A deliberate car crash aimed directly at protestors on August 12, 2017 at Charlottesville, Virginia has highlighted the contagious spread of the use of everyday vehicles like cars and trucks as weapons of terror. The protestors who were run over at Charlottesville had been there to protest the “Unite the Right” rally of far-right and white supremacist groups which had been organized to protest the planned removal from Charlottesville of a statue of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee.
The car crash killed at least one protestor and injured 35 others, with the injuries ranging “from life-threatening to minor.” The driver, James Fields, has been arrested and charged with second-degree murder and malicious wounding. While President Donald Trump has stated his condemnation “in the strongest possible terms” of “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” Republican leaders like Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado and Marco Rubio of Florida have criticized him for failing to describe the attack as an act of domestic terrorism. Senator Rubio, for example, tweeted that it was “very important” that the President “describe events … for what they are, a terror attack by white supremacists.”
James Fields’ use of his car as a weapon of terror was just the latest attack featuring the weaponization of everyday vehicles. On April 7, after a similar attack in Stockholm in which four people were killed and 15 others injured, former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt tweeted: “Steal a lorry or a car and then drive it into a crowd. That seems to be the latest terrorist method.” Apart from the attacks in Charlottesville and Stockholm, other recent attacks using deliberate vehicular crashes have taken place in Quebec (October 20, 2014), Nice (July 14, 2016), Ohio (November 28, 2016), Berlin (December 19, 2016), Jerusalem (January 8, 2017), and London (March 22 and June 3, 2017). Indeed, on August 9, just three days before the Charlottesville attack, a similar vehicular attack occurred in Paris when a BMW car was deliberately driven into a group of soldiers, injuring six. The culprit was shot and taken into custody.
The car has long been used as a weapon of terror. As Mike Davis (2007) observes, since the early 20th century, car bombs have been favored by radicals as the “poor man’s air force par excellence,” serving as a “semi-strategic weapon that under certain circumstances was comparable to airpower in its ability to knock out critical urban nodes and headquarters as well as terrorize populations of entire cities.” Compared to the high cost of military-grade weapons, car bombs are relatively cheap to produce, costing only about 5,000 USD per bomb (pp. 5-9). However, the production of a car bomb requires skilled expertise to convert fertilizer and industrial chemicals into a working weapon. The grievous insight made by terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS is that one does not need a bomb for a car to be used as a weapon of terror — the car itself is sufficient.
In 2010, an edition of al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire recommended the use of trucks as the “ultimate mowing machine … 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.” ISIS has likewise advised its supporters to “use cars as weapons if they have no other means of attack … That means if you can make a bomb, you’re a bomber. But if you can’t, use a gun. And if you can’t find a gun, use a knife. And if you can’t find a knife, use a car.”
As the Charlottesville attack shows, the individuals who are tempted to carry out vehicular attacks are no longer confined to sympathizers of terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS: the mental contagion has now spread to the US far-right.
Given the surge in vehicular attacks that followed the deadly July 2016 Nice attack that killed 84 people, there is fear that the use of this and other low-tech methods of terrorism has finally become contagious. As the number of attacks using such low-tech and low-cost methods increases, individuals inclined towards violence may be inspired to translate their violent desires and fantasies into reality. Internet discussions, news reports, and similar publicity of “terrorist attacks, besides providing how-to ideas, may also provide political cover to angry, mentally unstable people drawn to violence — an ideological cause to justify acts of vengeance or grievance.” As an expert on violence explains:
“If you’re a suicidal individual who never seriously thought of killing someone else, these mass attacks, whether terrorism or school shootings, or something like Nice, they give you ideas on site selection, on human target selection—and how to go out with a bang.”
Authorities around the world have taken note of the threat to public safety posed by this contagion of violence. Following the June 2017 London attack, British Prime Minister Theresa May warned: “We believe we are experiencing a new trend in the threat we face, as terrorism breeds terrorism, and perpetrators are inspired to attack not only on the basis of carefully-constructed plots after years of planning and training — and not even as lone attackers radicalised online — but by copying one another and often using the crudest of means of attack.”
Cressida Dick, the Commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police, has likewise noted the policing challenges arising from this mental contagion: “What we are seeing generally is firstly some quite low tech attacks against targets which are easily accessed and we are also seeing people who seem to be highly volatile going from perhaps even quite normal to making a plan and carrying out an attack in a very short space of time. I certainly hope that this is not the norm but we are dealing with a large volume of people who appear set on violent extremism and we must step up to deal with that.”
As the Charlottesville attack shows, the individuals who are tempted to carry out vehicular attacks are no longer confined to sympathizers of terrorist groups like al Qaeda and ISIS: the mental contagion has now spread to the US far-right and there is no reason to believe it will stop there. Indeed, there are indications that the contagion could soon evolve with the introduction of higher-impact methods of destruction. In August 2017, al Qaeda released an 18-page guide in its Inspire magazine containing “step-by-step instructions for building a train derailment device.” This device will supposedly “hide your tracks from forensics after the operation,” allowing attackers to avoid “martyrdom” and thereby enabling them to derail more trains.
Given the large numbers of people who travel on trains around the world — as well as the residential neighborhoods that have been built along or close to train tracks — deliberate train derailments could become the new method of choice for terrorists to achieve mass casualty events. This includes the US, which has “over 100,000 miles of rail,” of which the Government Accountability Office has previously warned are vulnerable to sabotage. Indeed, the looming threat to rail will place “added pressure” on the Department of Homeland Security which already has to ensure the security of US borders and the air travel network.
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