PERSPECTIVE: Vehicular attacksDrivers Are Hitting Protesters as Memes of Car Attacks Spread

Published 9 July 2020

Vehicles are becoming increasingly popular weapons that terrorists and other extremists around the globe use to intimidate, harm and kill. Cars and trucks are easily accessible, require little skill to operate and can facilitate unpredictable attacks with mass casualties.

The latest vehicular attack  incident took place in Seattle on Saturday, when 27-year old Dawit Kelete drove his vehicle at a high rate of speed toward a group of protesters, killing one of them and injuring another. On Wednesday, Kelete was charged with vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, and reckless driving. His bail was set at $1.2 million.

The motive of Kelete, who was born in Eritrea and is a naturalized U.S. citizen, is not clear, but prosecutors said Kelete’s actions indicate he intended to kill protesters. To get to section of the interstate highway (I-5) where the protesters were standing, Kelete drove the wrong way on the Stewart Street off-ramp to enter the interstate, which had been partially shut down in response to protesters. He could not get on the highway on the on-ramp because the on-ramp was closed by the police to prevent vehicles from getting on I-5. After he got on the highway, he swerved around three police vehicles positioned as a barrier to protect protesters across the I-5 lanes. He “continued driving at freeway speeds on the shoulder,” passing the barricade of cars, the prosecutor’s office said. “Before him were running pedestrians,” and Mr. Kelete “veered sharply left and directly into” two demonstrators “who were not able to run off the road,” the prosecutor’s office said.

The police said that tests show that Kelete was not impaired by drugs or alcohol during the incident.

Dozens of vehicular attacks on racial justice protesters have occurred across the United States in recent weeks, although it is difficult to assess which attacks were premeditated and driven by far-right ideology, and which attacks were prompted by “road rage,” when drivers find their route blocked by crowd of protesters. Neil MacFarquhar writes in the New York Times that the tactic of vehicular attacks has previously been used mostly by extremist jihadist groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda, and is currently being used regularly by Palestinian militants against both Israeli security forces and Jewish settlers in the territory Israel occupied in 1967

“It is not just an extremist thing here, but there are social media circles online where people are sharing these and joking about them because they disagree with the protests and their methods,” Ari E. Weil, the deputy research director at the Chicago Project on Security and Threats of the University of Chicago, told MacFarquhar. “Sharing memes and joking about running over people can lead to real danger.”

There have been at least 66 car attacks nationwide since George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis policeman on 25 May, Weil said.

MacFarquhar adds:

Supporters of far-right organizations — as well as the occasional government official or law enforcement officer — have been circulating memes and slogans online encouraging such attacks.


Vehicular attacks have proliferated in recent weeks. Experts believe it is because of the combination of widespread protests across the country and the circulation of dangerous memes among extremist groups about running over pedestrians.

“There has been an increasing amount of propaganda online calling for vehicular attacks on protesters, targeting the Black Lives Matter movement in particular,” said Josh Lipowsky, a senior researcher at the Counter Extremism Project. “It is being used as a form of intimidation against them to get them to halt their protests.”

Attacks with vehicles are easy to conduct, he said, because they do not require a lot of planning or financial resources.