At least 84 people, including at least 10 children, were killed in the southern French city of Nice when a man drove a truck into a crowd celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday late Thursday night.
Authorities are now trying to determine how the attacker — who has been identified as a 31-year-old Tunisian national residing in Nice — evaded French counterterrorism efforts, as France grapples with its third major terrorist attack in the past 18 months.
The country’s counterterror measures were ramped up after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015 and heightened even further after November’s Paris attacks.
A question that has emerged in the immediate aftermath of these attacks is whether anything more could have been done to detect and preempt them — or whether so-called lone-wolf attacks such as that of Nice, Dallas, and Orlando, Florida, have long since exceeded the capabilities of current counterterrorism tactics.
“We have moved into a new era,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in a statement. “And France will have to live with terrorism.”
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel echoed Valls’ sentiment from Brussels, which was attacked by terrorists affiliated with the Islamic State in March.
“Zero risk does not exist,” he said. “We are now faced with a different modus operandi.”
Terrorism analysts seem to agree.
“Current counterterrorism capabilities are not designed to prevent attacks like these,” The Soufan Group, a strategic security firm, wrote in its daily briefing on Friday. “Absent tell-tale communications or travel — or alerting behavior beyond the merely ‘suspicious’ — there is little authorities can do to detect and deter attacks of this nature.”
It continued: “Such attacks can be considered intentionally spontaneous, in that they take some forethought, but little to no planning or training. The results are mass-casualty terrorist attacks.”
Antiterror prosecutors have taken over the investigation into the attack, which occurred at about 10:30 p.m. local time Thursday as pedestrians were dispersing after watching Nice’s Bastille Day fireworks.
“What can you do against this?” Andre Jacob, a former head of counterterrorism at Belgium’s State Security service, told Reuters. “It’s impossible to prevent. Even if there were clues.”
The French “can add more counterterrorism resources — the numbers of people actually tasked with monitoring those on the terrorist watch list,” geopolitical expert Ian Bremmer, president of the geopolitical risk firm Eurasia Group, told Business Insider on Friday.
“Short of that, near term, you’re talking about measures that would truly change the nature of a liberal and open democracy — the sorts of automatic detentions being discussed by the Front Nationale,” he added, referring to France’s far-right, nationalist party known for its anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, and eurosceptic policies.
“Long term the only real fix is true integration … or a move to a selective police/surveillance state. There’s little appetite for either at present.”
‘The weaponization of everyday life’
France has become a target for Islamic State sympathizers and militants for many reasons, including the war France declared on the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh, in Iraq and Syria last year.
“Today, France is clearly the most threatened country,” the head of France’s General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) said on Friday. “The question about the threat is not to know ‘if’ but ‘when’ and ‘where’.”
On Friday, French President Francois Hollande said France would “reinforce” its actions in Iraq and Syria in response to the violence.
“We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil,” he said.
France declared a state of emergency after November’s Paris attacks, which were carried out by ISIS militants who had trained with the jihadist group in Syria. The mandate was still in place — set to expire on July 26 — when the Nice attacker carried out Thursday night’s rampage. It will now be extended for another three months, Hollande said.
The Soufan Group said the “heavy-handed” policies that inevitably accompany a nationwide state of emergency are necessary but damaging — and probably futile — in the long run.
“Persistent states of emergency are unhealthy for democratic societies, yet the nature of the threat yields a slippery slope of well-intended but heavy-handed policies,” the group wrote. “The uncomfortable reality is that few counterterrorism laws or measures can address the weaponization of everyday life due to the unrelenting call to terror .”
Andre Jacob of Belgium’s state security service echoed that sentiment, saying “you can’t turn everywhere into a ‘fan-zone,’ behind barriers and police checkpoints.”
“This seems like the act of an isolated individual where it’s impossible to prevent anything in the sense that terrorists will adapt to their targets,” Jacob told Reuters.
Alan Mendoza, executive director of the conservative think tank The Henry Jackson Society, put it even more bluntly.
Mendoza said: “France has been on high terror alert for months with troops on the street yet still could not prevent this atrocity.”
‘Operate within France’
US officials told The Daily Beast that ISIS is a top suspect in the latest attack. As Business Insider’s Pamela Engel has noted, both ISIS and Al Qaeda have publicly called for supporters to use vehicles as weapons.
“If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies,” ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said in a statement in September 2014. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”
“If you are unable to come to Syria or Iraq, then pledge allegiance in your place — pledge allegiance in France,” a French ISIS member said in a video released in 2014. “Operate within France.”
As Bremmer of Eurasia Group said on Twitter, “1,700 French citizens have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria. 250 have returned.”
Last year, the French department of Alpes-Maritimes, which contains Nice, began training “teachers, social workers, doctors, policemen, prison officers and others to watch for signs of radicalisation and sound the alert,” according to The Economist. The program was called Entr’Autres.
“The objective is to bring someone back from the edge from the point at which the radicalised mind turns to terrorism,” Patrick Amoyel, a psychoanalyst and co-founder of Entr’Autres, told The Economist.
Still, Bremmer noted, ” France is already arresting as many Islamist terrorist suspects as the rest of the EU combined.”
That may actually be part of the problem, however. France’s prison population was estimated last year to be 70% Muslim, and many of them, initially arrested for petty crimes, are radicalizing while behind bars.
Amedy Coulibaly, one of the gunmen behind the worst militant attacks in France for decades, declares his allegiance.
Amedy Coulibaly, for example — an ISIS militant who attacked a kosher supermarket in Paris in January 2015 — met Chérif Kouachi, one of the two Charlie Hebdo shooters, in a French prison in 2006.
To respond to and combat this trend, France enacted a compulsory re-education program in four prisons earlier this year, the Economist reported.
Bouhlel, the suspect in the Nice attack, has not yet been linked to a terrorist group and was alone in the refrigerated truck that was used to carry out the attack. He was, however, on law enforcement’s radar, having been previously accused of assault with a weapon, domestic violence, threats, and robbery, according to reports.
Dozens of bodies covered in blue sheets still lined the pavement next to the Promenade des Anglais on Friday morning as the police continued to investigate the scene of yet another attack in their country.