To disseminate propaganda at lightning speed and to recruit a world away with online courses instead of the intensive training camps of the 9/11 era, terror groups have wholeheartedly embraced all that modern technology has to offer, whether using drones to film operations or shielding chatroom jihadists in a dark web of encryption.
But terror methods are going in a more medieval direction.
We saw the heavy-duty truck plow through Bastille Day revelers on the Nice coast in July. In Berlin, we just saw a similar modus operandi used to deadly effect: a semi that veered off the busy road to do its damage, striking booths of Christmas shoppers snapping up tchotchkes near Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church less than a week before the holiday.
Police immediately began treating the scene as a terrorist attack. Not only did it mirror the method used to inflict carnage in Nice, but the tragedy reflected the growing trend of low-tech terror.
It will be hard to protect neighborhoods from the campaigns that could be as without warning as a knife-wielding man terrorizing a quiet park or an attacker with access to food and drink poisoning a buffet. Terror groups ask little in return from their distance-learning students except for acknowledgment of some sort that the attack was done in their name.
It’s a two-pronged strategy: seizing on weapons of opportunity and soft targets to avoid roadblocks such as beefed-up security and gun background checks, and drawing on a wider pool of potential jihadists by being able to use the lowest-skilled ones in the bunch.
ISIS is so confident in the efficacy of the emphasis on simple, smaller-scale attacks that they’re looking at jihadists as multi-use instead of a one-shot deal. In their October issue of Rumiyah magazine, ISIS told would-be terrorists that “for one pursuing a prolonged campaign of terror” targeting “lone victims” was an acceptable way to “attain a reasonable kill count.” In Berlin, the driver didn’t wait around for martyrdom in a blaze of glory but fled the scene, putting the city at risk of a “prolonged campaign” before a suspect was captured.
Terror groups know that some trying to emulate al-Qaeda’s master bomb builders stand a fair chance of accidentally blowing themselves up in the process, or miscalculating detonation time like the garbage-can bomb at the September seaside race in New Jersey, or flubbing the detonator, or drawing the wrong kind of attention picking up a pressure cooker and a cart full of nails at Walmart.
Al-Qaeda still puts out bomb recipes for cars, doorjambs, packages and the like. They also review ISIS-claimed attacks to point out what jihadists did right and what needed work. ISIS’ Rumiyah magazine has been offering “just terror tactics” tips since launching a few months ago, including knife attacks and, in the early November issue, vehicle attacks. That article urged jihadists to forego a Prius and instead use a heavy, load-bearing truck for “assuring the destruction of whatever it hits.” The semi in Berlin was loaded with steel beams.
Suggested targets, the ISIS how-to continued, included crowded main streets, “outdoor markets” and festivals. “The target should be on a road that offers the ability to accelerate to a high speed, which allows for inflicting maximum damage,” the terror group emphasized.
After November’s Ohio State attack—a ram-and-stab in which thankfully there were no fatalities—ISIS was left having to re-explain the logistics of knife attacks in a tacit admission that their followers aren’t necessarily that bright. Their December edition of Rumiyah included a jihadist kindergarten-simple infographic showing where to stab someone, what kind of strong knife to use (with a block of kitchen knives shown as a no-no), and targets of lone, small (“for shocking terror, if one is capable”) and large groups of people, with the last category “not advised.”
But that’s the crux of terror groups’ preferred methods going forward with an army of marginally trained DIY jihadists hitting softer and softer targets: keep it simple, keep it brutal, and keep citizens and law enforcement guessing.
Bridget Johnson is a senior fellow with the news and public policy group Haym Salomon Center and D.C. bureau chief for PJ Media.