Parsing the Islamic State’s Nice Attack Claims

This year’s Bastille Day will go down in France’s modern history as its most bloody. On July 14, 31-year-old Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ploughed through festive crowds in the Mediterranean city of Nice, killing 84 and injuring 200 others. France’s struggles with terror—whether through lone attacks in Nice or the coordinated Islamic State attacks in Paris in November 2015—offer many lessons: the devolution of the organization to low tech terror means, its reliance on a growing supply of Jihadi returnees, and its exploitation of weaknesses of France’s intelligence system.  

In many ways, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s profile is similar to that of Orlando attacker Omar Mateen who went on a rampage in a gay nightclub in early June, killing over 50. Mateen was a 29-year-old security guard with behavioral problems and a history of violence who appeared to have struggled with his sexuality. In Mateen’s case, an FBI investigation was dropped after he was deemed to not be a threat. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was characterized as unstable, violent, and unreligious, but unlike Mateen, was unknown to French intelligence services. According to French Prosecutor François Molins, however, his personal computer contained photos of Islamic State fighters and dead bodies, and his search history showed he had looked for terrorist propaganda. Molins said that this “illustrate[d] an interest…into the jihadist radical movement.” Molins also revealed that the Nice attacker had researched the Orlando killings. Both Mateen and Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, meanwhile, were hailed as soldiers of the caliphate by ISIS. While Omar Mateen’s confused allegiance to ISIS was claimed in a 911 message, as of yet, little evidence points to Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s affiliation with the group, beyond what so far appears to be a gruesome fascination.

The ISIS Lone Wolf Strategy

As the investigation into the Nice attack unfolds, questions arise as to the Islamic State’s endorsement of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, and how this differs from the group’s role in the December Paris attacks. In its statement, ISIS said the Nice attack came in “response to calls to target sponsors of the coalition that fights the Islamic State,” and France itself is currently engaged in this fight as part of the US-led coalition targeting ISIS.

One of the first times the group issued this kind of claim for a ‘lone wolf’ attack on foreign soil was in January 2015 when Amedy Coulibaly targeted a kosher grocery in Paris. A video showed the terrorist aligning himself with the Islamic State. Several months later, in May 2015, two gunmen attacked a center where a contest featuring cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed was being held in Garland, Texas. The Islamic State had put out messages a week prior to the exhibit, calling for its attack, and while the pair appear to have been inspired by ISIS, there was no evidence that the gunmen had been in direct contact with them. Nonetheless, the group described them as soldiers of the caliphate. Over a year later, the group claimed the Orlando and Nice attacks, in what appear to be even more  opportunistic moves. The Islamic State’s Modus Operandi might be changing, as by its own admission, it banks on “an entire generation of Muslims that was witness to the establishment of the Islamic State and the return of the caliphate, and that followed the story of its standing firm against all the nations of unbelief.”

The claim of responsibility for the Nice attack may be indicative of a wider shift in the ISIS strategy, devolving into a global cult movement willing to build achievements on the acts of unstable individuals by giving religious justification to their violent attacks. In the case of both Mateen and Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, ISIS is providing not only that false religious justification, but also a false narrative of heroism for unstable attackers. For the attackers, their acts would have previously been quickly forgotten, written off as an unhinged mass murder. When tied to the extremist group, they offer a notoriety and celebrity to their perpetrators, even if they don’t believe in the Islamic State’s ideology.

Researcher and Jihadi expert Romain Caillet, meanwhile, believes the Nice attack falls within the organization’s strategy revealed by its spokesperson Abu Mohamad Adnani in 2014 when he called for lone wolf attacks on the West. “The profile of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s (described as an unbeliever) is not unusual, known scholars such as [Islamic State commander] Abdel Majid Otaibi have claimed that the redemption of deviants could be possible through martyrdom,” Caillet told MENASource.

The Threat of Jihadi Returnees

Lone wolf operations are not the only threat faced by France. According to figures provided by the French Ministry of Interior, at least 1,853 people are involved in jihadist networks in France. Out of this figure around 900 traveled to fight alongside radical organizations such as ISIS or the Nusra Front and 30 percent of them may have returned home.  In November of last year, three terror cells launched multiple attacks on the city of Paris. The Paris shootings and bombings were highly orchestrated affairs carried out by multiple attackers, some of whom had returned from Syria, using assault weapons banned in France. The Paris attack was a harrowing window into the classical threat France is exposed to by ISIS fighters returning from the Middle East.

In the wake of the Paris attack, and consequent attacks in Belgium, Belgian and French intelligence uncovered a wide network of cells linked to one another, through their members’ criminal past or their role in the war in Syria. As the so-called caliphate shrinks, losing significant swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, more of these fighters may try to return home, attempting to exploit weaknesses within the French intelligence system.

The French Response to ISIS on its Soil

Whether with the Nice attack, which the Islamic State has opportunistically claimed, or the Paris attacks in which the perpetrators had direct links to the group, both incidents demonstrate a problematic response by French authorities and security forces.

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was able to drive his lorry over a distance of two kilometers before he was intercepted by the police. Far more significant delays were observed during the Paris November 13 attacks, when three teams of terrorists were able to operate with little hindrance from authorities. Specialized antiterrorism units reached the Bataclan concert hall—where 90 of the 130 victims were killed—a full thirty minutes after the attack started. Other failures were revealed in the wake of the Paris and Brussels attacks: Turkish authorities warned France and Belgium a year ago about several of the jihadis involved in the Paris terror attacks, including Brahim and Salah Abdeslam, as well as Bataclan suicide bomber Ismail Omar Mostefai. In addition, French prison authorities had identified Koulibali, as an extremist, but had failed to pass the information on to Intelligence services. Now in 2016, President Francois Hollande has extended France’s state of emergency introduced after the Paris attacks, despite the fact that it did nothing to stop Lahouaiej-Bouhlel from ploughing through a crowded celebration.

This poor response by the French government has led to some to call for extreme measures. Among them, former president Nicolas Sarkozy has argued for the expulsion of all foreign-born suspects, and the tracking of French nationals representing a radical threat with ankle monitors.

The French government’s response can also explain France’s low confidence level in its government capability to fight terror, now at a dismal 33 percent. Much needs to be done in this regard, firstly in the form of de-radicalization centers, which authorities say will be launched next September. As Caillet suggests, France’s aggressive secularization program may explain the lack of solidarity of French Muslims with their country. In this context, de-radicalization programs are thus crucial. They have proven successful in other European countries, with particular success in the Danish town of Aarhus, by tackling the feeling of humiliation of marginalized Muslim populations, which can overlap with extremist ideology.

Another conclusion to draw from the Nice attack is the need to improve cooperation between European Intelligence agencies, the Europal central agency, and border control. The image of horror aside, the Nice attack should serve as powerful lesson for intelligence and cultural actors. The west is facing an increasingly decentralized enemy, appealing to marginalized Muslim minorities and disenfranchised loners. If more integrative policies are considered, it could be the first step in quelling the radicalization of individuals before they turn to violence as a form of expression.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Flags fly at half-mast in memory of victims the day after a truck ran into a crowd at high speed killing scores and injuring more who were celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday, in Nice, France, July 15, 2016. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)