Carnage in Nice illustrates continued terror threat in France
LONDON - A lone armed attacker driving a large lorry ploughed into crowds celebrating French National Day in the southern French city of Nice, killing more than 80 people and exposing the vulnerability of innocent civilians to terrorist attacks.
“Horror has come down on France again,” French President François Hollande said in a televised address to the grieving country. “It is clear we need to do everything we can to fight against terrorism.”
His immediate actions included calling up army reservists across the country and extending the state of emergency declared after attacks last November in Paris in which 130 people died.
The attack in Nice began on the seafront Promenade des Anglais shortly after a fireworks show to celebrate Bastille Day on July 14th. The driver plunged the vehicle into the boulevard crowded with up to 30,000 people for about 2km before he stopped and was shot dead by police. Grenades, guns and ammunition were found in the vehicle.
“An enormous white truck came along at a crazy speed, turning the wheel to mow down the maximum number of people,” Damien Allemand, a journalist at local newspaper Nice Matin, who witnessed the attack, posted online. “I saw bodies flying like bowling pins along its route. Heard noises, cries that I will never forget.”
There were children among the dozens dead and more than 100 injured. Among those confirmed killed were French, German, US, Russian, Armenian and Swiss citizens. About 50 people were seriously injured and “between life and death”, Hollande said.
Local media identified the attacker as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, originally from Msaken, Tunisia, but who lived in Nice. Married with three children, he had a police record for minor crimes but was not suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. Neighbours told local television he did not fully observe Ramadan this year.
The profile of a not-very-observant Muslim and petty criminal who turns jihadist is consistent with many previous attackers, including some involved in the attacks in France in 2015 and Brussels in March this year. Many of those travelling to Syria to fight for the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadist groups have had criminal records and shown scant knowledge of Islam.
With border security tightened across Europe and better intelligence cooperation with Turkey it is harder for would-be jihadists to join the fight in Syria. ISIS has responded by calling on its followers and sympathisers outside the territory it controls in Syria and Iraq to use any means to mount attacks wherever they can.
“The choice of weapon — a truck like tens of thousands of others on French roads — underlines the constant evolution of the threat and, above all, its unpredictability,” terrorism expert Jason Burke wrote in the Guardian newspaper.
France is part of a US-led coalition of countries conducting air strikes against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. French soldiers are also helping train Iraqi troops and Kurdish forces who are battling ISIS militants on the ground.
“We will further strengthen our actions in Syria and Iraq,” Hollande said. But, he added, the battle against terrorism would be long as France faced “an enemy who will continue to hit countries that see liberty as their essential value”.