Counter-terrorism shockwaves hit France after Nice attack

The use of a knife or a truck as a weapon is a new challenge that is hard to monitor by authorities

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The city of Nice was stricken by horror on Thursday night as 31-year-old French-Tunisian Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel claimed the lives of at least 84 people, including a dozen children.

The fact that this bloodshed happened in one of the safest French cities - where municipal police officers are armed unlike in the rest of the country - and at the end of the well securitized National Day celebrations show that terror can now occur at anytime and anywhere in France.


The Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015 could be analyzed as a politically motivated assassination. The Paris attacks last November targeted adults drinking and attending a rock concert. Thursday's events marked another horrific day as entire families were hit by a deadly truck leaving behind lifeless bodies of parents, including toddlers whose only crime was to celebrate the French values of “freedom, equality and fraternity” on Bastille’s Day.

Legislative arsenal

Ironically, a few hours before during his traditional address to the nation, French President Francois Hollande had announced his will to end the state of emergency in the country by the end of July and reduce the exceptional number of military and police officers patrolling in the streets by 30 percent, a decision he immediately canceled after the killings.

Over the past nine months, legislative and security powers offered by the state of emergency had allowed the issuing of 350 search warrants, 400 arraignments and 300 compulsory orders of residence.

A police officer patrols at the scene where a truck mowed through revelers in Nice, southern France, Friday, July 15, 2016 (Photo: AP)
A police officer patrols at the scene where a truck mowed through revelers in Nice, southern France, Friday, July 15, 2016 (Photo: AP)

During that time the “Sentry” police and military operation which mobilized 10,000 men has led to the forces, according to Prime Minister Manuel Valls, thwarting 15 terrorist plots and dismantling entire terror cells.

Yet unfortunately, any legislative arsenal appears to be somewhat helpless in the face of fundamentalist rhethoric or criminal tendencies.

Like many terrorists of the Paris attacks in November, Bouhlel was a lowlife petty crime delinquent recently condemned for violent behavior. However, he was not considered a potential terrorist and had never been investigated by French secret services.

Killing with limited technology

The attack has been claimed by militant group ISIS and the modus operandi is in line with the hate speech from Abou Mohamed Al-Adnani, one of the group’s prominent spokespeople, who suggested the use of individual cars to ram into civilians in western countries.

This rampage is reminiscent of the November 2014 killing of a soldier in Montreal who was ran over by a car driven by a newly-converted militant. It also confirms the recent trend and the multiplication of isolated acts of terror using limited technology.

There is also another pattern regarding attackers of Arab origins in France. In February 2015, also in Nice, Moussa Coulibaly stabbed three military officers. In January 2016, a Moroccan raided a police station with a butcher knife. A year ago, Yassin Salhi beheaded his boss before killing himself. Those attacks, carried by isolated individuals, are believed to be almost impossible to prevent, according to many security observers. Moreover they could also be likened to a form of glorified suicide by outcasts with mental illnesses who use the pretext of fundamentalism without being part of any specific militant networks.

Armed French police secures area near the start of the Tour de France. (Reuters)
Armed French police secures area near the start of the Tour de France. (Reuters)

There is no specific typology of authors of terrorist acts such as the one in Nice. They are often recent converts to militancy, which limits the efficiency of long-term police work.

Until recently, secret services monitored closely any individual which had traveled to Syria or Iraq, but since ISIS has experienced significant defeats on the ground, the organization has shifted its strategy. It now encourages its followers to carry out organized attacks in their own country without travelling for any previous trainings or missions in its controlled territory.

While police forces know how to track the use of explosives or monitor weapon trafficking, the use of a knife or a truck as a weapon is a new challenge that is hard to tackle.

One option is to cut the monster at its roots. This is the strategy adopted by Hollande, calling for stepped up anti-terrorism operations in Syria and Iraq. Eradicating the source of propaganda and erasing the motivations for terrorist acts is one of the few options left when the embedded enemy cannot be identified.

However, this strategy is uncertain and will take time to yield results, which means France facing up to the prospect of similar attacks in the near future.

Remi Benoit Piet is an expert on European and Middle Eastern current affairs, public policy, diplomacy and international political economy.

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