Image by Elionas2
PARIS – As the ISIS terror network claimed responsibility on Saturday for the Bastille Day attack in Nice that killed 84 people, France grappled with the realization that it is facing a new kind of threat in which untrained lone terrorists can inflict maximum damage.
France’s interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said after an emergency meeting of the country’s security council that the driver of the truck that plowed through a throng of people gathered for a holiday fireworks display had apparently been radicalized very quickly.
The Tunisian-born truck driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, had no police record as a potential terrorist. Unlike previous Islamist attackers in France, he had not trained in Syria and was not armed with heavy weapons. He used a rented vehicle to mow down hundreds of people in just 45 seconds before being shot and killed by the police. Mr. Cazeneuve said:
“This is a new type of attack.”
The fact that France is now facing terrorists who are not necessarily trained and not necessarily in possession of heavy weapons, he said, “shows the extreme difficulty of the anti-terrorist struggle.”
With the country in a state of shock from the attack—whole families were run over and people fled onto the beach to avoid the mad truck rampage—President Francois Hollande called for national unity and warned of the risk of divisions. He was apparently referring to suggestions from rightist opposition politicians that security in Nice had been inadequate.
France began a three-day period of national mourning on Saturday, with tearful gatherings in Nice to commemorate the victims, 16 of whom have not yet been identified. In addition to the dead, who included several foreign nationals, around 200 people were injured. Fifty-two remain in critical condition, among them 15 children.
In Paris, as President Hollande met in emergency session with his security team and then the entire cabinet, the bells of Notre Dame tolled for the dead.
The statement from ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, came 36 hours after the attack in Nice. The network did not claim to have organized the attack, but described the perpetrator as “a soldier of the Islamic State” who “acted in response to calls by IS to target nationals of the coalition countries that are fighting it.”
France, like the United States, is part of a coalition that has been striking ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq.
Speaking in the courtyard of the Elysee presidential palace after the security council meeting, France’s defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, said that even if ISIS, known in France as Daesh, did not organize the truck attack, “Daesh inspires this terrorist spirit.”
He said that the chief ISIS spokesman had effectively issued an “appeal for murder” by repeatedly saying that the French must be attacked by whatever means, wherever.
The spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adjani, has been calling for a broadening of terrorist methods since September 2014, when he told would-be jihadists to kill disbelievers—“especially the spiteful and filthy French”—in any way. He told them:
“Smash his head with a rock or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car.”
One question here was when and how Mr. Bouhlel was radicalized sufficiently to rent a refrigerated truck and tear into the crowd gathered on the palm-studded seaside boulevard in Nice under a starry sky for a fireworks display marking France’s national holiday.
Police were holding Mr. Bouhlel’s ex-wife and four of his acquaintances in an attempt to get some answers.
Another question was how France should react.
President Hollande immediately called for a three-month extension of the state of emergency put in place after coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13 last year killed 137 people at a sports stadium, several popular cafés, and the Bataclan nightclub. He said that Operation Sentinel, which mobilized 10,000 extra security forces, should be maintained and that French reservists should be called up.
But with soldiers in camouflage fatigues armed with automatic weapons already patrolling the streets of Paris and other cities, some people questioned this approach. Luc Poignant, a spokesman for one of France’s police unions argued:
“We cannot put a policeman behind every citizen.”
Other commentators suggested that the best way to counter ISIS was by fighting the terrorist network on its home ground.
Ulysse Gosset, a seasoned political analyst, said on BFM-TV that the defense minister had been at Saturday’s security council meeting to plan France’s riposte.
“New French strikes in Iraq and Syria are likely in order to try to neutralize this terrorist threat,” he said, adding: “France is facing a new kind of test.”
Asked why France had again been the target of Islamist terrorists after the November attacks and the killings at the newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in January 2015, several Parisians linked the situation to France’s military involvement in Syria and Iraq.
Gilles Garcia, 57, a news agent in central Paris, said in an interview:
“The French are involved with the Americans in attacks on Daesh, so we are paying the price of those attacks.”
He warned that the wave of terrorism in France risked increasing the clout of the extreme rightist leader Marine Le Pen ahead of presidential elections next year.
In Nice, where the elegant Promenade des Anglais still bore blood stains from the attack, local people interviewed by France 2 television on Saturday expressed shock but vowed not to give in to terror. One was a woman attending a commemoration for the victims.
“They want to destroy us,” she said of ISIS. “We shall resist.”
Meg Bortin is an American journalist based in Paris.