People ran for their lives on July 4 as a car drove through a police barricade and barreled down a Seattle freeway where protesters had been peacefully demonstrating against police brutality. Video of the attack showed a white car traveling at a high speed, swerving around two vehicles positioned as a barrier to protect protesters. As a local journalist put it, “Video showed the car careened toward the protesters and struck two, sending them flying into the air.” One of them—Summer Taylor, a 24 year old from Seattle—died that night. Although the motive remains unknown, these types of vehicle-ramming incidents have been happening in the United States with alarming frequency.
Indeed, just hours later, in Mishawaka, Indiana, another vehicle-ramming attack took place. This one involved an SUV that swerved around police barriers into a crowd of protesters, hitting and dragging 23-year-old Trevor Davis. Two days later, a woman plowed into protesters outside a courthouse in Bloomington, Indiana, before speeding away. Video footage showed one woman clinging to the roof of the car, while a man held onto the car’s driver side as the car drove forward.
To be specific, vehicle ramming is, according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), when a perpetrator deliberately aims a motor vehicle at a target with the intent to inflict fatal injuries or cause significant property damage by striking with concussive force.
These recent incidents appear to be part of a worrying trend: In the United States, white supremacists and other emergent types of terrorists are using vehicle ramming with an increased enthusiasm. Ramming has, for example, been used by violent incels, with Alex Minassian driving a van down a busy downtown street in Toronto in 2018 and killing 10 pedestrians. The tactic gained traction among white nationalists after James Fields’ murder of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville. It remains that terrorist organizations have a finite number of tactical options available to them until they develop new technologies. Consequently, terrorist groups learn from one another and emulate each other’s tactics. Now, we are increasingly seeing extremist right-wing groups — called “White Racially Motivated” (or “WRM”) groups by DHS — using vehicles to attack civilians during protests in response to George Floyd’s death and other marches and demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. This tactical evolution is a microcosm of the broader tectonic shifts in today’s terrorism threats: just as vehicle ramming has migrated to right-wing and incel extremists, so, too, has the thrust of today’s terrorism threat, especially as these groups absorb more and more tactical learning from terrorists such as jihadists.
An unsophisticated and low-tech tactical innovation, vehicle-ramming attacks tend to be successful as they minimize the potential for pre-attack detection by law enforcement while retaining the potential to inflict serious fatalities. It has been called the “poor man’s weapon of mass destruction.” While ISIS was not the first group to employ such tactics (in London, Nice, Lyon, Graz, and New York), it certainly integrated vehicle ramming in their propaganda material as one of the group’s preferred tactics against Western targets and encouraged supporters to use vehicle ramming against crowds.
The tactic originated in the West Bank and was employed by Hamas. As Israel successfully hardened targets and made it more difficult to penetrate inside the Green Line, militant groups turned to the use of less easily detected cars and trucks for attacks. During the early 2010s, Israel witnessed an uptick in car-ramming attacks. From mid-March through November of 2014, there were six attacks; whereas, in 2015, there were 36 attacks in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
From 2014 through 2017, terrorists carried out 17 known vehicle-ramming attacks worldwide, resulting in 173 fatalities and 667 injuries. And in recent months the tactic has become the preferred mode of attack by extreme right-wing groups against protesters, self radicalized individuals lashing out against Black Lives Matter, as well as people who were not affiliated with any groups and whose motives are unclear (e.g., Dawit Kalete who killed Summer Taylor) leading the overall use of the tactic to dramatically increase. In an NPR interview in June, Ari Weil had counted 50 vehicle-ramming incidents just since Floyd’s death on May 25, many of which have been categorized as assault. The New York Times recently updated this number to 66.
Despite vast ideological differences among Palestinian terrorist groups, Salafi Jihadists, and right-wing extremists, their common choice to weaponize vehicles demonstrates how tactics, like a virus, move from one terrorist group to the next. Jacob Stoil of West Point’s Modern War Institute has rightly asked: “How can we understand the process by which an attack type popularized in the West Bank became the tactic of choice for white supremacists in the United States?”
In my own work, Dying to Kill, I demonstrated how specific tactics learned in one location had a contagion effect to other conflicts and to other regions. It is how Palestinian prisoners left on the border with Lebanon subsequently returned to Israel with the new idea of suicide bombing. Just as Hamas proved the utility of vehicle ramming, ISIS quickly adopted it and used vehicles (both cars and commercial trucks) in France, Germany, Britain, and eventually the United States.
Stoil makes clear that, as far as tactics go, the barriers to entry are very low for terrorist groups deciding to adopt vehicle ramming. The individual operative requires little to no formal training to carry out such an attack. My research shows that ISIS was able to train children as young at 12 to ram their explosive laden vehicles into fixed targets, this kind of training is quick and easy. As a result, vehicle ramming has become popular across a variety of terrorist groups regardless of their ideology, affiliation, or type.
The reactions to the recent escalation of vehicle-ramming attacks echo ISIS’ propaganda strategy, in particular, its amplification through a wide range of relatively uncoordinated users on social media. Mimicking ISIS’ propaganda on Telegram over the last few years, users on social media sites from Facebook to Twitter to Parler, which has billed itself as the conservative-friendly alternative to Twitter, have shared memes about the attacks, minimizing civilian casualties and taking the core BLM message of “Black Lives Matter” and turning it into the grotesque “All Lives Splatter.” As Ari Weil, the deputy research director at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats of the University of Chicago, told the New York Times, “sharing memes and joking about running over people can lead to real danger.”
To make matters worse, many of those making the jokes have backgrounds in law enforcement or government. Weil also pointed out that law enforcement officers had perpetrated seven of the vehicular attacks themselves. The police have defended some of these incidents, claiming the police vehicles were under attack. The uptick in vehicle ramming in recent weeks has been driven in part by the widespread popularity of the Black Lives Matter message and the number of large gatherings of people taking place – in marches and demonstrations across the country (especially after weeks of social distancing), coupled with the widespread dissemination of social media encouraging people to run them over.
The most graphic of the images widely shared on various social media platforms, pictured a blood covered Dodge truck, echoes ISIS propaganda. The use of such a repulsive graphic is, itself, yet another adoption of terrorist tactics: In the same way ISIS used these kinds of images to grab the attention of over-stimulated online audience members, so, too, are far-right groups now using similar horrifying imagery.
All told, terrorist groups learn tactics from one another, adapting along the way. In turn, it’s a responsibility of those trying to thwart such groups to learn and adapt as well. Until social media companies clamp down on images that encourage vehicle ramming (many of which are still circulating widely on Twitter despite being reported for violating the platform’s terms of service), some people will follow through on the encouragement.
DHS and the FBI suggest being more vigilant in response to these escalating attacks. But, rather than policing vehicle ramming, for example by creating better barriers to safeguard civilians protesters, law enforcement has used these incidents as an excuse to limit where protesters can legally march. Both tech companies and law enforcement need to do better if this escalating tactic is to be addressed before it causes more injury and death. On July 11, Twitter informed me in an email that the #hashtag “all lives splatter” would now violate the company’s terms of service for “glorifying violence” and would be banned. It is incumbent for the other smaller social media companies to follow suit. However, the most egregious images, memes and encouragement occur on the smaller platforms like Gab, Parler, 4chan and 8kun that are neither part of the Christchurch accord or the Global Internet Forum for Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), additionally platforms that are based outside the United States are less susceptible to political or consumer pressure.
The author’s research is supported in part by the Office of Naval Research “Documenting the Virtual Caliphate” #N00014-16-1-3174. All opinions are exclusively those of the authors and do not represent the Department of Defense or the Navy