Ramming attacks—such as the one that left at least 84 dead in Nice on Thursday—were the subject of two warnings issued jointly by the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2010.
An advisory dated June of that year was titled “Possible Indicators of Use of Large Commercial Vehicles as Weapons.” A second one issued that December was titled “Terrorist Use of Vehicle Ramming Tactics” and reads in part:
“Terrorists overseas have suggested conducting vehicle ramming attacks—using modified or unmodified vehicles—against crowds, buildings, and other vehicles.”
The document goes on, “Such attacks could be used to target locations where large numbers of people congregate, including sporting events, entertainment venues, or shopping centers.”
That would certainly include a seaside Bastille Day celebration. The document continues, “Vehicle ramming offers terrorists with limited access to explosives or weapons an opportunity to conduct a Homeland attack with minimal prior training or experience.”
But the perpetrator or perpetrators of the Nice horror were reported by the city’s deputy mayor to have had a truck “full of arms and grenades.” The idea behind this attack may have been to use ramming not as a substitute but as an additional, even primary means of destruction.
In previous ramming incidents cited by the document, the vehicle was the sole weapon and was likely chosen because no other means of destruction were easily available.
In 2006, the document notes, a man bent on “avenging the deaths of Muslims” drove an SUV into a student hangout known as “The Pit” at the University of North Carolina, injuring nine. The document also reports that a bulldozer was used in a ramming attack in Israel on July 2, 2008, killing four.
Various other attacks have since been conducted with smaller vehicles in Israel, including one in 2014 that killed a 3-month-old baby. The consensus is that the perpetrators in Israel might well have preferred firearms or explosives if those had not been so difficult to obtain within Israel as a result of the security efforts there.
Security is also strict in China, and in 2013, three Uighur jihadis mounted an attack with a Jeep, driving it into a crowd in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, killing two and injuring 40.
Canada has strict gun control, so a Canadian ISIS sympathizer there chose to drive a car into two soldiers outside Montreal, killing one the following year.
But not all terrorists view vehicles as just a weapon by default. The same 2010 issue of the al Qaeda magazine Inspire that showed the Boston Marathon bombers “How to Build a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom,” also had an article recommending ramming attacks in conjunction with firearms. The writer suggests using a pickup truck fitted with steel blades on the front “as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.”
“Pick your location and timing carefully,” the article advises. ”Go for the most crowded locations. Narrower spots are also better because it gives less chance for the people to run away. Avoid locations where other vehicles may intercept you.”
The article goes on, “To achieve maximum carnage, you need to pick up as much speed as you can while still retaining good control of your vehicle in order to maximize your inertia and be able to strike as many people as possible in your first run. Keep in mind that as soon as people realize what you are up to, they would scatter and run in every direction looking for cover. They would look for areas where the vehicle cannot reach them. Therefore, it is important to study your path of operation beforehand.”
The article further advises, “The ideal location is a place where there are a maximum number of pedestrians and the least number of vehicles. In fact, if you can get through to ‘pedestrian only’ locations that exist in some downtown (city center) areas, that would be fabulous. There are some places that are closed down for vehicles at certain times due to the swarms of people.”
The author would no doubt have approved of a location such as the seaside promenade in Nice. Early reports suggest that the attack there may have taken Inspire’s scenario to another level.
Inspire recommends, “If you have access to firearms, carry them with you so that you may use them to finish off your work if your vehicle gets grounded during the attack.” Gunfire seems to have been an integral part of the Nice attack, not just a contingency.
And the Nice attack was conducted with a full-sized truck that proved much deadlier than some pick-up converted into a mowing machine. The scene was horrifying, the death toll many times what the terrorists in Israel had managed with a bulldozer.
The December 2010 notice issued by U.S. authorities offers a number of “indicators” that a person might be planning a ramming attack. These include “unusual modifications” to motor vehicles as well as “the purchase, rental or theft of large or heavy-duty vehicles… if accompanied by typical indicators such as nervousness during the purchase, paying cash, or lack of familiarity with the vehicle’s operations… (unable to back up; trouble with shifting; poor lane tracking; unfamiliarity with basic vehicle mechanics such as air brake).”
Other possible tip-offs include “commercial motor vehicles or heavy equipment being operated erratically, at unusual times, or in unusual locations, particularly in heavy pedestrian areas.”
Also, “attempts to infiltrate closed areas where traffic usually moves but where crowds are gathered, such as street festivals or farmers’ markets.”
The document advises, “Although a single indicator may not be suspicious, one or more might indicate a ramming attack is being developed, based on the specific facts or circumstances.”
But the document offers a caution that turns chilling if you have seen coverage of the carnage in Nice and find yourself in a targeted country where there are countless trucks and where even somebody on the terrorist watch list has no trouble obtaining firearms.
“A ramming attack can be conducted with little or no warning.”