Low-Tech Terrorism: The Threat of Vehicles and Vehicle-Assisted Attacks

When preparing for a special event, law enforcement and security professionals have traditionally recognized the threat posed by large vehicles as a delivery medium for substantial explosive devices. Vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) have been used to kill large numbers of people across the world. However, although it is certainly possible for lone wolves to attack utilizing a VBIED, as evidenced by Timothy McVeigh’s devastating attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 or Andres Breivik’s attack in Norway in 2011, the logistics involved make it more difficult than many other common and less complex terrorist tactics.1

Use of a VBIED requires the attacker to have more than a basic knowledge of explosives, as well as the necessitating the acquisition of a significant quantity of explosive precursors and other components. Many lone wolves have attempted to employ this method, only to fail during the implementation. Faisal Shahzad, more commonly known as the Times Square Bomber, attempted to utilize a VBIED housed in an SUV to attack in a densely crowded area of New York City in 2010, but the device did not function as he intended. In June 2007, two VBIEDs were strategically placed in Great Britain: one near a nightclub and another close by. Both devices failed to detonate and were rendered safe by authorities. In fact, the second vehicle was actually impounded for illegal parking and moved prior to being discovered.2 Lack of knowledge on how to properly construct VBIEDs and continued efforts to tightly control the materials needed to make them can thwart those inclined to utilize this attack method. While not foolproof, efforts to control precursor materials have certainly made it much more difficult to build a large vehicle-borne device. The extensive logistics required for a single individual to covertly build and deploy a VBIED make it likely that a plot of this nature will be uncovered and stopped by authorities at some point during its course. Perhaps the easiest part of preparing a VBIED is acquiring the truck, which can be rented from a variety of national chains or even stolen. Commercial trucks are often left parked with their engines idling, making their theft less difficult.

VBIEDs have been used extensively overseas, often with devastating results. The Islamic State is now using trucks equipped with metal plates welded to the cab to protect the driver, so that they can deliver large explosive devices to their intended targets. U.S. soldiers have reportedly named these customized suicide vehicles “Franken-Trucks.”3 Multiple VBIEDs of this nature are often used in in conjunction with suicide bombers behind the wheels. These trucks serve as crude guided smart bombs that can penetrate countermeasures such as small arms fire.

The 2016 vehicle ramming attack in Nice, France, highlights another threat posed by vehicles, both large and small.4 For many public safety officials the tactic used during the Bastille Day attack appeared to be new, however, vehicle ramming attacks have been employed sporadically for many years with varying results. This attack tactic has also been advocated by terrorist organizations looking to inspire and educate would-be followers. When compared to building a VBIED, getting behind the wheel of a large vehicle and simply running people down is simpler; less susceptible to being uncovered; and, as demonstrated in France, potentially just as devastating as using explosives.

Anwar al-Awlaki was an U.S.–born member of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who is credited with having created a unique English language magazine called Inspire.5 The first edition was published in 2010. Inspire Magazine, as the name implies, is designed to inspire people to join in al Qaeda’s fight against Western nations and encourages self-radicalization. The magazine also provides details on how to employ various tactics to attack the West. The first edition included an article about making improvised explosive devices titled “Make a Bomb in the Kitchen of Your Mom.” That article provides detailed instructions on how to construct improvised explosive devices using pipes and pressure cookers that were similar to those used in the Boston Marathon bombing. The second edition of Inspire Magazine included an article titled “The Ultimate Mowing Machine”—as in mowing down people. The article detailed how to take a heavy-duty pickup truck and utilize it as a low-tech attack mechanism to run over pedestrians. One of the suggestions was to add a blade to the front of the vehicle to allow it to dismember people that were struck during the attack. Shortly after the attack in Nice, France, Inspire released a guide analyzing this vehicle ramming attack, just as it did after the active shooter attack in Orlando, Florida, at the Pulse nightclub. The guide highlights the success of the attack, praising the use of firearms and fake explosives in conjunction with the vehicle to maximize the harm caused during the attack. The guide does criticize the fact that a wide sharp blade wasn’t added to the front of the truck as instructed in Inspire Magazine’s second issue.

Israel has unfortunately had a great deal of experience dealing with terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings. They appear to have successfully reduced suicide bombing attacks by erecting the West Bank barrier to thwart those who would bring in explosive devices to attack Israelis. Despite the success of this wall in reducing bombings, terrorist attacks utilizing other means in Israel continue. In 2008, several vehicle attacks occurred, one utilizing an automobile and two utilizing construction equipment. The automobile attack injured 15 people when a BMW sedan was used to run over people. In another attack, an earthmover was used to topple a bus and crush several cars, ultimately killing 4 people and injuring 45 others.6 This attack was stopped only after the operator of the machine was shot and killed.

During 2014 and 2015, Israel has seen additional vehicle attacks, using both construction equipment and automobiles. Attackers have strategically targeted crowded locations, such as bus stops. These attackers have also combined the use of other weapons; attackers have exited their vehicles to stab, hack, and slash victims with edged weapons. Those that are determined to engage in terrorism seem unhindered by the increasing difficulty in obtaining improvised explosive device precursors and appear willing to use whatever method is available to them to kill, injure, and maim their victims.

The United States has not been exempt from vehicle attacks. Vehicle attackers run the gamut from those looking to destroy property to active shooters and terrorists. Two very high-profile attacks utilized special vehicles to cause significant property damage. In 1995, Shawn Nelson, a military veteran, stole a National Guard combat tank from a base in San Diego.7 Nelson used the tank in a 23-minute rampage during which he crushed cars and ran over fire hydrants. He was eventually shot by police when the tank became stuck on a highway median. During the rampage, police were virtually powerless to stop him. Many can recall the news reports of Marvin Heemeyer’s June 2004 “killdozer” attack in Colorado, for which he employed a bulldozer fortified with steel plates, much like the Franken-Trucks currently being used by ISIS.8 Heemeyer used the Caterpillar bulldozer to destroy everything in his path until he got the vehicle hung up on a building and died from a self-inflicted gunshot. Heemeyer had incorporated a monitor and camera to see where he was going and included gun ports in the steel plating so that he could also fire a weapon from his protected position.

Attackers have also used vehicles to run down pedestrians within the United States. In March 2006, an Iranian American named Reza Taheri-azar utilized a SUV to intentionally run down pedestrians at the University of North Carolina located in Chapel Hill.9 Taheri-azar claimed that he was attempting to punish the United States while avenging the death of Muslims worldwide. Nine people were injured during Taheri-azar’s attack. Approximately four months later, Omeed Aziz Popal used a vehicle to kill 1 person and injure 19 others during an attack that started in Fremont and ended in San Francisco, California. Popal told the police that “everyone needs to be killed,” indicating a clear intent to cause harm.10

In May 2014, in Isla Vista, California, Elliot Rodgers, stabbed, shot, and ultimately ran down people with his vehicle in a multifaceted attack combining firearms, edged weapons, and a motor vehicle. Rodgers first stabbed three people, then shot four others and continued his attack by both shooting people while driving and also running them over with his BMW. He killed six and injured many others by shooting, stabbing, and colliding with them. Similar to many individuals who have engaged in active shooter rampages, Rodgers uploaded a video outlining the details of his upcoming attack and his motive. Rodgers claimed to be seeking revenge on women who had rejected him and men whose lives were more enjoyable than his own.11

On October 24, 2015, 25-year-old Adacia Chambers intentionally plowed her car into the crowd at Oklahoma State’s Homecoming parade, killing four and injuring dozens more.12 Shortly after the Chambers attack, in December 2015, 24-year-old Lakeisha Holloway intentionally drove her car onto the sidewalk on the Las Vegas Strip while running numerous pedestrians down.13 She killed 1 person and injured 37 others. Witnesses reportedly attempted to get her to stop by pounding on the windows of her car with no success. When police eventually got to her 1996 Oldsmobile after Holloway stopped at a nearby casino, they discovered that her three-year-old daughter was also in the car. Both of these attackers are being evaluated for mental illness.

The devastating attack in Nice, France, highlights how easy and effective vehicle attacks can be, especially if large vehicles are employed. Clearly the possibility of this type of attack should be included during the security planning for any special event. However, what if the motive is simply to engage in a rampage attack, similar to an active shooter? Crowds of people are ubiquitous in every city. Unlike an active shooter who is looking for victims in a confined environment, someone in a vehicle can chase victims over wide areas. The attacker in Nice, France, drove for over one mile while hitting victims along the way.

Countermeasures that would be deployed to prevent a VBIED attack, such as jersey barriers and heavy blocking vehicles would also hinder someone bent on a vehicle ramming attack. Nevertheless, the cityscape is full of targets for this type of violence. All that is necessary is densely crowded areas on or near roadways. Large bore rifles, such as .50 caliber, can be capable of disabling a vehicle’s engine; however, these weapons are not routinely deployed and therefore might take time to access. Much like a suicide bomb plot, the best time to stop an attack is in its planning stages. Indications that a vehicle ramming attack is being planned might include suspicious interest in renting large vehicles or in commercial driver training. Outreach should be done to truck rental outlets and commercial vehicle driving schools. Immediate concern should be raised if reports of people modifying vehicles in unusual ways, such as the modifications similar to those suggested in Inspire.

The tactics of those intent on causing harm are constantly evolving, whether they are terrorists or disenfranchised individuals bent upon engaging in rampage attacks. If one tactic is too difficult to master, another less complex alternative might be selected. Rampage attackers who have had limited access to firearms have employed edged weapons or blunt force weapons at times with equally dire results. A recent edged weapon attack on disabled individuals in Japan caused at least 19 deaths and 20 injuries, which is more severe than many that have employed firearms. Utilizing a vehicle to attack is a method that requires little planning and specialized training. It can be launched quickly and, once it has begun, is very difficult to stop. It is a method that is virtually within anyone’s reach. Due to the variety of potential attack motivations, law enforcement and security professionals must be aware this method and be alert for those who may be plotting to use it.


1 Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Oklahoma City Bombing,” History, https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/oklahoma-city-bombing; International Association of Chiefs of Police, Online Radicalization to Violent Extremism, Awareness Brief (Washington, DC: Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2014), http://www.iacpsocialmedia.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/RadicalizationtoViolentExtremismAwarenessBrief.pdf.

2 Bruce Hoffman, Edwin Meese III, and Timothy J. Roemer, The FBI: Protecting the Homeland in the 21st Century (Washington, DC: 9/11 Review Commission, March 2015); Michael Clark and Valentina Soria, “Terrorism in the United Kingdom: Confirming Its Modus Operandi,” The RUSI Journal 154, no. 3 (2009).

3 “Common Enemy” CBS 60 Minutes, November 22, 2015, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/common-enemy-isis-60-minutes-lara-logan.

4 “Nice Attack: What We Know about the Bastille Day Killings,” August 19, 2016, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36801671.

5 Ian Black, “Inspire magazine: the self-help manual for al-Qaida terrorists” The Guardian, May 24, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/may/24/inspire-magazine-self-help-manual-al-qaida-terrorists.

6 Isabel Kershner, “Construction Vehicle Attack in Israel” The New York Times, July 23, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/23/world/middleeast/23israel.html?_r=0.

7 Peter Rowe, “Tank Rampage: A Symbolic Story Turns 20” The San Diego Tribune, May 16, 2015, http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2015/may/16/tank-rampage-story-symbol.

8 Jason Bellows, “The Wrath of the Kill Dozer” Damn Interesting, July 29, 2009, https://www.damninteresting.com/the-wrath-of-the-killdozer/ (accessed July 25, 2016)

9 “Driver Charged After SUV Plows Through Crowd” Crime & Courts WNBC News, March 5, 2006, http://www.nbcnews.com/id/11660817/ns/us_news-crime_and_courts/t/driver-charged-after-suv-plows-through-crowd/#.V5ayxo-cGUk (accessed July 23, 2016)

10 Jaxon Van Derbeken, “DRIVER’S RAMPAGE / ‘Everyone needs to be killed,’ suspect told police / SUV driver faces 18 felony counts in S.F. and a murder charge in Alameda County” SFGATE, September1, 2006, http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/DRIVER-S-RAMPAGE-Everyone-needs-to-be-killed-2553617.php (accessed July 23, 2016)

11 Alan Duke, “Timeline to ‘Retribution’: Isla Vista Attacks Planned over Years,” CNN, May 27, 2014, http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/26/justice/california-elliot-rodger-timeline.

12 Paighten Harkins, “Adacia Chambers’ Attorney Files Notice to Seek Insanity Defense in Fatal OSU Homecoming Crash” Tulsa World, June 7, 2016, http://www.tulsaworld.com/news/courts/adacia-chambers-attorney-files-notice-to-seek-insanity-defense-in/article_03a67d6e-faf2-5b9b-ad31-dc318187f79f.html.

13 Alex Johnson “Lakeisha Holloway, Accused of Las Vegas Sidewalk Attack, Could Face 1,000 Years” WNBC News, January 20, 2016, http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/lakeisha-holloway-accused-las-vegas-sidewalk-attack-could-face-1-n500746