Once again on Tuesday, U.S. citizens faced Islamist terrorism on American soil. An immigrant from Uzbekistan, 29-year-old Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov, is suspected of killing eight people and injuring around a dozen more in a vehicle attack in New York. The methodology of the attack itself is nothing new, though it does represent a somewhat recent evolution in terrorist tactics. One other aspect of this particular incident has received little coverage but is, possibly, a sinister harbinger of a future trend.
On September 1, 2004, a school in Beslan, in the Russian republic of North Ossetia was overrun by Chechen rebels. The Chechens held more than 1,100 people hostage for three days before Russian security forces stormed the school. When the dust settled – quite literally – more than 340 civilians were dead, including 186 children. The rebels, who could just as accurately be called terrorists, had chosen their target well. The Beslan massacre left a deep scar on the Russian people. The unthinkable was now thinkable; children were incredibly handy targets for those willing to perpetrate any evil in the name of their ideology.
The Frightening Evolutions of Terrorism
In truth, it would be false to say that Beslan was the beginning of a runaway trend. Using numbers from the Global Terrorism Database, The Atlantic published a report in 2014 that noted an increase in terror attacks on educational establishments since 2004. Attacks of this nature, however, have remained a minuscule percentage of all terror attacks. In 2004, such attacks accounted for a mere 2% of all terrorist actions, and by 2013 they still only accounted for 3%.
Although still a small percentage of all attacks, the number of terrorist assaults again educational institutions has increased sharply. Instances per year averaged around 50 between 1970 and 2004 but, since then, that number has risen steadily, with over 350 such attacks in 2013 – mostly in South Asia.
Terrorism, across the world, and throughout the years, has gone through many evolutions. In the western world today, Islamist extremists have found a new way to assault us on our own streets. Vehicle attacks are relatively cheap, low-profile, and require little or no preparation.
The Detail We Cannot OverlookThe ideal weapon for today’s terrorist: easy to acquire and operate, and devastating against soft targets.
When Saipov drove his rental truck through Manhattan Tuesday with the clear intention of killing and injuring as many civilians as possible, one target he focused on was a school bus. At least one witness described him swerving the flat-bed truck deliberately to hit the bus. Fortunately, that bus was not full of children, but it is a detail of the incident that should be remembered.
There is little that can be done to prevent all future attacks using vehicles and those inspired by the Islamic State have quickly adopted this method of terror across Western Europe. On roads all over America, every day – and particularly in larger cities with multiple schools – the bright yellow buses are ubiquitous and distinct. They move slowly, stop frequently, afford little protection to those inside, and carry our most precious cargo. Although sickening to think of them as such, they are easy and obvious targets for vehicle-borne murderers.
“Islamist fanatics have slaughtered children in their own religion — they have killed wantonly, mercilessly, and without regard for repercussion or regret of any kind. What do you think they’d think of killing our kids?”
Lt. Colonel David Grossman is an author, West Point psychology professor, police trainer, and one of the world’s leading experts on violent human behavior. This writer had the privilege of attending one of his training seminars a few years ago. For a number of years, Grossman has been warning that schools would be a future target for terrorists. He is right. It is frightening enough to think that the schools themselves are not yet fully hardened against attack, but consider those thousands of distinct buses traveling our vulnerable roads, every day.
So-called Knee-jerk reactions are rarely the best way to respond to any tragedy but, like it or not, American society will have to change in order to mitigate the terrorist threat. Many of the changes aren’t necessarily huge, but they must be efficient. A heightened level of awareness is an excellent example of one of those small but effective ways in which we must alter our behavior. Some changes, however, may be more significant. The safety of America’s children is something that deserves the most consideration. Those yellow school buses might be a wise starting point.