In October 2017, Sayfullo Saipov carried out an ISIS-inspired vehicular attack in New York City that was the deadliest terror attack in the U.S. since 9/11. This attack was just one in a recent global pattern of vehicular attacks that have proven to be a growing threat worldwide, impacting countries such as the U.S., the U.K, Canada, Germany, Sweden, and Spain in 2017. Since 2009, 169 terror attacks have involved vehicles as a weapon, and since 2006, 194 people have been killed with 1,048 injured globally in vehicular terror attacks. Because of this, vehicular attacks have become one of the most dangerous forms or terror. The more we understand about what makes these attacks soft targets, what motivates would-be-attackers and how we can safeguard our communities from them in the future, the closer we get to mitigating these threats.

Soft Targets

Vehicular attacks are particularly concerning because they often strike “soft targets,” or easily accessible locations containing large numbers of people with little security measures to protect them. In fact, from 1968 to 2005, 73 percent of terrorist attacks worldwide struck soft targets while only 27 percent of attacks struck hard targets. In the U.S. alone, 90 percent of attacks were aimed at soft targets from 2001 to 2005.

The reason vehicular attacks occur so frequently is due to a lack of known prevention techniques. Three main factors make vehicular attacks particularly hard to prevent: the minimal preparations required make perpetrators hard to detect, the accessibility of vehicles, and the difficulty of fully securing open pedestrian areas close to roadways.

External Motivators

Perpetrators have used this style of attack for numerous reasons, including religious extremism, far-right extremism, anger, and one particular attack may have been linked to the influence of drugs. No matter the reason, these attacks can be deadly and have large implications.

Religious Extremism

Religious extremism is one of the most prominent reasons individuals are motivated to carry out a vehicular attack. In 2010, Al Qaeda’s magazine, Inspire called for followers to use vehicles to “mow down the enemies of Allah” in crowded locations.  In 2014, ISIS made a similar call to run over nonbelievers with vehicles. Since then, there has been a growing wave of vehicular attacks across Western Europe and the U.S., with 18 attacks since 2014, and 11 in 2017 alone. 

From January 2014 through May 2017, 7 percent of all radical religious extremism-related terror plots in Western Europe were vehicular, yet they caused 45 percent of injuries and 37 percent of deaths. While most of these attacks were claimed by ISIS or individuals inspired by radical extremism, other groups have been known to use this attack method.

Radical Beliefs

Far-right extremists have also utilized vehicular attacks. One of these instances included the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia. During this attack James Alex Fields, Jr. drove his car into pedestrians in a crowded street, killing one and injuring at least 35 others.

Anger, Drugs & More

Some of the other attackers in Houston and New York were motivated by anger, while Richard Rojas may have carried out his 2017 attack in Times Square under the influence of drugs. The media has hypothesized that Alek Minassian’s vehicular attack in Toronto may have been motivated by anti-female beliefs. These examples demonstrate that vehicular attacks are becoming an increasing threat to public safety from individuals inspired by a variety of ideologies.

Preventative Measures

Given the accessibility of vehicles and the lack of training needed to carry out a vehicular attack, these threats are incredibly hard to predict or prevent. The New York Police Department and the FBI have implemented programs to make owners of rental vehicle businesses aware of suspicious behaviors that could potentially be related to attack planning. In an effort to reduce the threat, the British government has considered checking names of individuals renting vehicles against terrorist watch lists. However, in the 11 vehicular attacks carried out in Western Europe since 2014, only five involved rented vehicles – the others were either owned or stolen.

Additionally, physical safety measures such as bollards or steel tire spikes in public places can stop a vehicular attack but may not entirely prevent one. The recent redesign of Times Square in New York City included 196 bollards, granite benches, and raised granite curb caps to protect the large pedestrian area. Even with the added security, these measures did not thwart an incident there in May 2017. In this attack one person was killed and 20 injured by a vehicle aimed at pedestrians. Officials do agree, though, that these barriers stopped the vehicle from continuing after it hit a bollard, likely saving more from being killed or injured.

Given that vehicular attacks are highly effective in terms of fatalities and injuries, new methods are needed to help identify these threats in advance, allowing law enforcement to thwart vehicular attacks before they occur.

Lumina’s risk sensing capabilities illuminate areas of emergent unrest by monitoring online behavioral patterns consistent with the means and motivation of attack planning. By predictively identifying these online behavioral patterns, Lumina helps organizations and venues to identify and mitigate potential threats to their physical security.