Terror by Truck: It’s happened again

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At about the same time North Americans were awaking to the news that President Trump had lobbed 60 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto a Syrian air base an apparent terrorist stole a truckload of beer and crashed it through the front of a Swedish department store. The death toll in the Stockholm department store crash stands at four at the time of this writing.

Sweden’s Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, has already described the deadly act as a “terror attack,” but in the hours following the crash no group has yet claimed responsibility. Police say a man wearing a dark-colored jacket with a hood was observed leaving the scene. Police made an arrest the following day but released few details about the suspect.   

This incident brings to three the number of “confirmed” terrorist attacks in the past year carried out using a truck as the weapon of choice. Last July, a truck was used to mow down 86 Bastille Day revelers on a Mediterranean beach in Nice, France. Then in December, a man drove a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, Germany, killing a dozen people and injuring many more.

Despite the relative rarity of such events, they obviously have had an impact on the public psyche — even in our part of the world. It’s not uncommon to hear suggestions of the possibility of a terrorist attack when the media reports on a truck crash, especially one of the more spectacular crashes. It seems the chattering classes are ready to seize the opportunity to raise the national blood pressure anytime trucks and smoke and fire can be captured in the same photograph.

The link between trucks and terrorism isn’t a new one. Even before 9-11, there were discussions about what a potential terror-by-truck attack might look like. These suggestions included driving a truck loaded with poisonous chemicals into a city water reservoir, or crashing a gasoline tanker into some busy venue packed with bystanders. Nothing of the sort has ever happened, but I don’t think that we can credit the keepers of public safety for that. It more likely hasn’t happened yet because nobody has been inclined to try it.

That’s not to overlook the heinous efforts of the late Timothy McVeigh. He was convicted and executed for the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. That act of domestic terrorism killed 168 people and injured more than 600.

Accounts of the bombing, including one on Wikipedia, say it was “revenge against the federal government for its handling of the 1993 Waco siege, which ended in the deaths of 76 people exactly two years before the bombing.” It was planned in advance and executed in secret. Nobody at the time ever suspected the rental truck pulled up in front of the building that day was loaded with explosives.

We live in a different world now. You can’t leave your car parked in the passenger drop-off area of an airport for even a minute before crews arrive to tow it away. It represents a threat.

So how do we guard against a truck being used by some malcontent with a taste for revenge or a terrorist with some other agenda?

As the recent attack in Sweden suggests, it would be nearly impossible. Published reports indicate the truck used in the attack, owned by Swedish brewery, Spendrups, had been stolen while making a delivery earlier in the day.

“During a delivery to [a restaurant], and while the driver was unloading, someone jumped into the driver’s seat and drove off with it,” Spendrups communications director Marten Lyth told TT Swedish news agency.

Should every report of a stolen truck suddenly become a potential terror threat? Today, police barely respond to such reports. Cargo theft is so common that it barely makes the police’s radar screen. Elevating all reports of stolen trucks to potential terrorist threats would certainly change all that, but it would be a significant over-reaction, I think.

I’m just speculating here, but it seems that the Swedish department store attack might have been a crime of opportunity – that is to say, the perpetrator may have had some notion of doing what he did, but he had to wait for an unlocked truck to appear before he could steal it. We don’t know yet if the guy was actually a driver or not, but it’s not difficult to operate a straight truck with an automatic transmission.

I think these small-scale attacks should be a wakeup call for a potentially larger and better organized effort. We are just now starting to tackle the issue of cybersecurity as it relates to our rolling assets. The potential exists to hack one of these things and do some damage, but for the time being, it’s believed that the worst outcome might be just a massive inconvenience, if, for example, someone was able to shut down a truck at a very busy highway interchange. I could imagine worse, but there would still need to be a human involved to deliver the truck to its target as opposed to remotely disabling one somewhere.

I think the industry needs to look carefully at its security precautions, which, if the number of reported cargo thefts is any indication, are pretty lax. On any day I can walk down a city street and see a parked delivery truck with engine running and the doors unlocked – just like the beer truck in Sweden was on that fateful Friday.

Preventing such attacks entirely is not possible, but there are steps we can all take now to reduce the potential risk. What are you doing to keep your trucks out of terrorist hands?

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and Trucknews.com, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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