Stopping the 5,000-lb. Bullet

How to prepare & respond to the trend of terrorist attacks with vehicles

By Scot DuFour  |   Apr 20, 2017
Image from the Berlin 2016 attack.
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The terrorist attack in London recently was yet another example of an increasing trend across the globe. Terrorists and lone wolf attackers using vehicles as weapons has become a common method for killing as many people as possible. We’ve seen these attacks in Sweden, Germany, France, England, and elsewhere.

The availability of vehicles, and the sheer number of cars on the road, provide an attacker with an effective weapon that can easily go unnoticed until it’s too late. Understanding the characteristics of vehicle attacks and analyzing policy and response options for law enforcement will help us all respond to, and hopefully prevent, these attacks more effectively.

Understanding the Trend

Vehicles have been used as weapons for a long time. But it seems they are becoming a preferred weapon of terrorist organizations like the Islamic State. Europe has seen at least three attacks like this in the last year and there are many examples of vehicles used as weapons in the United States. The Islamic State has specifically called for attackers to use vehicles and has even referred to vehicles as “The Ultimate Mowing Machine.”i

The trend makes sense because attackers require no technical skills or marksmanship, which means almost any regular citizen with no training or access to traditional weapons can cause significant damage. Vehicles are also incredibly easy to obtain and do not garner the same attention that firearms do in many nations.

There are some vehicular attacks that only involve the use of the vehicle as a weapon but there are other examples, such as the recent London attack, where the vehicle attack was only one of multiple weapons used. Knives, firearms, and explosives have been used by the attackers after causing the initial damage with their vehicle. Terrorist groups have even written and distributed instructional materials for would-be attackers on how to utilize a vehicle for an attack. Their instructions have included using explosive devices and adding metal to the outside of the vehicle to cut or dismember the bodies of victims during the attack. They also recommend using large and sturdy vehicles such as 4x4s or commercial vehicles.

Preparing and Responding

Law enforcement has responded effectively to the terrorist active shooter threat and learned many lessons the hard way on how to respond best to that kind of terrorist activity. However, preparing for a lone wolf vehicle attack may prove more difficult because of the type of weapon being used. Attackers want to kill and injure as many people as possible, so law enforcement should be especially cognizant when large gatherings and events are occurring within their jurisdiction.

Utilizing barricades and preventing vehicular access to pedestrians is an obvious preventive response to this threat. Additionally, officers should pay close attention to any theft of large commercial vehicles in the days leading up to a public gathering or event. Dump trucks, tractors, and snow plows are examples of the kind of vehicles that the Islamic State suggests their vehicular attackers utilize.

Law enforcement learned many lessons from incidents like the Oklahoma City Bombing and the first bombing at the World Trade Center. Most government and high-profile buildings have restricted access or security measures in place to help prevent the delivery of explosives via vehicle. The trend of vehicle attacks on that kind of high-profile building has decreased because of those preventative measures. Unfortunately, the new trend of vehicular attacks involves running people down on sidewalks, at gatherings, and waiting at bus stops. Planning to prevent those kind of attacks is particularly difficult.

One important aspect of this discussion is the fact that many police agencies across the country have adopted a policy of discouraging or prohibiting their officers from shooting at moving vehicles. While it is true that incapacitating the driver of an attacking vehicle does little to stop the vehicle’s momentum, perhaps this trend should add new points to the discussion on officer’s ability to shoot at moving vehicles. Terrorist attackers are utilizing the vehicle as one of several weapons during their attack and incapacitating the driver might also mean stopping the subsequent attack with a knife, firearm, or explosive device. The recent situation in London is a perfect example of an attacker first utilizing a vehicle to kill and then transitioning to an edged weapon to kill a police officer once the vehicle was disabled.

Conclusion

Terrorist organizations are specifically calling for attacks on their behalf, which utilize vehicles as weapons. The Islamic State has provided guidance to attackers on vehicle choice and vehicle modifications to make the attacks as deadly as possible. There has been a clear increase in the trend of lone wolf attackers heeding this call, and many of those attacks have also involved secondary weapons such as edged weapons, firearms, and explosives after the vehicle attack. Law enforcement can prepare for, and respond to, these attacks by utilizing vehicle barricades near crowded events, being cognizant of the theft of construction or commercial vehicles, and carefully considering their policies as they relate to the ability of their officers to shoot at the drivers of vehicles.

i Cameron, S. (2016). “Preparing for vehicle attacks.” Law & Order, 64(9).

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Scot DuFour

Scot DuFour began his career in law enforcement with the Phoenix, Arizona Police Department in 2004 and worked primarily on patrol in South Phoenix. In 2008, Scot moved to Colorado and transferred to the Aurora, Colorado Police Department where he was selected for the Vice and Narcotics Section in 2011. Scot is currently a Task Force Officer with the Drug Enforcement Administration’s OCDETF Strike Force. Scot has an AAS in Law Enforcement Technology with honors, a BA in Philosophy with a concentration in ethics, magna cum laude, and a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice with honors.

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