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Barcelona attack latest in disturbing terror vehicle trend



If vehicle terror attacks in Spain that killed 14 and injured at least 100 sounds familiar, that's because they follow a disturbing trend of terrorism that requires little organization, manpower or technological know-how.

Whatever the attacker's motive, the method has become commonplace.

Vehicles have been used to plow into pedestrians in the United Kingdom twice this year, including a June attack on London Bridge that killed eight people and a March attack on Westminster Bridge where four pedestrians and one police officer were killed. Suspects in both attacks were shot dead by police and have been investigated for ties to terrorist organizations.

In late December, a truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and wounding nearly 50 others. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the incident, calling the attacker a "soldier" of the militant group. 

In November, Abdul Razak Ali Artan, a Somali-born student at Ohio State University, crashed his car into a crowd of pedestrians before getting out and stabbing several of them with a butcher knife. And in July of last year, a Tunisian resident of France, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, used a rented cargo truck to run through a crowd in Nice, France, killing 86 people and wounding hundreds more. 


Rita Katz, executive director of the SITE Intelligence Group, said the Islamic State has been heavily promoting the use of trucks in recent years. The group even dedicated a three-page feature in the November edition of its online magazine explaining the right way to carry out such an attack, including a picture of a U-Haul truck, a list of suggested targets and tips on what kind of truck to use.


"It's important to understand that these materials aren't just distributed on the Deep Web jihadi forums," said Katz, referring to portions of the Internet not easily found through traditional search engines. "They are all over social media and extremely easy to obtain."

The magazine feature is one example of the Islamic State's improved methods of communications, according to Daniel Milton, research director at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. Milton said the Islamic State is light years ahead of the grainy propaganda videos used by al-Qaeda that mostly featured inspirational messages to encourage recruits to find their way to an al-Qaeda training camp.

Now, the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, uses social media, its online magazine and instructional videos to teach would-be supporters how to do everything from choosing the right knife to picking the ideal target. Milton said that has inspired many "lone wolves" who need no formal contact with the Islamic State to inflict their own terror. And with the battle in Syria continuing to rage, he said there's plenty of anti-Western motivation.


"ISIS has been far better at mobilizing people using interesting and provocative propaganda than any group we've ever seen," Milton said. "You see them putting a better pitch out there, and people are responding to that."

Other security experts see something else going on.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said many Islamic State followers are incorrectly labeled lone wolves because there is little evidence showing any direct contact with the militant group. Maybe the attackers have never been to a country known to house terrorist training camps, or maybe there's no sign they communicated with an Islamic State operative online or over the phone.

But Gartenstein-Ross said the anonymity of social media and easy access to encryption software has made it easier for people to have regular conversations with terrorism groups without raising suspicions from law enforcement.

"You can be in touch with a lot of operatives now," he said. "It's not the immediate go-to-jail card that it used to be."
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