Why Vehicles Are on the Rise as Weapons of Mass Killing
A global terrorism tracker lists 183 incidents involving vehicles from 1970 to the end of 2016—122 of them since 2010.
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
On Monday, a man turned a van against the pedestrians walking along Yonge Street in north Toronto, killing ten people and injuring over a dozen.
Alek Minassian, 25, was arrested and charged with ten counts of murder and 13 counts of attempted murder. The attack was horrendous with witnesses describing a frantic, hellish scene of the vehicle mounting curbs, driving the wrong way, and throwing people in the air. To add to the odd feeling that one gets when their home is attacked and people are mercilessly run down is the recognition that this method of attack isn’t necessarily unique.
It doesn’t take much time to think of other recent attacks that used this method—Nice, Berlin, London, New York City, Stockholm, and Charlottesville, just to name a few, have all experienced mass killings in which vehicles were the primary weapon. Amarnath Amarasingam, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, says there are several reasons why these attacks have been ramping up. For one, it’s relatively easy to get a vehicle.
“Unlike stockpiling weapons, it's not really going to raise any red flags,” Amarasingam told VICE. “Using traditional weapons produces quite a risky paper trail, whether it be buying guns, or stockpiling fertilizer [used in improvised bombs]. It is highly unlikely that law enforcement is going to look twice at a car or van being rented.”
It’s important to acknowledge that many more pedestrians die each year of run-of-the-mill traffic accidents than in purposeful rampages. (The Toronto Star found that, in 2017, at least 42 pedestrians were killed in the city.) Still, experts who study vehicular mass killings say the phenomenon isn’t new. They were frequently used in the mid-90s by Palestinian militants, for example. However, as Amarasingam points out, incidents have spiked in recent years as “Al-Qaeda and ISIS have basically called on citizens to use whatever they can get their hands on to cause damage.”
Both of these terrorist groups have published explainers and guides on how to conduct such attacks through their propaganda channels.
Police have not suggested that Minassian was part of a terror cell, and he isn’t facing any terrorism-related charges at this time. Although a post appeared on his Facebook page suggesting he was involved with a misogynistic online group who call themselves incels (involuntary celibates), his motives remain unknown.
Other factors play into the rise of this style of attacks. Vehicles can be used to inflict mass casualties in areas that have strict gun laws like Europe and Canada.
According to the University of Maryland’s global terrorism tracker, the usage of vehicles as weapons has exploded in recent years. The tracker lists 183 incidents globally which involved vehicles (but not car bombs) from 1970 to the end of 2016, and 122 of them occured since 2010.
Some security experts have said that vehicle attacks are an unpreventable form of terrorism. Others are looking for ways to stop further attacks. Paul Hess, an associate professor of geography and planning at the University of Toronto, says there are several methods cities can use to prevent these attacks, and in some cases, bigger cities are already doing them. These include putting up bollards (short sturdy posts) or other barriers in areas with many pedestrians, like Nice’s Promenade des Anglais or New York’s Times Square, and using large vehicles like garbage or fire trucks to block access to areas that experience heavy temporarily heavy pedestrian traffic, for example at rush hour or during parades. Hess said that an example of the latter occurred in Toronto the day of the attack near the Rogers Centre, as the Leafs took on the Bruins.
Hess pointed out that urban planners are mostly focused on making cyclists and pedestrians safer from average drivers. As noted earlier, road accidents are responsible for far more injuries and deaths than deliberate vehicular mass killings.
“The main thing is to try create barriers between vehicles and pedestrians,” said Hess. “You probably can’t protect every street, it would take more time and money than we have.” If someone is truly determined to carry out an attack, he added, only so much can be done to stop them.
It’s not just municipalities that can work against preventing attacks. A 2017 paper by the nonprofit policy group Counter Extremism Project (CEP) suggests that tech companies can also do more. The paper points to YouTube in particular, which has failed to prevent a lot of propaganda on its site—YouTube has responded by ramping up AI efforts to flag and remove videos inciting violence.
"Following the New York attack that occurred a few months ago, we discovered pieces of ISIS and Al-Qaeda propaganda online encouraging these types attacks,” CEP's senior research analyst Josh Lipowsky told VICE. “For an example, there was an ISIS video clip the encourage[d] truck attacks." Companies like YouTube should be more “proactive,” he said, in monitoring for this sort of content and removing it.
Lipowsky said that there are programs that are designed to identify extremist content and that he believes the companies can be much more active in monitoring by using keywords and following up on reports, and tracing videos back to remove them at the source.
Of course, as we’ve seen in Toronto, the attacks aren’t always Islamist in nature. In 2017, Darren Osborne drove a rented van into a group worshippers outside of Finsbury Park mosque in London, killing one and injuring eight. Prosecutors argued at the time that Osborne was “brainwashed” by far-right wing propaganda and wanted to kill Muslims with the vehicle. (He was found guilty of first degree murder in early 2018.) Furthermore, in Charlottesville last summer, a white nationalist used a black Dodge Challenger to run down anti-racist protesters, killing one.
Minassian remains in custody and Toronto is determined to carry on in the face of one of the worst mass killings in Canadian history. As for vehicular attacks, “I think we'll see a lot more of this,” said Amarasingam. Local authorities and cities, he added, will need to find new ways to protect their residents. “But it is going to be very difficult.”
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