THREAT ANALYSIS: Domestic Violent Extremists – U.S. Impacts from European Vehicle

Politics Thematic Analysis
Truck Attacks

As part of a standard “SWOT” Analysis – the aspect of Domestic Violent Extremists (DVEs) is an important set of Threats that create Risks for any country’s Emergency Management practitioners. Emergency Managers, not just Law Enforcement, need to keep in mind their organization’s disaster readiness (resiliency) along the standard path of Protect/Prevent/Prepare, Respond, Recover and Mitigate – includes the adverse impacts that can be generated by these specific threats and others. Tools and techniques – along with the organization’s strengths of collaboration, coordination, cooperation and communication – to and from the military and civilian intelligence agencies can assist Emergency Management practitioners at all levels of government. It is crucial that Emergency Managers understand the risks of any threat – and the possibility of adverse impacts to not only the communities they serve, but their own workforce (inclusive of all incident command and control structures) and those of allied partners. The training, indoctrination, methodologies and tradecraft of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) can be seen in many of these DVE’s – whether they are directly influenced and/or sponsored (such as the Homegrown Violent Extremists or HVEs) or are indirectly studied and researched by the DVEs. There are obstacles to information sharing between the U.S. Intelligence community and state/local law enforcement agencies, most from the USA Patriot Act. Designation as terrorism may or may not bring additional benefits to threat Protection and Prevention (two elements of Disaster Readiness, for which Emergency Management practitioners are responsible for – outweighing the impacts to U.S. civil liberties.

​Using the experience and knowledge from historical DVE attacks in Europe by means of Vehicle Ramming Attacks (VRAs), can assist Emergency Management practitioners (not just Law Enforcement Officials) with Protection and Prevention missions. This Intelligence is also applicable to the Response Phase Incident Action Planning, to Unified Command for continuous Situational Awareness.

European DVE Attack Method: Vehicle Ramming Attacks on soft targets and crowded places

Europe has experienced an increasing number of Vehicle Ramming Attacks (VRAs) (also known as Vehicle-Borne Attacks or VBAs) in the last five years. In many countries where the access to deadly weapons of mass destruction (i.e., high-capacity guns, explosives, etc.) is significantly restricted, access to large vehicles requires minimal capability on the part of the attacker. These attacks can and do have significant impacts to crowded places, especially those “soft targets” with low levels of physical security protection and prevention barriers. VRAs are complicated, complex and chaotic incidents.

​Distinctly different from attacks originating from vehicles to others – or attacks on vehicles – the VRAs specifically use the size, shape, power and physics of the vehicle itself to cause death and destruction. According to the RAND Database of Worldwide Terrorism Incidents which has catalogued more than 40,000 worldwide terrorism incidents between 1968 and 2009, there were very few of these types of attacks. During that research timeframe vehicles were attacked carrying VIPs and military officers (high value targets); vehicles were used in attacks on embassies and other high visibility/high-value targets (car bombs, grenades and incendiary devices launched from vehicles, etc.) and also vehicle-on-vehicle attacks (including vehicles ramming each other) occurred[CITATION Ran \l 1033 ]. Jenkins and Butterworth, in their 2019 report, noted that there have been 184 worldwide vehicle ramming attacks since 1964, but that 70% of these have occurred since 2014 – and VRAs which occurred in Europe or the United States accounted for more than half of all of the recent VRAs. [CITATION Jen19 \l 1033 ].

​Unlike the vast majority of vehicle-related attacks noted in the RAND database which occurred in conflict zones around the world, VRAs have become the weapon of choice for mentally unstable individuals and those who have been inspired by the rhetoric of jihadists. Both ISIS and al Qaeda encouraged VRAs as early as 2010, but the 2016 issue of Rumiyah appeared to have sparked a contagion of attacks, which appears to have peaked in 2019. That call from jihadists for VRAs on soft targets may have been written in response to the July 2016 truck VRA in Nice, France [CITATION Jen19 \l 1033 ].

​While the FTO aspect of inspiring anyone (including those mentally unstable individuals, would-be jihadists, etc.) is certainly a concern, there are also DVEs who research and study these historic incidents, and can utilize vehicles for attacks on targeted groups/individuals as well as general soft targets such as public gatherings, pedestrian shopping areas, etc. Miller & Hayward also noted the imitative contagion factors itself (aligned along the social theory of Gabriel Tarde).

​These waves of imitative radiation are evident both internationally (where global ramming incidents have gone from insignificance to over 40 per year within two years) and at a more localized, micro-level. For example, on the 21 December 2014, 11 civilians were injured in Dijon, France, when a mentally unstable ‘40-year-old man of Arab origin’ used a Transit-style van as a weapon in five parts of the city in the space of 30 minutes. Within 24 hours, a Frenchman, with a history of petty crime, alcoholism and mental health issues drove his van into shoppers at a Christmas market in Nantes, injuring ten. He then stabbed himself 13 times in the chest with a knife. Authorities believe he had no political or religious motive, but was directly inspired by the Dijon incident the previous evening [CITATION Mil19 \p 15 \l 1033 ].

​Massive media coverage of these VRAs, the easy access to vehicles (as compared to weapons) and the allure of instant fame can also trigger individuals to conduct VRAs, especially as ripples of VRAE waves, which have occurred. Some are targeted attacks (against groups, individuals, low-risk/high-impact areas, etc.) and others are random. As there is no single profile for a VRA attacker, the ability to conduct pre-incident Intelligence for Prevention and Protection is very limited.

Still a worldwide concern: VBIEDs and now FAVBIEDs

While the focus of this article has been on VRAs, there continues to be a worldwide threat from Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIEDS). Any emphasis on physical blocking devices or architectural design to reduce the impact of potential VRAs, should not replace continued vigilance and Protection/ Prevention aspects of Preparedness for VBIEDs. And, with the ability for more autonomous vehicle capabilities – and the future state of fully autonomous vehicles (i.e., driverless vehicles), unfortunately this can become another tool for terrorists: The Fully Automated Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (FAVBIEDs). Mitigation efforts against FAVBIEDs must expand upon those in place now for VBIEDs and VRAs.

​Emergency Managers need to focus on the physical aspects of Mitigation, not the actors.

​While national defense and law enforcement may be focusing on the Intelligence aspects of Protection and Prevention (Preparedness) to reduce or eliminate the adverse impacts of VRAs by stopping the actor; Emergency Managers must take a holistic approach that concentrates on mitigating those adverse impacts on the action itself – the VRA (along with VBIEDs/FAVBIEDs). If the vehicle can be stopped from getting to the crowd/target, its ability to be a weapon of mass destruction is significantly reduced. The reason for the VRA is immaterial to the Emergency Manager – only the fact that all soft targets must be protected against VRAs; and if a VRA does occur the swift medical response by members of the public and emergency responders will help save the lives of those who are injured.

​Physical Mitigation activities fall under a concept called Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED). Physical barriers – both permanent ones such as elevating areas accessible via stairs and ramps, trench-dug bollards, etc.; and temporary ones such as planters and barricades are both deterrents and tangible protection elements. In many cases the permanent modifications (or initial implementation as part of the initial facility/streetscape design) can be flexible to allow for vehicular traffic at some points and pedestrian-only traffic at other times.

​Portable barriers can be towed into place and setup in as little as 15 minutes to block off certain streets during a festival, for instance, and also allow for easy ingress and egress of approved vehicles. Bollards are a more permanent solution and can either be fixed or manually controlled by users who can raise or lower them depending on the circumstances.

Emergency Managers have broader responsibilities than just Law Enforcement

While there are elements of Law Enforcement primarily responsible for Protection, Prevention and Response missions associated with VRAs; the coordination of those missions aligning multiple organizations (Police, Fire, Emergency Medical Services, Public Works, Public Health, etc.) across the entire disaster cycles phases of Preparedness (Protection/Prevention), Response, Recovery and Mitigation. For many one-time public events involving crowds, the Preparedness activities to mitigate against the adverse impacts of a VRA would be led by the local law enforcement officials, but would need the cooperation, coordination, collaboration and communication with many other groups, departments, agencies, etc. That is the role of Emergency Management.

​In addition to protecting the event itself from VRAs (or even against accidents simulating the impacts of a VRA), the overall community still needs access to emergency services in and around the area of the event. Bollards and barricades set up for the event cannot block emergency routes for ambulances and fire apparatus without alternate routes and staging being established and coordinated in advance.

​The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (USDHS) also has recommendations on Mitigation strategies and Protective measures [ CITATION DHSVR \l 1033 ]; as does the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team (a collaboration by the National Counter Terrorism Center, USDHS, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and others)[ CITATION Joi20 \l 1033 ]. Europeans have also studied VRAs and possible Mitigation efforts along the same lines of CPTED[ CITATION Jas18 \l 1033 ]. The same standards and ratings criteria used for CPTED devices such as sally ports [ CITATION Tho17 \l 1033 ] and anti-ramming barriers [ CITATION USA14 \l 1033 ] at critical infrastructure key resource (CIKR) sites, should be applied to soft-target areas.

​And while coordinating with Law Enforcement on securing the scene for Investigation, Emergency Managers have a higher priority of coordinating and resourcing medical support to those injured during the VRA.

​What is described as the “Golden Hour” and “Platinum Minutes” of trauma care[ CITATION Dab14 \l 1033 ], the quick response by medical professionals and others has been the focus of on-scene medical care of VRA and other Mass Casualty Incident (MCI) victims. While there is some dissent [ CITATION Rog14 \l 1033 ] on these axioms (i.e., the rapid transport of victims from a scene has the potential for speeding accidents itself), those with profuse bleeding need to be stabilized immediately. The proper use of tourniquets – even by laypersons with minimal training – can save lives. In many of the same ways non-medical professionals have been trained to use Automatic External Defibrillation (AED) devices, taught CPR and even trained on administering NARCAN® (naloxone) for suspected drug overdoses; bleeding control techniques and equipment can be made available to non-medical professionals in advance of any incident. Equipment can also be strategically pre-positioned at high-risk areas, as AEDs are now in public spaces. The Hartford Consensus (Stop the Bleed) became the national policy for bleeding control in the United States, after the active assailant attack at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, CT in 2012 [ CITATION Amend \l 1033 ]. There is even a protocol for Emergency Medical Services to bring a bag of tourniquets and other bleeding control supplies and “toss it to the crowd” so that pre-trained bystanders can assist, where there are not enough initial first responders on-scene.

Consequence Management aspects must be considered as well

While the VRA incident itself is a consequence of a threat becoming an attack; the additional consequence management planning (and anticipatory actions) must be considered that this attack could be part of a Complex Coordinated Attack. That means other sites could be at risk, first responders arriving on-scene could be attacked via secondary attacks and soft targets involved in the triage and treatment (hospitals, ambulance assembly points, staging areas, etc.) may be the subjects of attacks as well. Operational missions must be established for on-scene and off-scene security and responder accountability. Interoperable communications (including advance establishment of backups, if primary channels are compromised), Sally Port protocols for hot zones, strict credentialing standards, and other criteria for Complex Coordinated Attacks must be utilized.

​Well-planned events take into consideration the positives of people flow (for economic benefit, avoidance of traffic concerns, etc.) while protecting that population and the surrounding ones with CPTED and effective fire safety and emergency medical response access [ CITATION Ken20 \l 1033 ]. On the other hand, failing to protect against the possibility of a VRA – especially when the Intelligence and prior actions indicate DVEs are poised to utilize any means possible for acts of violence – can lead to significant tragedies[ CITATION Aft18 \l 1033 ].

​Also, it should be noted that since VRAs are sometimes crimes of opportunity, they may not be the modus operandi of the specific DVE, nor is this threat limited to DVEs. A VRA may be the result of someone fleeing the scene of another threat [ CITATION The20 \l 1033 ] – or the spontaneous product of the synergy when multiple groups of DVEs come together.


After Charlottesville. (2018). Contexts, 17(1), 16-27. doi:

​American College of Surgeons. (n.d.). The Hartford Consensus. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from

​Daban, J.-l., Falzone, E., Boutonnet, M., Peigne, V., & Lenoir, B. (2014, September). Wounded in action: The platinum ten minutes and the golden hour. Soins. Chirurgie, 59, pp. 5-14. doi:10.1016/j.soin.2014.06.005

​Griffin, J. (2017, May 5). Stopping vehicle-borne terror attacks. Security

​Jasiński, A. (2018, January 17). Protecting public spaces against vehicular terrorist attacks. doi:10.4467/2353737XCT.18.019.7992

​Jenkins, B. M., & Butterworth, B. R. (2019). “Smashing into crowds” – An analysis of vehicle ramming attacks. Mineta Transportation Institute Publications.

Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team. (2020, December 18). First Responder Tool Box.

​Kennedy, M. (2020, January 1). Event planning in a downtown district. Fire

​Miller, V., & Hayward, K. (2019, January). ‘I did my bit’: Terrorism, Tarde and the vehicle ramming attack as an imitative event. The British Journal of Criminology, 59(1), 1-23. doi:

​New Jersey Office of Homeland Security & Preparedness. (2021). New Jersey Predictive Threat Analysis. State of New Jersey.

​Rand. (n.d.). RAND database of worldwide terrorism incidents. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from

​Rogers, F., & Rittenhouse, K. (2014, Spring). The golden hour in trauma: Dogma or medical folklore? The Journal of Langaster General Hospital, pp. 11-13.

​Smith, M., Pérez-Peña, R., & Goldman, A. (2016, November 28). Suspect Is killed in attack at Ohio State University that injured 11.

​Snowden, D., & Boone, M. (2007, November). A leader’s framework for decision making. Harvard Business Review, 69-76.

​The Guardian. (2020, December 12). Multiple people injured after vehicle plows into crowd at New York protest. protest#:~:text=A%20vehicle%20plowed%20into%20a,York%20City%20police%20department%20said.

​Thomas, L. (2017). Chapter 15 – Specialized Portal Control Devices and Applications. Electronic Access Control (2nd Edition, pp. 237-253. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-805465-9.00015-4

​U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Protective Design Center. (2014, January). DoD anti-ram vehicle barrier list .

​U.S. Department of Homeland Security. (n.d.). Vehicle ramming: Security awareness for soft targets and crowded places. Retrieved April 18, 2021, from

Leave a Comment