Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)
Wednesday,18 July, 2018
Issue 1304, (21 - 27 July 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Atrocities in Nice

Last week’s attack in Nice in which 84 people died has led to further soul-searching in France on what more can be done to curb Islamist terrorism, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

France woke up to news last Friday of a further attack on the country’s soil, this time in the southern resort city of Nice on Bastille Day, France’s national day, in which some 84 people died and at least a further 74 were injured, 28 of them seriously.

The attack took place when Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, 31, a Tunisian national resident in France, drove a 19-ton lorry into crowds that had gathered along the city’s famous Promenade des Anglais on the seafront to watch fireworks arranged to celebrate Bastille Day.

Before the attack was stopped by armed police who shot the driver dead, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had driven the lorry some two km along the Promenade, deliberately zig-zagging at high speed to hit as many pedestrians as possible.

People tried to save themselves by fleeing into neighbouring streets or taking refuge on the beach, but the sudden nature of the attack and the pressure of the crowds meant that many were unable to do so.

Speaking on French television on the morning of 15 July, ordinarily a time for French families to relax after the Bastille Day celebrations the night before, an ashen-faced French president François Hollande said the country had once again been hit by an attack that he had no hesitation in describing as an act of Islamist-inspired terrorism.

“This attack, the terrorist character of which cannot be denied, was once again of an absolute violence. It is clear that we must do everything possible to fight the plague of terrorism” that had settled on the country, Hollande said.

“France has been afflicted by a new tragedy and is horrified by what has happened — the monstrousness of using a lorry deliberately to kill dozens of people who had gathered to celebrate the 14 July,” he said. “France has been hit on its National Day, the 14 July, a symbol of freedom, because fanatics act against human rights, making France their target.”

He added that “nothing will make us give up our commitment to the fight against terrorism, and we will strengthen our actions in Syria and Iraq,” a reference to French military involvement against Islamic State (IS) forces in these two countries.

“We will continue to strike those who attack us on our own soil in their lairs,” Hollande said.

This is the third time in 18 months that France has been hit by Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks, the first being in January last year when 17 people died in attacks on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris. In November last year, a further 130 people died when Islamist terrorists attacked bars and restaurants in Paris, along with the popular Bataclan concert hall.

Since news of last week’s attack broke on Friday, the authorities in France and Tunisia have been investigating the background and possible motivations of the man who carried out the attack.

Responsibility was claimed by IS on Saturday, which said in a statement that “the person who carried out the operation in Nice, France, to run down people was one of the soldiers of IS. He carried out the operation in response to calls to target nationals of states that are part of the coalition fighting IS.”

However, investigations have thus far revealed little evidence of any formal link between Lahouaiej-Bouhlel and the terrorist group, with the Nice attacker emerging instead as an individual suffering from a history of psychological problems and living a chaotic lifestyle.

According to reports in the French press this week, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel left Tunisia to live in France in 2005. Speaking to the French news agency AFP outside his home in the Tunisian town of M’saken, his father, Mohamed Mondher Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, said that his son had suffered from a nervous breakdown in 2004.

“He would become angry and he shouted… he would break anything he saw in front of him,” Lahouaiej-Bouhlel said, adding that his son had been prescribed medication to treat his psychological problems and depression.

Residents of the area of Nice in which Lahouaiej-Bouhlel lived told reporters that he had rarely spoken. One resident, quoted in the press, said, “all I knew was that he had trouble with his wife, but we never saw her or the kids. He spent a lot of his time at a bar down the street where he gambled and drank.”

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel separated from his wife and children three years ago and had apparently entered into a downward spiral of alcohol and gambling. He did not attend a mosque and apparently did not observe the practices of his religion. He was not known to the French intelligence services or have suspected jihadist sympathies, though he did have a record of petty crime.

At a press conference in Paris the day after last week’s attack, French prosecutor François Molins said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had been “completely unknown to both France’s domestic and foreign intelligence officials,” before adding that the attack “fits in perfectly with calls for murder from [radical Islamist] terrorist organisations.”

Also last Friday, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “a terrorist probably linked to radical Islam one way or another.” French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel may have undergone a rapid change, saying that “it seems he was radicalised very quickly.”

Speaking earlier this week, Molins said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had grown a beard in the days before he carried out the attack in an act that he said contrasted with the attacker’s previous lack of religious behaviour.  He “ate pork, drank alcohol, took drugs and had a promiscuous sex life,” Molins said.

While investigators had found no “allegiance or direct link” to IS or other terrorist groups, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s computer contained “very violent” images from radical Islamist Websites, as well as articles about gun attacks in the United States and research into former Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and Algerian terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar.

As life in France returned to something like normality this week, investigations into Lahouaiej-Bouhlel are continuing, with investigators focusing on whether he had accomplices, how he procured the stash of weapons found in the lorry after the attack, and the nature of his links with radical Islamist terrorists.

Six people arrested in the wake of the attack are in police custody in France and are being interviewed over any possible role in the attack.

In the meantime, the political fall-out of the attack has already begun, with Valls being booed during the minute’s silence arranged in Nice for the victims earlier this week and shouts of “murderers” and “resign” being heard from the crowd directed at government ministers.

Hollande and his government have been criticised particularly from the French right for their alleged failure to do more to prevent the Nice attack, and it seems likely that such attacks will continue in the run-up to the French presidential elections next year.

In his speech last week, Hollande said that the government would “demonstrate absolute vigilance and unwavering determination” in its response to Islamist terrorism.

10,000 military personnel, gendarmes and police would be mobilised, he said, and the country’s operational reserves, a French version of the British Territorial Army made up of former security personnel, would also be mobilised.

The state of emergency, imposed in the wake of last November’s Paris attacks and due to end on 26 July, would also be extended for a further three months, Hollande said.

However, it seems unlikely that these measures will satisfy critics of the government’s response to the terrorist atrocities that have hit France over the last 18 months. According to a statement by extreme-right Front National (FN) Party leader Marine Le Pen this week, “the war against the plague of Islamist fundamentalism has not yet begun, and it is urgent to declare it.”

It was time for “real measures” to be put in place, she said, continuing the FN’s campaign of criticisms of the French Socialist Party government.

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