Motoring Jihad: Vehicle Ramming Attacks…it sounds almost flippant, but it’s a serious concern. Last night we reported on a series of attacks in London. They were initiated by a van running down pedestrians near the London Bridge and followed by a series of stabbing attacks by the Islamists who’d been riding in that van (and perhaps others, it’s too early to tell). So far there are 7 dead and 48 injured. Among the injured are 4 police officers, including one who went after the attackers with his baton (remember, most LEOs in the UK are unarmed) and another who, though off duty, tackled one of the knifemen. This morning Old Man Rodriguez Gonzalez Fernandez Hernandez is going to look at vehicular attacks. Mad Duo
Motoring Jihad: Vehicle Ramming Attacks
Berlin, Germany. Nice, France. Ohio State University, USA. Westminster Bridge, London, UK. Stockholm, Sweden. Times Square, New York, USA*. And now London, UK.
Vehicle ramming attacks (VRAs) are becoming the preferred tactic of our jihadist terrorist enemy. Just like the IED threat in Iraq, something we didn’t anticipate but which seem completely predictable in hindsight, VRAs are the weapon sitting in plain sight for years that almost nobody thought to use until recently. They’re incredibly effective for a number of reasons, and we’re already far behind in our efforts to create effective countermeasures.
The most effective VRA to date occurred in Nice, France last year, and killed 86 people. The least effective was at the Ohio State University, which injured several but killed nobody. Last night’s attack in London, at last report, claimed seven lives and caused over three dozen injuries. We don’t yet know how many died from the ramming and how many from the following knife attack. Sweden’s VRA claimed five, Berlin’s attack claimed twelve, Westminster Bridge six, and Times Square one. That’s 117, including those stabbed by the attackers, in just the last eleven months. And that’s not counting dozens of vehicle attacks in Israel, like this one that killed four Israeli soldiers in January.
These attacks have suddenly become very popular in the west for a number of reasons, all of which are bad, bad news for the good guys.
First, almost anyone can carry out a vehicle attack. Making and detonating a bomb requires resources, skill and intelligence. Gun attacks require a gun and basic proficiency in weapons operation (I can think of two mass shootings and one attempt where the shooter’s weapons malfunctioned and they had no idea how to clear them). Knife attacks require strength and skill. But almost anyone of even less-than-average strength, skill or intelligence can drive a car.
Second, terrorists will never run out of soft targets. Cars drive on streets. Right next to streets are sidewalks. Pedestrians walk on sidewalks. In towns with significant populations, sidewalks in certain areas are frequently crowded with pedestrians. A 98-pound weakling who can’t handle a gun, has no idea where to get explosives or how to use them, and isn’t strong enough to stab a kitten, can easily hop the curb at lunchtime and run down dozens of pedestrians. And there is no way in hell bollards to block vehicles can be installed in every pedestrian area in America.
Third, buying or operating a vehicle isn’t suspicious. Yes, that 98-pound weakling might raise eyebrows if he buys a nineteen-ton refrigerator truck like was used in Nice, especially if he obviously knows nothing about commercial vehicles. But everyone buys cars. Everyone buys pickup trucks (in some places, you look suspicious if you don’t buy a truck). Everyone learns to drive, and unless they commit very specific offenses like DWI or repeatedly driving without insurance, everyone of every ideological stripe has the legal right to drive.
Nobody looks at a guy and says, “He’s suspicious. He has a car.”
Fourth, running people over works. There have been numerous situations where police ran over and killed suspects instead of shooting them, like this one earlier this year (you can fast forward to 00:45 or so if you’re impatient).
Or this one last year in Arizona (watch the whole thing):
A driver who rams a two-ton car into a crowd at sixty miles per hour will probably do more damage than he could with a pistol or even rifle (if he’s untrained). A speeding car is a hell of a lot of mass and kinetic energy, and hits many targets at once. Think of it as a Claymore on wheels.
Fifth, a vehicle ramming attack moves faster than the news about a vehicle ramming attack. The Nice attacker drove about 1.2 miles, and killed unsuspecting victims along almost the entire route. The New York Times Square attacker drove 3.5 blocks, and the last people he hit appear to have had no more warning than the first (see next section for video). A VRA looks like an accident at first glance, and the average person won’t realize it’s an attack until it’s too late. That means a VRA can last a long time, and the attacker will have a steady supply of victims.
Last, it is almost impossible to quickly stop a vehicle ramming attack. A jihadist in a big truck is basically sitting in a bullet-resistant weapon. It’s not bulletproof, but it’ll provide a lot of protection from pistols, which are the weapons most likely to show up first. Yes, counterterrorist cops in Europe have long guns and many American patrol officers have carbines in their cars, but the chances of someone having a long gun out and ready when a VRA occurs hover between zero and none. If the attack happens in free America, several citizens in the area will likely be armed with concealed pistols, but fire from a pistol against a fast-moving vehicle probably won’t work and could hit bystanders. If the attack happens in NY, California or Europe, I’d be willing to bet about seven million dollars that NOBODY will have a gun, and nobody with a gun will arrive until the attack has gone on for some time. Either way, the chances of Joe Regular Guy stopping the attack, armed or not, aren’t good.
Watch this video, taken the night of the attack in Nice, France. The attack begins at about 00:18.
If you were armed, could you have stopped that truck? If so, how? You could stand directly in front of it and mag dump into the windshield in front of the driver — shooting at it as it passes will likely have no effect, especially since you’d be shooting upward through the door. But you’d have only seconds to recognize the threat, draw, engage and get the hell out of the way. What’s the likelihood you’d be able to do all that and get a round through the windshield at the right spot, and have that round not lose so much mass and velocity as it goes through the windshield that it becomes ineffective? Maybe that’s not a one-in-a-billion shot, and maybe your response is “So you’re saying there’s a chance,” but I don’t have any realistic expectation that a concealed carrier could take out a truck like that.
You could also jump on the running board and fire through the side window. It’s what I like to think I’d try to do. But the Nice attacker was swerving, and going up to fifty miles per hour. A motorcycle rider said he rode next to the truck and climbed onto the running board before the driver pointed a gun at him, causing him to jump off. Another motorcycle rider reportedly tried to do the same thing but was run over and killed (there are conflicting reports and I’m not sure exactly what happened).
So it’s possible you could climb on the side and take a shot. But it’s also possible the driver himself is armed, like the Nice and Berlin attackers were, so you might get shot in the face and run over anyway. No matter what, using your weapon to stop a big truck like that wouldn’t be easy.
“Well, sure,” you might say. “That’s a big truck, and it would be hard to stop, but most ramming attacks would probably involve a regular car or pickup.” And you’re right, they probably would since regular passenger vehicles are easier to get. So watch this video from the Times Square VRA:
Same question: if you had been there and been armed, what could you have done?
The car was traveling much faster than the cargo truck in Nice. It doesn’t have as much material to deflect gunfire as the cargo truck, but it’s also much smaller and easier to miss. If you’d deliberately stand in front of that car you’re insane, especially since the car will keep moving even if you manage to kill the driver. If your first instinct would be to jump out of the way (and yes, that would be your first instinct) would you then open fire on that small and fast-moving car, in an area full of civilians?
No, I’m not saying there’s no way to stop vehicle attackers. But I am saying it’s pretty damn hard to stop a vehicle with a gun, as many Soldiers discovered during the War on Terror. I personally watched my gunner in Iraq shoot a suspected car bomb with an M2; the vehicle stopped, then started driving again when we were much farther away. If .50 caliber rounds into the hood didn’t stop a Toyota Corolla (I think that’s what it was), your Glock 19 probably won’t stop a VRA.
So what should you do in case a VRA happens in front of you?
Zombieland already gave us Rule #1:
If you’re unfortunate enough to encounter a VRA, first thing to do is GET OUT OF THE WAY. What’s probably next is to run like hell after the vehicle. As I explained earlier, you probably can’t stop the car with a pistol; however, the driver might have to slow down or stop due to an obstacle, and if you catch up you can shoot him through the window. Or he might completely disable his vehicle by hitting enough objects or people, giving you a chance to engage (in articles titled “Just Terror Tactics” in its magazine Rumiyah, ISIS suggests using a large truck with high clearance so bodies won’t physically stop the vehicle).
However, the attack probably isn’t over when the vehicle stops. The Westminster, OSU and London Bridge VRAs were all followed by stabbing attacks, as was this attack in Israel in 2015.
If you’re in good enough shape you might be able to stay close enough to the vehicle to shoot the driver as soon as he gets out to attempt a mass stabbing. But remember, you should not automatically shoot the driver even if you suspect you’re witnessing a VRA. You might actually be witnessing an accident, or a driver out of control due to a medical emergency. The driver’s true intent might be perfectly clear in hindsight and on multiple stitched-together videos, but as it’s happening you’ll only see one small part of the overall situation, and you’ll see it really fast.
Don’t mistake an innocent person or stupid drunk driver for a terrorist.
Rule #2 would be Situational Awareness. Know when you’re in a likely VRA target area, like crowded downtown sidewalks. At a mall you’re far more likely to face a mass shooter than a VRA, but in crowded public areas beside streets we’re watching the threat of VRAs grow. So be aware.
No, that doesn’t mean “be paranoid.” Just like with mass shootings, the chances of you ever being involved in one are remote. But be ready, because I’m sure nobody who wound up with tire tracks on their clothes from a VRA expected it when they woke up that morning.
Rule #3: Overcome Normalcy Bias.
In almost every mass violent incident, untrained people (and some trained people) hear shots or screams, see a panicked stampede or glimpse a vehicle where it shouldn’t be, yet their first thought is “this isn’t what it looks like.” Everyone tries to fit unexpected weird things into some normal explanation: gunshots must actually be noise from power tools or something falling onto the floor, an explosion must be thunder, panicked screams must be teenagers screwing around, and so on. I once arrived on a scene where a police officer and bank robber had just fired over twenty rounds at each other at close range in broad daylight in the middle of an upper-scale neighborhood; two witnesses said they were sure someone must have been filming a movie. I’ve experienced normalcy bias myself when I didn’t believe I was really looking at a decapitated child’s head at a minor accident. Normalcy bias happens to us all.
Don’t let normalcy bias delay your response. That two seconds you tell yourself you’re not really watching a car barreling down the sidewalk toward you might be the two seconds you needed to get out of the way. It could literally kill you.
These thoughts are just my gut reactions, based on my study of VRAs in the relatively short time they’ve been a threat to Europe and America. If I’m wrong on something or you have additional insight, PLEASE share it with us in the comments.
RIP to the lost in all jihadist terrorist attacks from London to Kabul. Stay armed, stay ready, and stay in the fight.
*I included the Times Square VRA in this article because even though there’s no apparent link to jihadist terrorism, the attacker used the exact tactic urged by jihadists. In the video I linked above you can see that the attacker was not so intoxicated he didn’t know what he was doing, did not “lose control” and accidentally jump the curb, and intentionally continued the attack until his car was disabled. The video shows the attacker calmly driving with traffic, waiting for an opening, then deliberately U-turning onto the sidewalk at what looks like the only spot he had access to do so. He likely scouted the location beforehand and knew the exact spot to turn, and also knew to stay in the left lane so he’d have enough clearance for the U-turn. A few days before the attack ISIS released another video which featured an American urging vehicle and knife attacks; I strongly suspect the attacker chose a jihadist terrorist tactic even if jihad wasn’t his ideology. He’s the equivalent of a guy who blows himself up outside a concert, but who winds up not being a jihadist.
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About the Author: Chris Hernandez, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.