Since the early 1980s, vehicles have been used as a weapon in numerous terrorist attacks. The basic ‘model’ had vehicles delivering explosives to a target and then detonating them, causing death and injury. The normal saloon/sedan car has historically been seen as too small to carry out attacks. But like any other terrorist weapon, terrorists have seen greater potential in their usage.
We have now seen a different type and style of attack, after the December 19, 2016 terrorist attack in Berlin, Germany. A large heavy lorry was driven into a crowded Christmas market and has left many wondering where it is safe from such an attack and what to do should one happen.
The use of a vehicle as a terrorist weapon has its origins in 1980’s Lebanon with multiple attacks using vehicles as a tactic. The first was on April 18, 1983 when a van packed with explosives detonated outside the United States Embassy in Beirut killing 63 people.
The attacks at the time were attributed to the Islamic Jihad which was thought to be backed by Iran.Later the use of a vehicle as terrorist weapon was used again in Beirut, where large vehicles were driven into the American Marines barracks. On the October 23, 1983 a large Mercedes van was driven next to the barracks of the Marines and detonated were large numbers of soldiers were sleeping. The explosion left 146 American Marines dead. On the same day and nearly at the same time a French barracks which housed the Parachute Chasseur Regiment in Beirut was attacked using the same tactic which resulted in 58 soldiers dying.
In December 1989 the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) used a large dump truck which they armoured to attack a permanent British Army checkpoint between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland border at Derryard near Rosslea, County Fermanagh. Inside the armoured vehicle, the terrorists had various weapons, including machine guns, rockets, grenades and a flame thrower, which they used to attack a small detachment of eight British soldiers and one member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC).
Two soldiers died and one was severely wounded.In May 1992 PIRA carried out a three part coordinated attack on different security force locations in Northern Ireland. Two were carried out using a Human Proxy Bomb, where cars were used with large amounts of explosives, but failed in their attempt to blow up their target. The third location at Cloghoge vehicle checkpoint manned by the British Army was attacked using a large van which was packed with a large amount of explosives and detonated.
The attack showed remarkable ingenuity. The South Armagh Brigade of PIRA fitted a van with wheels that could be driven along a railway track. The vehicle was “driven” on the railway track until it was very close to the checkpoint. The vehicle was then detonated using a mile long wire. The explosion killed one soldier but twenty three that were inside a fortified bunker survived with injuries.
On February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef, who was born from Pakistani-Palestinian parents, drove a van loaded with a 1,310-lb (590kg) bomb of urea nitrate-hydrogen gas enhanced device under Tower one of the World Trade Centre in New York, United States. His intention was to destroy the tower, and hoped that it would fall onto the second tower thus destroying the World Trade Centre. He failed but events in September 11, 2001 sadly succeeded.
On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh, an American citizen, used a Ryder truck to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma United States. The explosives consisted of several tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and a large quantity of fuel oil, which was detonated by McVeigh igniting a two minute fuse. The explosion resulted in the destruction of the entire north wall of the building along with other buildings in the area and causing many deaths.
Near the end of 2004, hostilities had died down in the Iraq war, but on December 25, 2004 terrorists found a new way of using a large vehicle to attack a target. A large fuel tanker was driven towards the Jordanian Embassy in the Mansour district of Baghdad. The vehicle failed to detonate with any truly destructive force and merely left an orange glow that lit the evening up. The vehicle split in half with one half of the tanker lodged in the gates of the Libyan Embassy and the other half landing in the small courtyard of a house approximately 75 metres away.
In Nice, France on July 14, 2016, Bastille Day, a 19 tonne lorry driven by lone wolf Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhel was driven into a celebrating crowd. He killed 84 people before being stopped. The Islamic State of the Levant, or Da’esh, had discovered a new way to use a large vehicle as a terrorist weapon.
For some time al-Qaeda and Da’esh had been using its online magazines Dabiq and Inspire to conduct lone attacks against the West using any method possible, but since the attack in Nice they have called for their followers to use large vehicles and encouraged them to drive them into large crowds. Certainly Anis Amri who drove the latest heavy vehicle in the Berlin attack listened to them.
The use of such vehicles to carry out this style of attack is likely to continue as they are easily obtained by either hijack, hired, stolen or simply purchased. The stopping of such a vehicle especially when fully laden would defy most barriers and although the small Jersey Barriers would not necessarily stop the vehicle it would certainly slow them down.
In Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and some years after, large vehicles were used to crash through various locations. In order to stop them Jersey barriers were put in place but the terrorists found that they could be breeched. In places where these barriers were in use, several suicide vehicles were used to gain entry to each level. For example on October 24, 2003 three suicide bombers in large vehicles were used to breech the barriers outside the Palestine and Sheridan Hotels in Baghdad, Iraq. This included a cement truck filled with explosives.
The first was used to breech the first layer of barriers; the second to do the same but was mistimed and missed the target. The third driver who was driving around the roundabout waiting his turn saw the explosion and drove his vehicle through the first level, thinking the second had been broken through. He was caught up and rather than being able to detonate his vehicle between the two hotels causing immense damage and death, the driver detonated the device where it had stopped causing little damage.
The lessons learnt from this were several; first where the metal handles were in the top of the barrier, a long thick ‘metal rope’ was placed and woven into all the barriers at that location. Any attempt to drive through them they would be stopped as it would be impossible to drag all the barriers. The second lesson was that where possible, a large wide trench should be dug to prevent access to the barriers.
Of course in a city these types of defence maybe impossible but it would be possible to have points of entry away from main roads and the barriers could be linked together. Another form of defence that could be used in cities is to educate the public by having some sort of air alarm that would be sounded at the start of an attack.
The types of vehicles used in recent attacks are easier to obtain than aircraft and the ability to cause mass casualties is still great but not on the same scale. Authorities are not able to do much in regards to spotting who would carry out such attacks. It is extremely important that all counter-terrorist organisations and Intelligence agencies share and pool knowledge in this area so as to limit those who are on the radar from escaping and eventually stopped before a terrorist act is carried out.
Europe is under siege at the moment and attacks of this type are likely to occur again. Strong measures must be taken to protect the public. Admitted the security forces are doing their best but with so many to watch someone somewhere will escape the net and be able to carry out another dreadful terrorist attack similar to those in Nice and Berlin. The next phase could be the use of plant vehicles such as a JCB which could scoop barriers out the way and drive through causing many fatalities.