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Assessing the Use of Edged Weapons in Terrorist Attacks

Throughout history, terrorists have employed a variety of weapons and devices in their warfare—with most involving firearm shootings and improvised explosive device (IED) bombings.

During the past several years such weapons have become difficult for terrorist groups or lone actors because their purchase is regulated and training needed to use them might arouse suspicion, so potential attackers have been encouraged by their terrorist leaders and ideologues to resort to simpler weapons that are easy to acquire and require no training. These include vehicles that can be used to ram into crowds of pedestrians and edged weapons, such as knives, which are used every day and do not arouse suspicion.

What is an Edged Weapon?

Edged weapons are defined as sharp, handheld objects that are used to inflict physical damage against a victim. They include knives (even folding knives), bayonets, working blades, axes or hatchets, and cutting tools such as machetes, as well as swords.

Why are Edged Weapons Used?

Edged weapons are promoted by jihadi terrorist groups, in particular, with their leaders and preachers calling on their adherents to take up whatever weapons and devices that might be at their disposal to attack their adversaries as one of the “weapons of choice” for waging jihad.

Through sermons in social media, online magazines and blogs, and other media venues, the message is that “anyone can pick up a knife and advance the cause.” Jihadi groups, whether al Qaeda or ISIS, have issued statements urging their adherents to “use your cars, use your kitchen knives, use all of these types of thing” in terrorist attacks, according to Reuters.

Terrorist groups and lone-actor perpetrators will use whatever weapons or sharp tools they have at their disposal in their attacks.

These weapons are also used by other types of terrorist groups and lone actors. In China and Japan, for example, edged weapons have been used by individuals who express their “dissatisfaction with society” by resorting to such attacks. Among Palestinian lone actor terrorists, in particular, the use of edged weapons is especially pervasive because of their ease in acquiring and using them in their attacks, with firearms and IEDs much more difficult to acquire and evade detection in reaching their targets, especially in the well-guarded Old City of Jerusalem, where many such attacks take place.

It needs to be noted that some of these attacks are primarily carried out by psychologically disordered individuals who resort to attacks to express their violent vengeance against a self-perceived wrongfulness done to them. Many terrorists and lone actors have had histories of psychological disorders that propelled them to violent attacks, as shown in the list of incidents below.

Significant Incidents

Edged weapons have been used in a variety of types of attacks ranging from catastrophic, mass casualty attacks such as al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks to “household terrorism” attacks in which kitchen knives are used to inflict several casualties. Also, as these 24 incidents demonstrate, there has been an escalation in the use of edged weapons in terrorist attacks since September 2014, when ISIS emerged to become a significant jihadi terrorist group.

These attacks are also conducted worldwide by non-Islamic groups and lone actors for various motivations. This list of 24 incidents is intended to be representative, not a complete listing of primarily terrorist-driven edged weapon attacks.

  • 11 September 2001: In a coordinated, simultaneous series of attacks, 19 al Qaeda terrorists, divided into four cells, used box cutter-type knives to overcome the crews of four aircraft to crash the planes into the two World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, with the fourth plane diverted into a crash landing in Pennsylvania. At the time, pocket utility knives with less than 4-inch blades were allowed on board aircraft, with this vulnerability exploited by the hijackers to enable them to bypass airport security checkpoints.

  • 2 March 2014: Six knife-wielding men carried out a rampage attack at a railway station in Kunming, China, killing at least 29 people and wounding another 130. Four of the attackers were shot dead by the responding police, one was arrested, and another was pursued by the police. The attackers were reportedly from the western region of Xinjiang, which the Chinese government claimed was a hotbed of Islamic extremism.  

  • 25 September 2014: Alton Nolen, 30, a Muslim convert who had been fired from the Vaughan Food processing plant in Moore, Oklahoma, beheaded a female employee and then attacked another female employee with a kitchen knife. He was shot by a security guard—critically wounding him. Nolen had previously been in prison for drug charges. The knifing rampage occurred following the release of an ISIS beheading video.

  • 23 October 2014: Zale H. Thompson, 32, attempted to stab four New York City police officers with a metal hatchet, wounding two of them. The two officers who were not hit then shot and killed him. Thompson, a Muslim convert who had expressed jihadi sentiments on extremist websites, had been discharged from the U.S. Navy for misconduct. He also had a criminal record in California.

  • 5 November 2015: Faisal Mohammad, 18, a freshman engineering student at University of California at Merced, used a large hunting knife to stab and wound two students, a teacher, and a construction worker. He was shot and killed by the responding police officers as he ran from the two-story classroom building where his stabbing spree began.

  • 11 February 2016: Mohamed Barry, 30, used a machete to stab diners at the Nazareth Mediterranean Cuisine in Columbus, Ohio, wounding four people. Barry had immigrated to the United States in 2000 from the Republic of Guinea, and the restaurant where the attack took place was owned by an Arab Christian who had immigrated to the United States from Israel.

  • 19 July 2016: A 17-year-old unidentified individual, who was also an asylum-seeker from Afghanistan and an alleged supporter of ISIS, carried out an axe rampage on a train near Wuerzburg, Germany, wounding five people, before being killed by police.

  • 17 September 2016: Dahir Ahmed Adan, 20, used a military-style knife to stab shoppers at the Crossroads Mall in St. Cloud, Minnesota, wounding 10 people.

  • 28 November 2016: Abdul Ali Artan, 18, used his vehicle to run over a crowd of students at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. He then exited his vehicle and used a butcher knife to stab additional victims, wounding 11 people in total.

  • 12 November 2017: Mahad Abdiaziz Abdirahaman, 20, used a knife to stab two men at the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He had reportedly carried out the stabbings on behalf of ISIS.

  • 12 May 2018: Khamzat Asimov, a French citizen born in Chechnya, carried out a knife attack in central Paris, killing one person and wounding four others. During the attack, he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest). He was shot dead by the responding police.

  • 21 February 2020:  A Palestinian woman, shouting “Allahu Akbar,” attempted to stab passersby in a suspected terror attack in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv. One man was wounded. The woman was wrestled to the ground and arrested by the responding police.

  • 19 May 2021: A Palestinian man carrying improvised explosives, a Carlo submachine gun, and a knife, attempted to attack Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint near a Jewish apartment complex in Hebron, in the West Bank. The checkpoint separates the Palestinian and Israeli areas of the city. He was fatally shot by the responding Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers. He was reportedly affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ).

  • 5 June 2021: A male attacker used a knife to kill at least five pedestrians and wound another 15 in Anqing, China. The attacker was injured and arrested. The motivation for the attack was not reported while the case was under investigation.

  • 12 June 2021: Ibtissam Kaabneh, 28, a Palestinian woman from Aqabat Jabr, near the West Bank of Jericho, attempted to stab Israeli border guards at the Qalandiya crossing between Israel and the West Bank. She was shot dead by the border guards when she ignored repeated warnings by them to stop. 

  • 25 June 2021: A knife-wielding Palestinian man attempted to infiltrate the Yitzhar Jewish settlement in the West Bank to carry out a stabbing attack on its residents. Upon being observed by the IDF security post, they notified the settlement’s security coordinator who shot the attacker in the lower body and neutralized him, after which he was arrested. No other injuries were reported.

  • 29 June 2021: A Somali asylum seeker, 24, used a knife to stab and kill three women and wound six other people in Wuerzburg, Germany. He yelled “Allahu Akbar” during his attack. He was wounded by the responding police. He reportedly had a history of mental health problems.

  • 6 August 2021: Yusuke Tsushima, 36, carried out a mass stabbing attack on a commuter train in the Odakyu Electric Railway, in Tokyo, Japan, wounding nine people. He also attempted to start a fire in one of the train’s compartments, although it failed to ignite. He was arrested several hours later at a convenience store. He reportedly blamed society for his “personal misfortune.” 

  • 3 September 2021: Ahamed Aathill Mohamed Samsudeen grabbed a knife at an Auckland, New Zealand, supermarket and stabbed shoppers. Three people were wounded, while two others were injured in the ensuing chaos. The attacker, who was allegedly an ISIS supporter, was shot and killed by the responding police.

  • 10 September 2021: Hazem Joulani, 50, used a knife to stab Israeli Border Police officers in Jerusalem’s Old City. He died shortly after being wounded by the responding Israeli police gunfire. Joulani was a physician living in Jerusalem. He reportedly had personal problems and had recently attempted suicide. 

  • 13 September 2021: Basal Shumura, 17, stabbed two people on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem. He was shot and neutralized by an Israel Border Police officer at the scene of the incident.

  • 30 September 2021: Esra Khuzaymah, 30, a resident of Qabatiya near Jenin in the West Bank, attempted to stab Israeli police officers next to the Chain Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. The police officers opened fire and killed her.

  • 15 October 2021: Ali Harbi Ali, 25, used a knife to fatally stab Sir David Amess, a British Member of Parliament, while Amess was holding meeting with constituents at Belfairs Methodist Church in Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, about 40 miles east of London. Ali, a British national of Somali descent, was arrested at the scene of the incident. He was previously enrolled in the country’s Prevent counter-terrorism program, which aims to mitigate radicalization into terrorism.

  • 31 October 2021: A male attacker, 24, used a knife to stab passengers on a train in Tokyo, Japan, wounding at least 17 people. As part of the attack, he also applied cigarette lighter fluid to set a fire inside the train, which burned several seats. He was arrested by the responding police. The attacker’s identify was not revealed while the case was under investigation.

What Do These Attacks Show Us?

The 24 illustrative cases of primarily ideologically driven terrorist edged weapon attacks generate several types of findings. First, these attacks are prevalent worldwide, whether in China, France, Germany, Israel (including in the West Bank), Japan, the United Kingdom, the United States, or elsewhere.

Second, of the 24 incidents, only three were carried out by women—all of whom were Palestinian, as it is very rare for women to carry out edged weapon attacks in other countries. Palestinian women have conducted suicide bombing attacks – but always while being deployed by organized groups, such as Hamas, who had provided them IED-laden “vests”, so the ones who used edged weapons have all been lone actors who had acquired their knives on their own. Other than in the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, it appears that edged weapon attacks will be carried out by men rather than women. This hypothesis remains to be examined, so it should be regarded as a preliminary finding.

Third, of the 24 cases, 22 were carried out by lone actor terrorists, with only two conducted by several assailants. It is likely, therefore, that edged weapon attacks will likely be carried out by lone actors as opposed to organized groups’ combat teams, which are more likely to have access to firearms and IEDs.

Fourth, as seen in two of the 24 illustrative cases, edged weapons can also be used as secondary weapons in attacks that initially use firearms or vehicles. Finally, as observed by Scott Stewart of TorchStone Global and confirmed by the 24 illustrative cases, the threat of thrown-edged weapons is unlikely because it is easier and more accurate to kill someone with a handheld knife than with one that is thrown at a target.

What Can We Do to Prevent Edged Weapons Attacks?

There are numerous advantages for the perpetrators to use edged weapons in a terrorist attack. Knives can be easily purchased at a store or taken from a kitchen drawer, thereby making it difficult to control or restrict their use in an attack. Thus, it is easy for the potential perpetrators to avoid detection because acquiring an edged weapon will not arouse suspicion that a violent attack might be imminent. Their use requires little advance planning or funding, and gaining access to their unexpecting and defenseless victims is far from challenging, especially in public areas where edged weapons are easily concealed. The shortened timeframes used in edged weapons attacks can make it difficult, although still possible, to predict the imminence and location of such attacks.

Knifing attacks have become pervasive for terrorists, whether as groups or lone actors, because they do not arouse pre-incident suspicions of an impending attack and they allow perpetrators to get closer to their targets than other weapons would. This enables foreign terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, al Qaeda, and—in the case of Israel and Palestine—Hamas, to easily persuade their adherents to carry out knife attacks either as the primary weapon or in conjunction with a vehicle ramming attack, with the perpetrator then pulling out a knife to attack further victims. As a result, edged weapon attacks by terrorists are likely to continue to be a pervasive tactic by terrorist groups, especially in Western countries and Israel.

Like other types of terrorist attacks, the assailants who resort to edged-weapon tactics adhere to the phases involved in the terrorism attack cycle of triggers, violent ideation, planning to conduct an attack, preparing to attack (acquiring a weapon and selecting a target), approaching the target, and carrying out the attack. Unlike other types of attacks involving firearms and IEDs, however, the ease of acquiring edged weapons quickens the attack cycle’s pre-incident phases; for instance, from days to a matter of a day or two—although this has to be examined deductively on a case-by-case basis. This shortened pre-incident time frame also makes it more difficult for law enforcement to identify and monitor such perpetrators because they produce fewer observable suspicious mind-sets and behaviors that indicate that an attack might be imminent.

Nevertheless, as highlighted by Scott Stewart, it still takes a certain amount of “courage” to carry out such physical attacks, so these attackers are likely to exhibit “signs such as an abnormally tense body posture, outward signs of nervousness, a fixed stare, or abnormal perspiration [that] may indicate ill intent.” As indicated by some of the 23 illustrative cases, some of the attackers might “provide overt verbal cues of their intent to attack by yelling or screaming” religious sayings such as “Allahu Akbar.”

Moreover, as Stewart adds, since such assailants “must be within arm’s reach to harm” a victim, it is important to practice effective situational awareness—early recognition that an attack might occur will enable the use of quick defensive measures.

Terrorist groups and lone-actor perpetrators will use whatever weapons or sharp tools they have at their disposal in their attacks, which are intended to kill and wound as many victims as possible and gain media notoriety for their cause. In such a way, a localized incident—when accompanied by media publicity—will spread fear and anxiety throughout society that a similar attack could happen anywhere.

The use of edged weapons has become pervasive in terrorist attacks worldwide—although firearms and IEDs remain the predominant weapons of choice since they inflict the largest amount of casualties and physical damage on their victims. Security professionals need to be situationally aware that edged weapon attacks can occur at their facilities. Employees need to be informed about the nature of such attacks, the pre-incident warning signs of preemption, and be prepared to effectively mitigate their impacts when they occur.

Dr. Joshua Sinai is professor of practice, Intelligence and Security Studies, at Capitol Technology University, in Laurel, Maryland, where he leads the programs on these issues at the BS undergraduate, Master’s, and Ph.D. levels. He is also a senior analyst at TorchStone Global, a consulting firm on security issues. Dr. Sinai can be reached at: [email protected].