(ISIS supporters’ propaganda)

The Terror Heritage of Vehicle Attacks on Protests

“Vehicles are like knives, as they are extremely easy to acquire,” stated a 2016 issue of ISIS’ English-language Rumiyah magazine. “But unlike knives, which if found in one’s possession can be a cause for suspicion, vehicles arouse absolutely no doubts due to their widespread use throughout the world.”

In an online trove of terror tutorials geared toward would-be operatives who don’t want the hassle of buying a gun but want to inflict as much carnage as possible on a soft target, ISIS has consistently pushed terrorists toward the convenience and accessibility – if you don’t own a car or truck, you can rent or steal – of a vehicle attack.

While pushing the low-skill, simple, accessible weapon tactic against foes, ISIS has also encouraged attacks on protesters – including the 2018 “yellow vest” demonstrations against government policies in France – as ideal soft targets amid “any outdoor attraction that draws large crowds.” Cars are one of the “safest and easiest” weapons as well as “most successful in harvesting large numbers,” the terror group continued, stressing how this crime of opportunity decreases the risk of terrorists being detected in the planning phase, depending on the vehicle acquisition or target reconnaissance process. It can be just a matter of when one encounters a group of potential victims in line with a pre-established motive: Abdul Razak Ali Artan plowed his car into a crowd at Ohio State University in November 2016 when students and faculty happened to be gathered on the sidewalk because of a building alarm.

And in an era where tactics and tutorials increasingly inspire across assailants across ideological lines, vehicle ramming isn’t just the domain of the terrorists who plowed a truck down a beachfront in Nice, France, or into holiday shoppers at a Christmas market in Berlin.

In August 2017, white supremacist James Fields Jr. drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters on the outskirts of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., killing demonstrator Heather Heyer. Two months earlier, Darren Osborne, who voiced disdain toward Muslims, drove into pedestrians near the Finsbury Park Mosque in London, killing one.

Incorporating motive, easily acquired means, and opportunity – it’s difficult for massive urban protests or pop-up protests in small towns, as the nation has seen for nearly three weeks, to be hardened from attacks, particularly when everyday traffic still needs to circulate in the vicinity – the protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd have been targeted by multiple vehicle attacks.

  • Harry H. Rogers, 36, has been charged with attempted malicious wounding, felony vandalism, and assault and battery for allegedly hopping a median in his Chevy truck and driving into a crowd of protesters in Henrico County north of Richmond, Va. Police said Rogers told officers he was “the highest ranking member of the KKK in Virginia” and they found KKK materials in his truck along with firearms and a “grand dragon” robe at his home.
  • Frank Cavalluzzi, 54, was arraigned on charges of second-degree attempted murder, attempted assault, reckless endangerment and other offenses for allegedly threatening protesters by wearing a glove with four blades attached and then driving his SUV onto the sidewalk at a small group of protesters in Queens.
  • Michael Tran, 31, faces 10 charges including assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly accelerating into a group of protesters in Bakersfield, Calif., injuring a 15-year-old girl.
  • Benjamin Hung, 28, was arrested on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon after Pasadena, Calif., police said his pickup flying a Betsy Ross American flag, a pro-police “Thin Blue Line” American flag and a Gadsden flag “gunned” toward protesters.
  • Bianca Orozco, 26, was charged with two counts of assault with a deadly weapon causing great bodily injury and two counts of hit-and-run after video captured her SUV driving into a crowd of San Jose, Calif., protesters, reversing and striking two people, then racing away as a Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy on scene fired a shot at her vehicle.
  • John Antoine Holliman, 36, is charged with two counts of felonious assault and third-degree fleeing and eluding for allegedly trying to hit two Detroit police officers patrolling a protest on bicycle before leading cops on a 100-mph pursuit.
  • Denver police are investigating a hit-and-run shown in a viral video in which a black SUV struck a protester. Two nights later, three police officers and one civilian were struck in another hit-and-run.

As these cases work their way through the judicial system, other incidents with vehicles plunging into crowds have occurred with drivers still at large or police concluding that the driver didn’t intend to hurt protesters. And while the decision to intentionally steer into crowds marching against racial injustice could be a heat-of-passion, in-the-moment decision by the assaulting driver, animus against the targets as well as promotion of the tactic have been whipped up long before Black Lives Matter took to the streets.

At Ohio State, after all, the desire to conduct an attack against his perceived enemies and in the name of his ideology had been brewing in Artan’s head long before he decided to veer into the crowd on the sidewalk. A week before the attack, he took a road trip to Washington, D.C., and bought a knife; back home in Columbus, he bought another knife the day before the attack. And all the while, ISIS had been egging its followers to emulate the devastating July 2016 Bastille Day truck attack.

Similarly, white nationalists seized on the Charlottesville attack to not only heap praise on Fields for the attack or claim he was acting in self-defense but to encourage future attacks. On the /pol/ 4chan message board, users branded the attacker with nicknames such as “James ‘The Jews went too far so I got my car’ Fields” and “James ‘Mow Down the Kikes, Even the Tykes’ Fields.”

Some of the meme-posting encouraging striking protesters has come from law enforcement, such as West Linn (Ore.) Police Department Officer Tom Newberry losing his job in February 2017 after a seven-month investigation into his Facebook posts that included saying of Black Lives Matter, “When encountering such mobs remember, there are 3 pedals on your floor. Push the right one all the way down.” Days after the Charlottesville attack, Sgt. Troy Baker, head of the Santa Fe Police union, retired in the middle of an internal investigation over his Facebook shares that included a depiction of a vehicle attack with the words, “All Lives Splatter. Nobody cares about your protest. Moral of the story.. stay off the road!!”

The Department of Homeland Security’s Security Awareness for Soft Targets and Crowded Places action guide on vehicle ramming acknowledges that these attacks often have “few or no observable indicators” that would enable authorities to intervene. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s infamous English-language Inspire magazine advised would-be vehicle rammers in a 2010 article promoting the tactic that “if you can get through to ‘pedestrian only’ locations that exist in some downtown (city center) areas, that would be fabulous.”

Vehicle ramming attacks don’t require a declaration of loyalty to a specific hate group, but the attack mindset may nevertheless be there spurring the driver to take the action he or she does, whether the driver claims he or she was trying to hurt or scare demonstrators: hatred for the protesters or the cause they represent to the extent that the driver either doesn’t care or intends that people may be injured or killed at his or her hands, the decision that the car will be used as a weapon, and the decision to seize or seek out the opportunity to steer that vehicle toward human lives.

They’re copycatting a terror technique that has gained momentum as having the “necessary attributes required for causing a blood bath,” according to ISIS promotion of the “affordable weapon” of vehicle attacks.

How Islamist Extremists and White Supremacists Try to Exploit Civil Unrest

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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