Nice, in the South of France, is one of the country’s most popular holiday destinations, for foreigners and French alike. On 14 July, it was the scene of a brutal act of terror, the third in 18 months in France, and the fourth major attack in Europe in a similar time frame. At the time of writing, 84 people are dead, including ten children, 18 in critical condition, and 85 still in hospital, after a man drove a 19-tonne refrigerated truck through a crowd at high speed, swerving continuously in an effort to inflict maximum damage. The emotional resonance of this attack was compounded by the fact that it took place on 14 July, the French National Day, on a large and popular seafront promenade where families of all walks of life and nationalities had gathered to watch the annual fireworks display. Footage of the carnage was immediately posted on the internet, but removed shortly afterwards—such was the shocking nature of the images, which showed dismembered bodies tossed around by the truck, and passers-by mowed down in what an eyewitness interviewed for the French radio station Europe 1, likened to “the way you would knock down skittles in a bowling alley”.
Imagine something similar happening on Bombay’s Marine Drive on Republic Day, and you will get an idea of the horror as well as the symbolism of what happened.
The single driver, identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old father of three of Tunisian origin legally resident in Nice, was eventually gunned down by police as they forced his truck to a halt after he had managed to plough through the crowd for nearly 2 km. A 7.65-mm automatic pistol was found on him, which he used to fire at police before being killed, together with a decommissioned grenade, and some fake Kalashnikovs.
The most chilling aspect of this attack, both for France as well as for any country battling against terror, is that it appears to have been the act of an individual without any prior history of radicalisation or known contacts with any terrorist group.
Dr Anne Speckhard, adjunct associate professor of Psychiatry, Georgetown University School of Medicine, Director of the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism, and author of numerous books on terrorism and ISIS in particular, explains in an exclusive interview to Open that “organised attacks present serious challenges in the immediate aftermath because of the risk of further coordinated attacks. However, what we call ‘lone wolves’—people acting alone without belonging to a wider terrorist network—pose a far more severe threat in the long term because of their unpredictable nature, and the difficulty in organising adequate preventative measures”.
Before examining why the lone wolf theory is so terrifying, the first question that begs itself here is why this attack was so quickly branded an ‘act of terror’. As media outlets the world over began reporting a terrorist attack in Nice, all that was known about the perpetrator was that he was Arab. No jihadi literature was found on him or in the vehicle, he did not cry out ‘Allahu Akbar’ or any other invocation of the Almighty as he crashed into his victims. His neighbours, interviewed by the French media, described him as a bit of a weirdo, who kept to himself but liked to drink, gamble, eat pork, dance salsa and had a roving eye for women. He may even have been bisexual. An uncle tracked down in his home town of M’saken in Tunisia by Reuters describes him as a dope-smoking body builder obsessed with showing off his muscles. He did not go the mosque in Nice, nor did he observe Ramadan. He was separated from his wife, towards whom he was apparently violent, and suffered from depression. He was known to the police for petty crime and domestic violence, but nothing else.
In short, the portrait that has emerged so far is that of a depressed lonely, slightly narcissistic and sometimes violent individual, but not a ‘terrorist’.
And yet, even as these details surfaced, the authorities and media clearly labelled Bouhlel a terrorist. The theory of a simple madman never even got off the ground, and less than 48 hours after the attack, and France’s interior minister explained the act as the result of “rapid radicalisation.”
This contrasts strongly with the aftermath of the killing in the UK of a pro-EU British MP just before the Brexit referendum. In spite of the fact that the assassin shouted “Britain first” as he was stabbing and shooting the MP, the authorities and the press waited several days, and the appearance of concrete evidence of links with extremist groups, before calling this an act of terror.
So it may seem at first glance as a case of gross ‘racial profiling’ in a country understandably on edge, but perhaps unjustifiably quick to jump to conclusions. But even before ISIS made an official announcement via its media outlet two days after the event, claiming credit for the Nice massacre, many indications seem to indicate that what happened in Nice can be called terrorism.
First of all, the method used, a vehicle driven into crowds, is not new—neither in France, nor in the wider world of terrorism. A video widely circulated on YouTube since September 2014 urges ISIS supporters to “kill the infidel” in any way possible, including “running him over with a car”. Speckhard explains that “ISIS inspired cadres have already used vehicles to attack—in France in Nantes and Dijon, and in Toronto, Canada. ISIS commonly carries out explosive laden car and truck ‘martyrdom’ attacks in Syria and Iraq.”
Secondly, we have in Bouhlel a psychological profile that must have appeared ideal to ISIS recruiters, who seek to exploit fragile individuals who live in a political and social context that breeds a need for both revenge and redemption.
Mathieu Guidère, chair, Middle Eastern Studies, and Head of the Arabic Department at Paris 8 University, is one of France’s leading specialists on Radical Islam, Jihadism, and a Fulbright Scholar who has researched the psychology of terrorism. In an interview with Open, he explains that Bouhlel was a petty criminal and therefore “had already stepped into a realm where he no longer feared the police, and knew where to find weapons”. “He would not be the first one to drift from delinquency to jihad, as the attack in Brussels on 22 March 2016 showed,” he says, referring to a case in which two of the perpetrators had a history of armed robbery, kidnapping and assault which had resulted in prison sentences, but no known links to terrorist organisations. “At some point, these criminals need to find a way to justify their acts, particularly violent ones,”
says Guidère, “Jihad offers them a justification, and also a way to redeem themselves and wash away their sins.”
Speckhard goes even further in her explanation: “We don’t know much yet, but details that are emerging indicate that Mohamed Lahouaiej was depressed and had broken almost every rule in the book of Islam with his dissipated lifestyle. He may well have become disgusted at himself and suicidal. Martyrdom offered him a way out, because suicide is forbidden in Islam.”
But there is still a pretty big gap between feeling suicidal and becoming a terrorist. And this is where we enter a dangerous grey zone between mental instability and terrorism, which ISIS manages to prey on so successfully.
Not all kamikaze suicides are inspired by ISIS or other forms of terrorism. In March 2015, the German pilot of a charter passenger flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf deliberately crashed into the French Alps close to Nice, killing all 150 people on board. And yet this was not considered an act of terrorism, but a desperate suicide by an individual suffering from severe depression. What is it then that happens to delinquent or mentally unstable individuals of Middle Eastern origin or descent that transforms depression into terrorism?
Guidère offers an ideological explanation: “Jihadist ideology, which is a current of radical Islam, gives a licence to die as a martyr, and also gives a licence to kill as a jihadist. In the meeting of these two ideals, people are prepared to die and kill as many people as possible while they do so.” Guidère also speaks of a political context which has allowed radical Islam, jihadism and ISIS in particular to flourish: “ISIS communiques… say that France is Islamophobic. There are laws against Islam (such as the ban on the wearing of hijab in certain public places, including schools), there is a sense of constant humiliation, of being a second class citizens and of discrimination that is pervasive throughout much of Muslim community.” In this context, it is not difficult to imagine how a depressed, unstable and seemingly inherently violent young Muslim man in France could come be attracted to an ideology that offers dignity, revenge and a way out of a rut that he may have dug for himself.
For Speckhard, the road to radicalisation can be extremely swift, because of the methods that ISIS uses. “He may have just been surfing the net one day when he was particularly depressed. Of course, one does not just come across ISIS videos, but you must remember that he belongs to a community that feels marginalised and stigmatised, and ISIS offers a simple explanation for this in presenting France as being at war against Islam. He may have just clicked on something put out by ISIS, and liked it. Once you do that, it’s over. They swarm in on you. Overnight you will have 500 new friends on Facebook, 500 new followers on Twitter, and if you are fragile and lost, they know how to push all the right buttons to get you to act fast. It is a cult, and very difficult to walk away from once you are in.”
ISIS also has a formidable weapon, which Speckhard describes as ‘Madison Avenue’ (a reference to New York’s famed advertising agencies) style recruitment videos. These use the best video, sound and meme technologies on the planet to create high-impact emotional messages that cannot compete with the dry fact based government messaging on terrorism that seeks to counter ISIS on social networks. “We need to use the same weapon, mainly that of emotion, if we are to press the same buttons that they are pressing, and offer an effective counter offensive on the internet, which is where the real battle ground is.”
Bouhlel and his motives are still under investigation. At the time of writing, seven people have been questioned by the police, and according to the French daily Liberation, they have found evidence that he was consulting websites showing ISIS executions. However, to date nothing explicit has been found suggesting any direct links to ISIS, nor to any kind of terrorist network.
Guidère says that even in the absence of clear links, the ISIS claim must be treated as genuine. “ISIS has never claimed an attack that was not authentic. Their legitimacy is on the line here, and if they were to claim an attack that was not somehow linked to them, they would lose a massive amount of credibility.” He is also “certain that links will be found and he must have made allegiance to ISIS at some point. There are always traces.”
While Guidère is clear in his analysis of Bouhlel’s terrorist affiliations, he also deplores the swiftness with which the terrorist label was used, as “it will increase the sense of alienation among Muslims [here] who feel that they live in a society with double standards”.
For now, apart from understanding who the Nice attacker really was, the gargantuan task facing France, and indeed any other country facing the threat of terror, will be how to prevent similar attacks in the future.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president and potential contender in the 2017 presidential polls, has advocated putting electronic handcuffs on suspected jihadists of French origin, and expelling any suspect foreigner. France is also developing ‘de radicalisation’ centres for young people returning from Syria or showing signs of moving towards radical Islam. But none of these measures can do anything to tackle rapid radicalisation that is so invisible that it can only be detected once it is too late. “We cannot do much,” says Guidère. “Intelligence services cannot know what happens inside people’s heads. We can secure public places a lot more than we do now, but that is only treating the symptom of the problem. Until we have a political solution to the wars in Syria and Iraq, and until we have a political solution to the problems of the Muslim community in France, it will be very difficult to stop these kind of people.”
According to Speckhard, increasing strikes on Syria will only feed into the cycle of terror and hatred that ISIS wants to inspire, so that it can justify its worldwide war on the infidel. In addition, “air strikes and military victories weaken ISIS, and when they are weak, turning to lone wolves is the best and easiest solution”.
In the meantime, ISIS is actively encouraging lone wolves through its internet offensive. This strategy is win-win: minimum effort, maximum impact and complete unpredictability. For ISIS, the road to victory is moving from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq and into the hearts and minds of the disaffected the world over.
The terrifying thing about this is that the recruitment ground is so enormous that it is indeed invisible.