Hell on Wheels: Vehicular Ramming Attacks As The Tactic
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.