ISIS is Using Low-Tech Means to Inflict Large-Scale Terror

Armed Mossos d'Esquadra police officers (Catalan regional police) man a check-point on the C-33 highway north of Barcelona, Spain, November 15, 2015, as security was heightened following a series of deadly attacks in Paris. REUTERS/Albert Gea

Simple firearms, knives, and automobiles can result in a horrific number of casualties.

On Thursday, August 17, Spain became the latest country in the West to live through a crude but deadly terrorist attack perpetrated by a group of jihadist-inspired individuals.

The modus operandi of using a large van to strike Las Ramblas, a central tourist spot packed with people in the heart of Barcelona, is nearly identical to acts of terrorism that have occurred in France, Germany, the United States, the UK, and Sweden over the past year-and-a-half. In each case, a radicalized or psychologically distressed individual hijacks or rents a vehicle, waits for an opportune moment for a vulnerable soft target, and turns that vehicle into a deadly weapon by deliberately running people over on the sidewalk. For a terrorist, killing people with a car in an isolated attack is a lot less dramatic than a series of coordinated and synchronized suicide bombings on mass transit systems planned over a period of months. But ramming attacks have the benefit of being very easy to carry out; indeed, running pedestrians over with a car does not require any particular knowledge, skill or intelligence.

Terrorism in our current age is no longer defined by the terrorist cell meeting halfway around the world in a safe-haven, plotting a spectacular attack months and years in advance. Instead, the Islamic State has made terrorism easy for anybody to conduct. As ISIS’s former chief operational planner and spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, implored to ISIS’s pack of recruits in Western Europe in 2014 and again in 2016, you don’t need to travel to Syria and gain battlefield skills to become a valuable member of the Islamic State’s community. All you need to do is pick up a knife and slash a police officer or hijack a car and run over pedestrians on the sidewalk. No expertise on Islam is required, just a willingness to kill innocent people in the name of the caliphate.

Before Barcelona, there was Nice, France. During Bastille Day celebrations in the summer of 2016, a Tunisian-born extremist drove a large delivery fan into crowds of people in the city preparing to celebrate the festivities. The truck drove down the walkway of the Promenade des Anglais, hitting any man, woman or child that happened to be standing in the way. By the time police neutralized the attacker, eighty-six people were killed, France was in shock, and investigators were forced to endure the criticism that often comes from failing to “connect the dots.”

A similar vehicular attack occurred in Berlin six months later, when yet another Tunisian extremist who settled in Germany hijacked a heavy truck after killing the driver and drove it into a Christmas market in Berlin. While the attacker was eventually shot and killed by Italian police less than five days later, the massacre in Berlin resulted in the deaths of fourteen people whose only crime was shopping for the holiday. Four months after events in Germany, the same thing occurred in Stockholm, where a failed asylum seeker plowed a car into a department store. Five people were killed in that attack, one of the worst acts of terrorism that the normally tranquil Nordic nation has seen in its modern history.

Unfortunately, acts of terrorism that include vehicles are only part of the story. The United States in particular has been susceptible to the kinds of spontaneous violence that has proven to be incredibly hard for law enforcement to stop. The December 2015 shootings in a San Bernardino office building by a husband and wife team; the mass shooting at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida by a single gunman; and the multiple improvised explosive device explosions in New York City and New Jersey from an ISIS and Al Qaeda supporter in September 2016 are all part of a larger trend. The spectacular, mass-casualty terrorist assaults that Al Qaeda was known for are gradually being replaced with acts of violence conducted by small groups or single individuals that are random, small-scale and simple for anybody with a devious religious interpretation to act on.

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