Terror By Truck: The Newest Weapon Of Mass Destruction

Jihadists have long dreamed of using vehicles to crush scores of innocent bystanders. Thursday's attack in Nice shows just how easy that can be

AFP/Getty Images
Jul 16, 2016 at 6:21 PM ET

The last of the fireworks had just fizzled over the Mediterranean on Thursday night, leaving the swells of spectators along Nice’s seaside boulevard to mill about. That’s when, officials say, the driver of the large white truck hopped the curb, hit the gas, and began to brutally mow down dozens.

The attacker’s ensuing trail of terror stretched more than a mile and left at least 84 dead, ending only after French police fired a hail of bullets at the driver, mortally wounding him. While the suspect, Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, appeared to have no known or immediate ties to the Islamic State or other radicalized militants, he has already fulfilled a horror that many in the world of counter-terrorism have long feared. That something as simple and ubiquitous as a motor vehicle, in the hands of an assassin, could transform into a frightening weapon of mass destruction, one capable of killing scores while reinforcing a belief that no place in public may be immune from indiscriminate violence.

“It strikes at the heart of normalcy,” Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer now working at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm, told Vocativ. “An attack like this literally turns the events of everyday life into targets.”

Even as bomb blasts and gunfire remain the common hallmarks of terrorist attacks, the specter of a speeding vehicle crushing bystanders has loomed large. The tactic has long captured the imaginations of jihadists, who have publicly urged their supporters to turn a car or truck into a killing machine. An al-Qaeda scribe giddily detailed how to “achieve maximum carnage” from behind the wheel of a vehicle in a 2010 article written for Inspire, the jihadist group’s magazine. In a 2014 declaration, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani specifically mentioned vehicles as he urged jihadist sympathizers to attack “disbelieving” Westerners.

“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European, especially the spiteful and filthy French…. kill him in any manner or way, however it may be,” al-Adnani said. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”

Other Islamic extremists have employed the tactic with deadly precision. In 2006, a young man hellbent on “avenging the deaths of Muslims” plowed an SUV into a student hangout at the University of North Carolina, injuring nine. Palestinian militants in Israel have killed dozens in a series of ramming attacks over the last decade. Lethal car attacks by individuals with jihadists ties have also cropped up in places as far-flung as Canada and China in recent years.

The embrace of vehicles as weapons by terrorist organizations, and their successful use in a number of attacks around the globe, has prompted U.S. officials to issue alerts about the potential threat in the past. “Such attacks could be used to target locations where large numbers of people congregate, including sporting events, entertainment venues, or shopping centers,” reads one warning issued by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security in 2010, The Daily Beast reported.

But French officials seemed oblivious to the possibility on Thursday evening as thousands in Nice celebrated Bastille Day. As a firework show came to an end around 10:30 p.m., Bouhlel, the suspect, reportedly used a gun to open fire on a crowd gathered along the Promenade des Anglais. The 31-year-old delivery driver then used his box truck to begin plowing into people.

The truck zig-zagged through the sprawling crowd and deliberately targeted those who tried to move out of harm’s way, some witnesses said. Others claimed the truck accelerated as it slammed into the panic-stricken throngs.”I saw bodies flying like bowling pins along its route,” said journalist Damien Allemand, who was at seaside festivities. “[I] Heard noises, cries that I will never forget.”

Police eventually shot and killed the driver .

That the truck was able to drive more than a mile before being stopped seemed to shock some security analysts. “The fact that this truck went for a kilometer means that it went for that kilometer without there being a spike strip, without there being a barrier that it had to hit,” said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a national security expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “That’s remarkable. And a thing that’s indicative, they weren’t planning for a crisis where something like this could have occurred.”

France’s counterterrorism efforts have faced ongoing criticism after ISIS militants launched an orchestrated attack in Paris last November, killing 130. Though a nationwide state of emergency has been in place since, challenges persist.

As France, and the rest of the world, grapple with the country’s third major terror attack in 18 months, some seem resigned to a new reality. “The times have changed,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls said on Friday morning. “And France is going to have to live with terrorism.”