployment and response to a dynamic event.

Post-incident: Critical to the identification of the suspect, crime scene reconstruction, and the defensibility of law enforcement officer response, as well as providing meaningful evidence in the instance of a criminal prosecution if the perpetrator survives.

Direct Action
Law enforcement and security forces should plan and train to stop a VTA in progress, even though that may prove difficult. Following the attack in Nice, France which killed 86 pedestrians leaving a Bastille Day fireworks display, NYPD amended their policy and procedures allowing officers to fire into a moving vehicle in the instance of a ramming attack. Responding officers must keep in mind that they are facing a determined adversary willing to die (likely seeking to die) in a deadly force encounter. To date, most VTAs have involved only one occupant, the driver, in the vehicle. Officers engaging the vehicle and/or its operator must consider the possibility of additional hostile passengers, explosives or other hazardous materials, such as radiological or chemical agents onboard. Officers must also recognize when firing into a moving vehicle that even if the operator is neutralized, the vehicle may continue for some distance into a crowd with before finally coming to rest. Even with the vehicle stopped and the driver apparently killed, approaching officers should anticipate the possibility of a secondary attack using an IED triggered remotely by others in an operational cell.

Personal Safety and Survival Strategies
Unlike the active shooter risk, there has not been significant information campaign by homeland security and law enforcement officials to inform the public about the critical action steps recommended to improve the odds of survival in a vehicle ramming attack.
While many people have some familiarity with the basic “Run, Hide, Fight” and variants of that model of active shooter response, very few have any idea of what they would do if caught up in a terrorist vehicle attack while outdoors in a crowded environment. It has become increasingly important that the public under the growing risk of vehicular terrorist attacks, as well as strategies and tactics to recognize avoid and survive what has become the terrorists current attack method of choice.

Efforts to inform civilians about how best to improve their personal safety at large outdoor public gatherings or crowded areas should include action steps recommended for before, during and after a VTA. The perpetrators of mass violence are not individuals who just “snapped,” in fact in many instances they have not been individuals at all, but rather teams or cells who have engaged in significant pre-operational planning and preparation. Anyone responsible for bringing their family or a group to a large public gathering should also engage in planning, reconnaissance and onsite situational awareness.

Applying a Red Team* mindset to large gatherings can give you a significant advantage in the event of a vehicular attack. While not at the same depth as the type of advance work done for executive or public figure protection, thinking the situation through from the bad guys' perspective can help event-goers stay off of the “X”] (i.e., point of impact) or a least move quickly toward safety in the event of a vehicle attack.v Of course, the safest way to stay off the “X” is simply to avoid the types of places or events that would be attractive to attackers. That is not always possible or desirable, and in a sense, the terrorists win if we change our way of life in response to the threat of violence.

About the Author

Steven Crimando is the Principal of Behavioral Science Applications, training and consulting firm focused on human factors in anti-terrorism, violence prevention and critical incident response. Mr. Crimando is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress (BCETS), and holds Level 5 Certification in Homeland Security (CHS-V). He serves as a consultant and trainer for many multinational corporations, government agencies, major city police departments and military programs.

Mr. Crimando was deployed to the 9/11 and 1993 World Trade Center attacks, as well as New Jersey’s anthrax screening center, and other acts of international terrorism. He is a Deputy and Police Surgeon with the Atlantic County, New Jersey Sheriff’s Office, an advisor to the Morris County, New Jersey Active Shooter Rescue Force. He has an extensive background as a law enforcement instructor, as well as in EMS and emergency management.


These numbers are aggregated from public sources representing those injured or killed in the ramming portion of the attack.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2107). Vehicle Ramming Attacks: Threat Landscape, Indicators, and Countermeasures. Transportation Security Administration, Office of Security Policy and Industry. U.S. Department of Homeland Security (2012). FBI Warning: Terrorist Use of Vehicle Ramming Tactics. FBI and Department of Homeland Security. NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau-Terrorism Threat Analysis Group. Vehicle Ramming Attack in New York City. November 1, 2017. (Open Source Assessment). Van Horne, P. and Riley, J. (2014). Left of Bang. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. New York, NY. Ibid.


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