There are multiple insights that can be drawn from the Islamic State-inspired December 19, 2016 truck attack by Tunisian-born Ansi Amri at a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany which killed 12 people and injured nearly 50 others. Then there’s the ISIS-inspired Palestinian who drove a truck into a group of Israeli soldiers at a popular tourist spot in Jerusalem on Sunday, killing four and wounding at least 15.
The lessons learned that can be gleaned from analysis of these types of attack relate to the use of vehicles in terror attacks, terrorist characteristics, making of a terrorist, border issues, government responses, areas for improvement and retrospective and prospective trends.
The use of vehicles in terror attacks
A dedicated operative with fairly limited capabilities is able to utilize a multitude of modus operandi to attack soft targets. It is impossible to protect all assets equally, particularly when the perpetrator is unconcerned about surviving the attack.
During the past decade, vehicle attacks—be they cars, trucks and bulldozers—have been adopted worldwide with greater frequency than before.
The truck that was used in Berlin was apparently hijacked, and then driven over pedestrians. Likewise, Islamic State-inspired Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian immigrant to France rented the truck used to plow through the Nice promenade in July 2016, killing 86 people and injured more than 300.
In March 2006, Mohammed RezaTaheri-azar rented a SUV and purposely ran over his classmates at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Taheri Azar pleaded guilty to nine counts of attempted murder, stating he undertook the attack to “avenge the deaths or murders of Muslims around the world.”
Over 10 years later in November, another case of a jihadi-inspired vehicle attack took place when Somali immigrant Abdul Razak Ali Atran ran over pedestrians at Ohio State University. After getting out his car, Atran used a butcher knife to attack others before he was shot and killed by a university police officer. So, the truck-induced carnage that was witnessed in Europe in 2016 reached American shores more than a decade ago, and continues to this day.
As noted before, while not new, the use of a fairly novel means of attack—plowing through pedestrians with a truck—has transcending effects in terms of security measures at high-profile events. Days after the Berlin attack, security forces adjusted their protocols worldwide by using dump trucks along high-traffic pedestrian routes during New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Terrorists may carry weapons (e.g., gun or knife) while traveling, and have no premonition about using weapons against police during traditional interactions. Four days after the attack in Berlin, two police officers approached a suspicious-looking person at a train station near Milan, Italy at around 3:00 AM; by sheer luck, it was Amri. He refused to produce identity documents when asked, and, rather reached for a gun in his backpack. After shooting one officer, and wounding him, Amri fled. Amri hid himself behind a car before he was shot and killed by another officer. At that point, Italian police were unaware Amri was in Italy—nor German authorities for that matter.
In 2015, Iraqi refugee Rafik Mohamad Yousef was shot and killed by a German police officer after stabbing a policewoman with a three-inch knife in Berlin. German police came across Yousef in response to a call of a suspicious person. Yousef had been imprisoned for planning the assassination of former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi during his visit to Germany in 2004. Yousef was sentenced to eight years in prison for participation in that plot and belonging to a terrorist organization. Yousef was under watch upon his return to Berlin in 2013, but removed an electronic ankle-monitoring device on the day of the stabbing.
In 2016, a teenage girl, Safia S., who was in contact with ISIS operatives, stabbed a police officer at a Hanover, Germany train station as she was asked to provide identity papers during a routine check. At one point, Safia traveled to Turkey with intentions to make her way to the so-called Islamic State caliphate.
Although underappreciated, some perpetrators of terror were previously involved in traditional crime. This entrance into criminality serves them as a gateway to more complex and, ultimately, ideologically inspired illicit acts. Amri, for instance, apparently peddled in cocaine trafficking in Germany and served time in an Italian prison for arson. The two brothers who conducted suicide bombings in Brussels in March 2016 (Khalid and Ibrahim El Bakraoui), along with the siblings involved in the November 2015 Paris attacks (Brahim and Salah Abdeslam) delved in a range of traditional crimes (e.g., robbery, carjacking, drug trade) prior to their involvement with terrorism.
Terrorists utilize free, encrypted communications technologies such as Telegram to communicate and facilitate terrorist activities. Amri interacted with his ISIS interlocutors using Telegram, including forwarding his pledge of allegiance to the group.
Criminals and terrorists take advantage of pliable and sympathetic immigration laws of host countries. In light of expanded terror attacks worldwide featuring foreign-inspired ideologies, the accommodating posture of recipient countries is bound to be short-lived, as witnessed with the increased appeal of anti-immigrant politicalparties throughout Europe. Still, Europe’s acceptance of millions of recent refugees from the Middle East and elsewhere makes a possible reversal of such policies difficult to implement quickly.
The knowledge base of making homemade explosives making is widespread, growing, and easily accessible in multiple languages through various sources, including online. The homemade explosive TATP was used in the December 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks, as well as the stymied planned suicide bombing at a Berlin airport in 2016.
Terrorists may have multiple identities, including various nationalities. Amri was found to possess six fake identities comprised of three nationalities. Additionally, Amri and Lahouaiej-Bouhlel were not part of the (returning) Islamic State foreign fighters, who, at their height numbered some 30,000 from over 100 countries. It is feared that returning foreign fighters will undertake large-scale attacks in their home countries or elsewhere. For example, the perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks comprised returning foreign fighters.
Terrorists are created, not born
Political oppression, economic dysfunction, corruption and other elements of failing states contribute to the rise of economic and political refugees worldwide, especially those recent arrivals from the Middle East to Europe. Some of these refugees have difficulty integrating into their host countries. Rather than being grateful to their new homes, they turn against it. With reference to Amri, he left Tunisia, sought resettlement in Italy, and spent time in a refugee center. From his time in Italian prisons, Amri embarked to Germany, where he conducted his terror attack. From that site, Amri escaped to France and then Italy, where he was killed.
European prisons, as others in the Middle East and North America, serve, in part, as incubators for extremism, whether violent jihadism or otherwise. According to Amri’s brother, Abdelkader, Amri was radicalized while serving a prison sentence for arson in Italy.
Although exposure to extremism may arise in prisons, it also occurs outside those confines, whether online or face-to-face. Persons may enter as refugees, and then may proceed on a path that leads to traditional criminality, subsequent to imprisonment, where they may become radicalized. Upon release from prison the neophyte extremist naturally seeks like-minded radicals who reinforce his decision to embrace such principles. Ultimately, upon deciding to undertake an attack, the individual proceeds with his action—either alone or in concert with others. Apparently, Amri was part of the Islamic State-linked network led by an Iraqi national, Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah (Abu Walaa), who was arrested in Germany with others in November 2016.
Porous borders, refugees and uncooperative countries
Porous borders—whether due to poor monitoring or legislation permitting unimpeded travel among European Union members due to the decades-long Schengen Agreement—certainly facilitate criminals, terrorists, economic refugees (or otherwise) easy access to prospective targets. As noted, Amri took full advantage of this situation, both upon his initial entrance into Italy, and in subsequent countries.
Italian authorities tried in vain to remove Amri to Tunisia, but Tunisia rebuffed that request on several occasions, questioning at times whether he was indeed Tunisian. This uncooperative interaction is indicative of the challenges—multiplied by thousands of other instances—of host country attempts to remove suspected terrorist refugees to their countries of origin.
Good policing can expedite the capture of terrorists. In the Amri case, law enforcement was able to find his (fake) identity papers and fingerprints in the truck he used in the massacre. Some questions have been raised as to how Amri was able to escape immediately after the attack, unlike the attacker in the Nice incident. Given the chaos and fluidity post and attack, any recriminations should be measured. Ultimately, German authorities disseminated the identity of Amri, although—as noted—he met his demise in Italy as a follow-up to a standard policing inquiry at a train station.
Even when authorities suspect that an individual is involved with extremism and may become operational in the future, constant surveillance is time-consuming and costly financially and in terms of manpower. As such, after some period of observation—Amri was apparently monitored for six months by German authorities —surveillance comes to an end when it is determined the suspect is not a threat, or less so than others who must be followed. It’s estimated that there are some 7,000 current cases of terror suspects at large in Germany.
Catching terrorist fugitives can take days—if ever—depending on many factors, from the skillfulness of the terror operative, his support network, whether he makes his way to a safe zone (e.g., Islamic State), capabilities of intelligence and law enforcement communities and the public’s contribution in ferreting out the operation, among other factors.
Large-scale, high profile attacks can have significant political implications both internally and abroad. Among the issues such terror incidents raise are: border controls, asylum law, integration of immigrants, designation of the threat (e.g., Salafist-Jihadist-Takfirism)—and its source—as well as appropriate responses, privacy versus security debates and the prospects of nativism over globalism.
Room for improvement
Security efforts at respective targets may turn out to be insufficient due to the element of surprise, weaponry of the assailant(s) and the impossibility of 100 percent vigilance every second in all locations, whether in one city or beyond. Fortunately, in the case of the Berlin attack, the carnage was limited due to triggering of the automatic braking system that resulted in the truck being brought to a stop after about 250 feet. This technology was not featured in the truck that was used in the Nice attack in July 2016.
There is a need for improved communications and information dissemination among intelligence, law enforcement and corrections professionals nationally, regionally and internationally. While authorities have made great efforts worldwide in combating terrorism, occasionally mistakes occur with regard to investigation, surveillance, detention (e.g., suspect in custody commits suicide) or release of a terrorist. Such counterterrorism mishaps have come to light especially after several large-scale attacks inEurope over the past two years (in large-scale incidents in Paris; and others in Brussels, Nice and now in Berlin in Jerusalem). Unfortunately, such debacles will be replicated, although, hopefully, with less regularity and dire consequences.
Raised awareness about terror threats, elicitation of tips and responses to requests for information about suspects from private security employees and the public have proved helpful and should continue to be encouraged further. The role of the public to provide tips to authorities in relation to suspected terrorists was crystallized in October 2016 when two Syrian refugees contacted German authorities upon recognizing a suspected terrorist who sought refuge at their apartment. German authorities published through social media and in multiple languages (including Arabic) the identity of the wanted man.
During 2016, there were various Islamic State-inspired attacks in Germany, including in July. That month, Riaz Khan Ahmadzai, a Pakistani asylum seeker, carried out a knife and axe attack on a Bavarian train, injuring four people. Police killed the attacker as he fled the scene of the crime. Ahmadzai was inspired by the Islamic State, to which he pledged allegiance to the group in a recorded message.
Also in July, Mohammad Daleel, a failed Syrian asylum seeker, committed a suicide bombing at a music festival in Ansbach, killing himself and injuring 15. Daleel, too, committed the attack on behalf of the Islamic State and recorded a martyr’s video.
Likewise, there were prominent thwarted terror attacks in Germany in 2016. In October, a Syrian refugee and Islamic State-adherent, Jaber Al Bakr, was arrested in Leipzig. Al Bakr had planned to undertake a suicide bombing attack at a Berlin airport. Al Bakr committed suicide in jail, undermining potential intelligence about his terror pathway, possible associates and other plots.
Last winter, a 12-year-old tried to place a homemade explosive at two sites in his hometown of Ludwigshafen, Germany. Islamic State propaganda apparently inspired the boy’s actions. His parents were reported to be of Iraqi-German descent.
Unfortunately, the December 2016 truck attack in Berlin is unlikely to be the last terror incident that Germany will face in 2017. In fact, at the onset of 2017, a Syrian refugee living in Germany was arrested for seeking to raise funds to execute truck bomb attacks in his host country.
Against this backdrop, and the apparent Islamic State-linked terror attack at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul during New Year’s celebrations, 2017 might well be another bloody calendar year in terms of terrorism. Only sound political decisions, strong military-intelligence-law enforcement responses, civil society’s resolve and some luck will ensure that such will not be the case.
Dean Alexander is professor/director of the Homeland Security Research Program at Western Illinois University (WIU). He co-authored, The Islamic State: Combating the Caliphate Without Borders (Lexington Books, 2015).
John Avelar, a US Marine Corps veteran, is completing his undergraduate degree at WIU.