We often equate terror attacks with the use of firearms and explosives: legally prohibited objects whose sole purpose is to inflict harm or cause damage. Yet in Thursday night’s attack in Nice, France, it appears that most of the 84 deaths at the scene were caused not by an automatic rifle or a bomb.
Instead it was a large white truck, careening through a Bastille Day crowd, that brought death, injuries and chaos. The truck had been rented on Monday from a branch of the Via Location rental agency, just outside of Nice, a woman at the agency said in a phone call on Friday.
French authorities have labeled the attack an act of terrorism, although the exact motivations of the truck’s driver remain unclear and no group has claimed responsibility at the time of writing. For many who have been watching terrorism tactics over the past few years, if not decades, the use of a motor vehicle as a weapon to harm civilians is not a surprise. In fact, some might argue that they are more surprised that it took this long for a motor vehicle to be used in a major attack in the West.
One December 2010 briefing from the Department of Homeland Security had warned that vehicles could be “used to target locations where large numbers of people congregate, including sporting events, entertainment venues, or shopping centers” in the United States. The briefing noted that vehicles presented an option for attackers with “limited access to explosives or weapons” and “minimal prior training or experience.”
Cars and other vehicles have been used as weapons for attacks in Israel and the Palestinian territories by militants for years. As Matthew Henman, the head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center, notes in an e-mail, they aren’t totally new in the West either. In France alone, there have been three attacks carried out by suspected Islamist militants that used vehicles as a weapon: In December 2014 there were vehicle related incidents in Dijon and Nantes, though authorities refrained from calling them terror attacks, and in January 2016 there was one in Valence.
There was also an attack using a vehicle in Montreal in October 2014, and an attack in London in May 2013 in which an off-duty soldier was initially attacked with a car. Going back further, in March 2006 a former student drove an SUV onto the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and attempted to run over students and faculty.
In the past, most attacks with a car have been relatively small scale, however, often killing at most a handful of people and often less — in some cases, no one died at all other. In many ways, it seemed to be a last resort for terror groups unable to procure deadlier weapons. “It’s obviously an inferior tactic to bombings,” Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism researcher at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Slate in 2014. “In Israel, part of the reason you’re seeing it adopted is that the security barrier is fairly effective, which makes it hard to get bombs into the country.”
The attack in Nice seems to represent a shift. “The use of a large truck in the attack, alongside the high death toll and deliberate targeting of a large crowd at an ideologically symbolic event represents an evolution in the use of the tactic and potentially indicates a higher level of operational planning,” Henman writes. “Furthermore, the high-impact/low-capability nature of the attack raises the risk of the repeated use of the tactic in France and allied countries in the coming months, as well as copycat attacks in the following days.”
It’s worth noting that authorities have said they found guns and explosives in the van, though they later said that these were fake. The driver was armed with a pistol and shot at police before he was killed. The ownership of firearms faces strict legal restrictions in France, though smugglers exploiting Europe’s open borders have created a thriving black market for guns.
At this stage, it’s unclear if the attacker had any link at all to known terror organizations like the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, or whether he was even inspired by them. However, both groups have put out statements suggesting that motor vehicles could be used as a weapon in attacks on the West in recent years. SITE Intelligence group, an organization that monitors extremist groups, says that supporters of the Islamic State were “celebrating the massacre” in Nice on forums and social media.
That group has claimed responsibility for a number of recent attacks, including a gun and bomb attack in November that killed 130 people in Paris. In a number of recent public statements from the group, it has called on Western sympathizers to find unorthodox ways to strike soft targets.
In a September 2014 statement, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani had specifically suggested using a car to attack Americans and Europeans. “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.” Adnani said in the statement, singling out “the spiteful and filthy French” as targets.