By Robin Wright
December 20, 2016
The world’s deadliest terrorist groups are increasingly open about their intentions, tactics, and targets. Last month, Rumiyah, the slickest terrorist magazine on the Internet market, was very precise. The “most appropriate” killing vehicle, the Islamic State publication advised, is a “load-bearing truck” that is “double-wheeled, giving victims less of a chance to escape being crushed by the vehicle’s tires.” It should be “heavy in weight, assuring the destruction of whatever it hits.” It should also have a “slightly raised chassis and bumper, which allow for the mounting of sidewalks and breeching of barriers if needed.” And it should have a “reasonably fast” rate of acceleration.
In the same issue, Rumiyah urged Islamic State members, or sympathizers anywhere in the world, to hop in vehicles—steal them, if need be—and attack outdoor markets, public celebrations, political rallies, and pedestrian-congested streets. “All so-called ‘civilian’ (and low security) parades and gatherings are fair game and more devastating to Crusader nation,” the magazine, which is published in several languages, said.
The rampage in Berlin on Monday—which the German government has now deemed a terrorist attack, though the motive behind the attack was still murky—was right out of the jihadi literature. Around 8 p.m., a black semi-trailer jumped the curb and barrelled at forty miles an hour into an outdoor Christmas market. It plowed some two hundred feet through the wooden stalls of crafts, jewellery, wine, and sweets set up outside Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. The Scania truck, which had Polish plates, came to a halt after ramming into the “Fascination Christmas” stall, pulling down a huge Christmas tree. It killed twelve people; some four dozen were injured.
The Rumiyah article wasn’t the first jihadi command to carry out truck terrorism. The Islamic State virtually plagiarized the idea from Inspire, the English-language magazine of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is aimed specifically at audiences in the West. In its second issue, in 2010, Inspire instructed followers and sympathizers on how to carry out an “individual jihad.” Over a picture of a Ford pickup truck, it said, “The idea is to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah. You would need a 4WD pickup truck. The stronger the better. You would then need to weld on steel blades on the front end of the truck. These could be a set of butcher blades or thick sheets of steel. They do not need to be extra sharp because with the speed of the truck at the time of impact, even a blunter edge would slice through bone very easily.” The rest gets more gruesome.
Inspire notes, candidly, that the prospects of escape after such an attack are low. “Hence, it should be considered a martyrdom operation,” the magazine concludes. “It’s a one-way road. You keep on fighting until you achieve martyrdom. You start out your day in this world, and by the end of it, you are with Allah.” It goes on to urge attacks in the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Denmark, Holland, and other countries that support Israel or the U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and where Muslims are defamed.
For all the advance notice, such open-air terrorism seems increasingly hard to stop. The attack yesterday in Berlin was the third since July, when, on Bastille Day, a white Renault cargo truck rammed into crowds strolling along a promenade in Nice, France, SHORTLY after a fireworks display. Eighty-six were killed, and more than four hundred wounded. The truck was driven by a young Tunisian-born resident of France. isis claimed credit.
Then, last month, an eighteen-year-old Somali-born student drove a gray Honda Civic into passersby on the Ohio State campus, leapt out with a knife, and stabbed several others. Thirteen were injured; far more could have been hurt had a policeman not been nearby. He shot and killed the Somali youth, who was heralded in the December issue of Rumiyah as a “soldier of the Islamic State, our brother.”
Open-air terrorism is particularly hard to prevent. Airports, hotels, and government buildings can deploy metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs. But determining the intentions of drivers in cars, vans, or semi-trailers is virtually impossible. Vehicular terrorism also requires no skills, no training, and no weaponry, not necessarily even a map. The initial reports from Berlin indicated that the driver may have hijacked the Polish truck after it crossed into Germany. Local police reported that a dead Polish man was found in the truck’s passenger seat after the rampage ended and the driver ran off.
Europe now has a growing reservoir of Jihadis. About five thousand Jihadis left Europe to join various extremist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. About a third of them have returned, a European Union report said this month. More than eight hundred people with German citizenship have joined jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq over the past two and a half years, according to the Combating Terrorism Centre at West Point. Some two hundred and seventy have returned to Germany.
The European Union Terrorism Situation and Trend Report 2016 warns, “The overall threat to the security of the European Union has increased over recent years and remains on an upward trajectory. The main concern reported by EU Member States continues to be jihadist terrorism and the closely related phenomenon of foreign terrorist fighters, travelling to and from conflict zones.” The numbers do not include lone wolves—or copycats—who never formally joined the jihad, including the perpetrators of the attacks in Nice and Ohio State. Truck terrorism is taking a new place in the annals of conflict—with plenty of instructions available on the Web.
Robin Wright is a contributing writer for newyorker.com, and has written for the magazine since 1988.