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Low-Tech Terror

If a mysterious alien ray swept every gun off the North American continent tomorrow, very ordinary and low-skilled militants could still perpetrate horrendous violence quite comparable to last month’s Orlando attacks. In understanding and forestalling terrorist threats, access to weaponry is only one consideration out of a great many, and that fact is crucial to contemporary political debates.

But without guns, without so-called “assault weapons,” how could terrorists kill innocents in large numbers? One answer to that question comes from the Chinese city of Kunming, where in 2014 a group of eight Islamist militants from the Uighur people stormed the local rail station, killing 29 civilians. As private access to firearms is extremely difficult in China, the killers used long bladed knives, and used them to devastating effect. That tactic has been repeated, and some horrible Chinese “spectaculars” have reached international attention. Last year, the same Uighur movement attacked a Xinjiang coal mine, reportedly killing 50 workers.

Such mass knife attacks occur quite frequently in China, and by no means always for political motives. Still, the fact that any tactic has been so successful in one country attracts the attention of terrorist social media, such as the Islamic State publication Inspire, which brings them to global attention. IS especially recommends that followers around the world should use whatever means available to attack and kill unbelievers, and if guns and explosives are not easily found, then knives are quite acceptable.

Knife attacks have one major drawback for terror groups, namely the large numbers of people needed to inflict mass casualties. Mobilizing a group of eight attackers is difficult without a high danger of penetration and exposure. Other forms of non-traditional violence, though, can easily be committed by solitary lone wolves, and for that reason they are warmly advocated by IS and al-Qaeda.

The main weapons in question are vehicles, and the U.S. was the scene of one pioneering experiment in this form of terror. In 2006, an Afghan immigrant named Omeed Aziz Popal used his SUV to attack civilians in the San Francisco Bay area, killing one and injuring nineteen. His intentions were very clear: as one observer remarked, “He was trolling for people.” After hitting his victims, he returned to run over their prone bodies. Don’t worry if you have never heard of the crime, which was poorly reported, and in such a way that made virtually no reference to the driver’s ethnicity or religious background. The same year, Iranian Mohammed Reza Taheri-azar used his SUV to attack passers by on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, injuring nine. The driver cited 9/11 pilot Mohammed Atta as his special hero.

If such attacks have not recurred in the United States itself, they have happened repeatedly in other countries, with the clear implication that tactics and methods are being developed through trial and error, awaiting full scale deployment. By far the commonest venue for these assaults has been Israel, presumably because militants there find it all but impossible to obtain guns or explosives. Vehicles, though, are much easier, and Palestinian guerrillas have used cars and also heavier machines such as tractors and bulldozers. Jerusalem alone has witnessed several such attacks since 2008, each with a number of fatalities. Uighurs (again) have used vehicles to ram crowds in Beijing.

2014 marked a turning point in this saga, when IS propagandist Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged an all-out campaign of lone wolf violence. Find an unbeliever, he said, “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.” Multiple vehicle attacks occurred around that time. A man yelling “Allahu Akbar!” drove down eleven pedestrians in the city of Dijon, and the very next day, Nantes witnessed an almost identical attack by a separate militant. Also in 2014, a recent Islamic convert in Quebec used his car against two members of the Canadian military.

So far, the most striking thing about these lone wolf vehicular attacks is just how relatively small the casualties have been, but that could change very easily. It would be easy to imagine drivers choosing denser crowds, during busy shopping seasons or major sporting events. In this scenario, long lines of fans or shoppers or travelers represent a target rich environment. On such occasions, a determined driver not afraid of being killed could easily claim twenty or more fatalities.

Whatever else we might say about limiting access to firearms (even assault rifles), such a policy of itself would do nothing whatever to prevent these kinds of low-tech violence. The solution lies in efficient forms of intelligence gathering, monitoring and surveillance, combined with psychological profiling. The danger with such methods is that they will not pick up every potential assailant, while running a serious risk of producing lots of false positives, aggressive blowhards who in reality will never commit a crime. Just how to walk that particular tightrope, between effective prevention and respecting rights to free speech, is going to offer a major challenge to law enforcement agencies of all kinds.

And yet again, it would be very useful if our political leaders felt able to speak the name of the actual cause for which all those murderous guns and knives and cars are being deployed. Perhaps that is too much to hope.

Philip Jenkins is the author of The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels [1]. He is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and serves as co-director for the Program on Historical Studies of Religion in the Institute for Studies of Religion.

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18 Comments To "Low-Tech Terror"

#1 Comment By nemo On July 6, 2016 @ 1:30 am

The actual cause is takfiri-jihadi Salafism or Islamism. Now that it’s named – what next? Which of our political leaders do you imagine has the slightest meaningful understanding of what takfiri-jihadi Salafism/Islamism is or of what it should mean to apply that understanding in one’s approach to the Muslim world as well as among American Muslim communities?

Muslims, as a rule, don’t like these people; but they usually have grave misgivings about the capability and intent of our political leaders in dealing with them.

As well they should. What differentiates a takfiri-jihadi Salafist from ‘mainstream’ or orthodox Muslims, even quietist Salafis? If one can’t properly draw this distinction, how can one be trusted to deal appropriately with this ‘actual cause’?

Islam and the Shari’a are non-negotiable as such. As Timothy Winter has written, ‘Terrorism is to jihad as adultery is to marriage.’ If this is not understood from the outset, how can one have anything to say to the Muslim world and how can one interact appropriately with minority
Muslim communities in one’s midst?

#2 Comment By A Moderate On July 6, 2016 @ 2:35 am

I don’t think you’re making a very good case here. None of your cited examples of non-gun attacks have anywhere near the ratio of kills-per-attacker as the Orlando attack.

I agree that vehicular attacks are a tempting attack vector in lieu guns, and when those start becoming as commonplace, I’m sure we can find some ways to mitigate their effectiveness, too.

I am an American who has happened to live in China. I hated the country for many reasons, but the lack of guns never seemed to be an issue. I have also lived in Japan and the Netherlands, and never felt like they were any worse off for their relative lack of guns. The fact is, every other democracy in the world gets along fine without being awash in firearms.

The founding fathers were visionary geniuses, but they weren’t infallible. What was reasonable in the 18th century may not automatically be reasonable in the 21st. They world has changed; our relationship with guns should, as well.

#3 Comment By OMM 0910 On July 6, 2016 @ 6:02 am

More prudent immigration control is obviously the answer. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

#4 Comment By Chris C. On July 6, 2016 @ 8:50 am

Then you have non-“terrorist” attacks like that woman who murdered 4 of her children with a knife here in the US last week. There are sick people out there who will do anything with whatever they can find. I suspect without guns there’d be more IEDs/fertilizer bombs and such. Evil will find a way.

The Uighurs, for what it’s worth, have a better claim to armed resistance than most other groups given that the Chinese government is trying to do to them what they did to Tibet. It’s still terrorism, but a different class of terrorism given that the Chinese government is one of the most evil authoritarian regimes in the world and there isn’t a viable way to protest/oppose them without violence.

#5 Comment By Ron Goodman On July 6, 2016 @ 8:59 am

Thousands are killed yearly by guns in the US, compared to dozens(maybe) by all forms of terrorism. Reducing the number of firearms might not stop all attacks, but how would it not reduce substantially the numbers of injured and killed?

#6 Comment By Rossbach On July 6, 2016 @ 9:04 am

Assault rifles are already illegal in the US, as are all other weapons capable of fully automatic fire. The weapons targeted by the gun-grabbers are semi-automatic rifles that look like military assault rifles (M-16, AK-47, etc). If they succeed in banning those weapons, there is no reason that they could not demand that all semi-automatic rifles be banned.

Hillary Clinton has expressed admiration for Australia’s gun-control efforts, where the government there banned civilian ownership of firearms and confiscated their weapons. All it would take is one or two more Liberals on the Supreme Court to interpret the 2nd amendment out of existence, and Hillary would get her wish.

#7 Comment By I Don’t Matter On July 6, 2016 @ 9:12 am

“Whatever else we might say about limiting access to firearms (even assault rifles), such a policy of itself would do nothing whatever to prevent these kinds of low-tech violence.”

But maybe, just maybe, such a policy might prevent “other kinds” of “high-tech violence”, e.g., when a single attacker mows down dosens of people. Or is this not a worthy consideration?

#8 Comment By Confused On July 6, 2016 @ 10:32 am

‘And yet again, it would be very useful if our political leaders felt able to speak the name of the actual cause for which all those murderous guns and knives and cars are being deployed’

What would be the utility of using whatever phrase we’re using to describe Islamic terrorists today? What, exactly, would it achieve? Do you want people to say Radical Islamic Terrorists, Islamic Fundamentalists, Islamist Terrorists – because I believe all of these are phrases that Obama has used. And using a certain phrase isn’t going to affect the War on Terror by one iota. This is an utterly farcical point of view.

#9 Comment By Douglas K. On July 6, 2016 @ 11:49 am

“But without guns, without so-called ‘assault weapons,’ how could terrorists kill innocents in large numbers?

You’re joking, right? The most high-profile and deadly terror attack in American history was carried out with pocket knives, box cutters and airplane tickets. The second deadliest attack used a rental truck with a home-built fertilizer bomb. I don’t even need to mention the places or the dates for people to recognize what attacks I’m talking about; it’s not like this stuff is obscure.

More than 99% of homicides in this country have nothing to do with terrorism. That’s what gun control is really about. I’d much rather be confronted by a murderous lunatic with a knife or a car than the same lunatic with an AK-47. It’s much easier to get out of the way of a knife or a car than a speeding bullet.

And in the case of the eight knife-wielding nutjobs at the Kunming railroad station, imagine what the body count would have been if all eight had semi-automatic rifles with 30-round magazines.

#10 Comment By Will Harrington On July 6, 2016 @ 12:17 pm

A Moderate, you said “I don’t think you’re making a very good case here. None of your cited examples of non-gun attacks have anywhere near the ratio of kills-per-attacker as the Orlando attack.”

This is blatantly untrue. Although the author focused on knives and autos (not low tech.) he did mention explosives, which often have a higher rate of casualties per attacker, and sometimes even allow the attacker to escape.

As far as gun laws. This is best kept local. What common laws should apply to a small town in Kansas and Chicago. The federal governments only constitutional role in gun control is to correct state or local governments that have gone to far in depriving a person of their right to bear arms. Let people work this out as best for their own localities.

#11 Comment By BackofTheClass On July 6, 2016 @ 2:20 pm

There’s one more thing that gun laws won’t prevent:
Guns.

The gun-control set’s proposed laws do not target guns, they target people. Under their regulations, the government and its agents remain equipped with all manner of guns, including many civilians can’t lawfully possess or manufacture.
—-
Further, such laws don’t prevent people from making them. Even if one could make the current stock of 300 million or so civilian owned guns go ‘poof’, guns are not gone.
A gun at in its basic form is a tube with a little weighted hammer at one end (or any hammer you have around), a cartridge (or a 3rd rate substitute that you make from fishing weights etc) and …. that’s it. The technology dates from the 14th century. With some contraption between a 1350’s bronze musket and a modern gun, shoot an unsuspecting, probably innocent government employee carrying a better gun and voila, the gang is armed.

One can reach various grades of improvement without good machine tools, or, with a lathe, and a drill press, all of 1930s vintage and a source for rifled barrels (such as wherever the non-disarmed .gov gets theirs) you can make a machine guns or battle rifles that were used in WWI and WWII. You’ll need the right alloy of steel or composition of plastic to make reliable magazines if you use that design. If whatever mafia/terror group doesn’t have the patience to acquire and use a lathe, they can use that other modern invention, money, to exchange with any of the millions of people who do.

Islamists, and perhaps Fundamentalists, may wish to bring back the 7th century. None of the germs, steel or guns which have evolved since then will leave.

#12 Comment By mrscracker On July 6, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

A Moderate says:
“The founding fathers were visionary geniuses, but they weren’t infallible. What was reasonable in the 18th century may not automatically be reasonable in the 21st. They world has changed; our relationship with guns should, as well.”
*****************************************
I don’t know. It’s not the 18th Century anymore but I don’t think things have become any safer. The threats may look different or come from different sources, but they’re still real & I want to be able to defend myself .And not with rocks & knives.

#13 Comment By Reinhold On July 7, 2016 @ 5:02 pm

“It’s still terrorism, but a different class of terrorism given that the Chinese government is one of the most evil authoritarian regimes in the world and there isn’t a viable way to protest/oppose them without violence.”
There’s something like 100,000 protests on the mainland per year. None of these are legal, and many of them destroy public property. There are lots of ways to resist Chinese authority without killing toddlers with knives. The Uighers may have a claim to national self-determination, and historically violence has accelerated that cause, but even given that I find their tactics quite disturbing.

#14 Comment By A Moderate On July 8, 2016 @ 5:59 am

Will Harrington: I would normally agree that local laws allow more fine-grained and suitable solutions, in the case of gun laws, I think that would just lead to gun control being ineffective. There are no customs stops when crossing state borders, so guns being free-flowing in state X means criminals in states Y and Z will be able to get guns no matter the local laws.

#15 Comment By Alex (the one that likes Ike) On July 8, 2016 @ 6:57 am

Here we go again in comments section. Should I remind that Mateen had an ASG license hence would have been able to keep those weapons even in the most restrictive EU country? Should I remind that even he hadn’t, illegal weapon markets are everywhere? Should I mention that an averagely skilled driver can murder a lot more people with his mid-size sedan than he ever could even with full auto ARs? Should I, at last, remark that most suicides in urban areas are committed via high-rise jumping?

#16 Comment By GR On July 8, 2016 @ 10:13 am

Hillary Clinton has expressed admiration for Australia’s gun-control efforts, where the government there banned civilian ownership of firearms and confiscated their weapons.

As an Australian who happens to be a licenced shooter, I feel the need to point out that this statement is false.

Certain categories of firearms were made illegal and were required to be surrendered – any semi-automatic long arm with a capacity of greater than two rounds. Handguns have always been very restricted here. In addition, new firearm licensing laws were introduced that tracked ownership of individual guns very closely, and which made it difficult to get a gun licence unless you could demonstrate a genuine need (which is less onerous than it sounds, given ‘i am a hunter’) counts as ‘genuine need’.

There are debatable parts of Australia’s gun laws, and it’s far more debatable whether a regime tailored to Australian gun culture would work when applied to an American culture that sees guns very differently, but I don’t think making factually incorrect claims about what Australian gun laws actually are helps very much.

#17 Comment By Janwaar Bibi On July 8, 2016 @ 9:07 pm

Nemo says “The actual cause is takfiri-jihadi Salafism or Islamism.”

The actual causes are (i) the intense hate in the Koran towards non-Muslims, who are required to be killed, converted or subjugated by Muslims (Koran 9:29), (ii) the horrific example of Muhammad, who killed, enslaved and raped non-Muslims (and even Muslims when the occasion called for it), and (iii) the belief among Muslims that that awful book and that ghastly man cannot be criticized or altered on pain of death.

In short, the problem is Islam.

Fortunately, many Muslims have other, civilizing influences in their lives, so they are more enlightened than their religion or their prophet.

#18 Comment By collin On July 11, 2016 @ 11:37 am

Knife attacks have one major drawback for terror groups, namely the large numbers of people needed to inflict mass casualties.

Doesn’t this seem like a major issue with knives? It is hard to image the mass murders of Sandy Hook, Orlando, San Bernardino and Dallas would have been as effective with rifles and lots of ammo. All of those cases, would have had 80% less and hardly been news.