On 14 July 2016, Bastille Day, a lorry zig-zagged along the seafront Promenade des Anglais in Nice for two kilometres (1.25 miles) during a fireworks display. Eighty-four people, including ten children, were murdered instantly and two-hundred-plus wounded, nearly two-dozen critically. Below is a compilation of the evidence so far, which indicates that the killer was a part of a substantial network acting on behalf of the Islamic State, though there is not yet any evidence of a direct contact with the terrorist state headquartered in Raqqa.
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel
The killer, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, was shot dead by police at the scene in Nice on 14 July 2016. One pistol, plus various fake weapons, were found in the truck. Bouhlel, a Tunisian-Frenchman, was known to authorities for petty crimes but nothing related to terrorism. Bouhlel has three children to his ex-wife.
Bouhlel’s father said in an interview on French radio that he had not seen his son in four years, and that Bouhlel had psychiatric problems.
The BBC reported:
Tunisian security sources said [Bouhlel] was … from the Tunisian town of Msaken.
He visited Tunisia frequently, the last time eight months ago. He reportedly lived on the Route de Turin in Nice and had been in trouble with the police in the past for petty crime, but he was not on the watch list of radicalised young men.
Residents of his apartment building said he was a loner who did not respond when they said hello.
Bouhlel’s criminal record goes back to 2010 and includes a six-month suspended sentence for assaulting a motorist. Bouhlel’s wife had divorced him because of domestic abuse. The evidence of radicalism with Bouhlel is thin. “We are faced with an attack of a new kind,” Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said after a cabinet meeting at the Élysée Palace. “The individual who committed this absolutely despicable, unspeakable crime was not known by the intelligence services, as he had not stood out over the past years—whether through court convictions or through his activity—for support of radical Islamist ideology.” Cazeneuve added: “It seems that he radicalized himself very quickly. In any case, these are the first elements that have come to light through the testimony of his acquaintances.” Whether the French government has evidence of radicalization or is making a supposition is unclear at forty-eight hours remove. Bouhlel’s father claims that problems between 2002 and 2004 led Bouhlel to have a “breakdown,” and that Bouhlel used alcohol and drugs, and “had almost no links to religion”.
On 16 July 2016, IS claimed the attack via Amaq, saying:
Inside source to Amaq Agency: Executor of the deadly operation in Nice, France, was a soldier of the Islamic State. He executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State.
IS’s Al-Bayan radio station also had a claim of responsibility in its “news” section.
Then the “lone wolf” thesis evaporated—again.
The French prosecutor’s office announced on 16 July that five people had been detained the previous morning in relation to the attack, one of them Bouhlel’s ex-wife—later named as Hajer Khalfallah—and the other friends or acquaintances. On 17 July, an Albanian couple was arrested and Khalfallah was released. The Albanian couple are suspected of supplying the pistol that Bouhlel used to fire on police officers before they fatally shot him.
On 17 July, a representative for Paris’ prosecutor’s office revealed that in the immediate run-up to the attack, Bouhlel had sent a text message saying, “It’s good. I have the equipment.” A later text message to an to an unnamed person, at 22:27, about half-an-hour before the attack began, said, “Bring more weapons”. This final text message included a reference to “C,” though whether this was a person or location was unclear.
Bouhlel’s mobile telephone also contained pictures of fireworks and the Nice promenade from last year, and a picture of Sallah Ali, a Tunisian man who, while wearing a fake explosive belt, yelled “Allahu Akbar” and charged a police station on Rue de la Goutte-d’Or in Paris on 7 January 2016, the anniversary of the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Ali was shot dead. There was also an image of an article about Captagon, a “brand name” for the highly addictive amphetamine Fenethylline, a psychostimulant or “upper” that can improve mental function and stave off tiredness. Large quantities of Captagon have been seized by Turkey before now, and it is alleged that the drug is used by all sides in the Syrian war to keep their soldiers on the battlefield.
On 21 July, the Paris prosecutor said the attack was “premeditated” for many months and involved “support and complicity”. While no evidence has yet surfaced of a direct connection between Bouhlel and IS “centre,” the “lone wolf” thesis—and its attendant rapid-radicalization hypothesis—was decisively overthrown.
The 21 July 2016 statement from the Paris prosecutor that said Mohamed Bouhlel had engaged in a “premeditated” act of terrorism, also named his accomplices, who will be charged with murder, attempted murder, terrorist conspiracy, and/or the possession and transport of weapons:
- Ramzi A., 21, a native of Nice and a dual French-Tunisian citizen
- Bouhlel sent a text to Ramzi just minutes before the attack thanking him for the automatic pistol that Bouhlel used to shoot at the police, and “asked for new ones.”
- Ramzi had a criminal record with convictions for theft, violence, and drug use between 2013 and 2015.
- Chokri C., 37, a Tunisian born in Sousse, Tunisia
- On 4 April, Chokri sent Bouhlel a Facebook message advising him to “load the truck” and to “cut the brakes, my friend, and I’ll watch”.
- Chokri’s fingerprints were found on the truck’s passenger door
- Chokri was caught on tape by a surveillance camera inside the truck beside Bouhlel, on the promenade in Nice, less than three hours before the attack
- Mohamed Oualid G., 40, a dual French-Tunisian citizen born in La Marsa, Tunisia
- Bouhlel and Mohamed called each other 1,278 times over the last year
- In January 2015, Mohamed sent Bouhlel a text praising the Charlie Hebdo massacre
- There were pictures of the Nice attack on Mohamed’s mobile telephone
- Bouhlel’s mobile telephone contained pictures of Mohamed in the truck he used for the Nice atrocity on 11 and 13 July
- The Albanian couple: Artan H., 38, and Enkeledja Z., 42, who also holds French citizenship
- Suspected of providing Bouhlel with the pistol
Bouhlel, Ramzi, Chokri, and Mohamed were unknown to French intelligence services.
As of 21 July, according to the prosecutor, investigators had yet to establish direct connection between the Nice killers and IS.
On 26 July, a spokeswoman for Paris’ Anti-Terrorism Prosecutor’s office told CNN that two more men had been arrested on 25 July in connection with the Nice attack.
Eight more men were arrested on 19 and 20 September for links to the Nice attack. Six people remain under formal investigation for conspiring in the attack.
It was also reported on 17 July, by Bouhlel’s brother, Jabeur, who is in Tunisia, that Bouhlel had sent a picture of himself laughing at the Bastille Day celebrations just hours before the attack. “That last day he said he was in Nice with his European friends to celebrate the national holiday,” Jabeur said, adding that in the photo “he seemed very happy and pleased, he was laughing a lot.” Reuters was initially unable to verify the existence of the photograph because Jabeur declined to share it.
Speculation on Sexuality
Bouhlel’s mobile telephone disclosed that he had used dating apps and that his sexual partners had included men, according to France’s BFMTV. One of Bouhlel’s partners was alleged to be a 73-year-old man.
President Francois Hollande addressed the nation in the evening of 14 July and said, “It is the whole of France which is under threat from Islamic terrorism.” France’s state of emergency, set to end on 26 July, was extended for three months.
This is the fourth ramming attack in France.
There was a stabbing attack by a man who shouted “Allahu Akbar” near Tours in central France, about equidistant from Dijon and Nantes, on 20 December 2014. The attack was directed at Joue-les-Tours police station and injured three officers. The terrorist was later named as a Burundi-born Frenchman, Bertrand Nzohabonayo, who had a criminal record; he was shot dead at the scene. The man’s brother, Brice Nzohabonayo, and sister, were arrested in Burundi hours later, though there is no indication that either was complicit in the attack. Bertrand’s Facebook profile picture was an Islamic State flag and he was reportedly known for holding radical religious views.
On 21 December 2014, in Dijon in eastern France, a driver shouting “Allahu Akbar” injured eleven civilians in five separate ramming attacks in half-an-hour. The would-be killer had a history of petty criminality going back twenty years and was said to be mentally unbalanced. A French prosecutor said that although the man had “vague” motives, he had expressed his “upset at the treatment of Chechen children,” but went on to claim that his long record of mental illness meant that this was not an act of terrorism and had no religious motive. This is a common misconception: mental illness does not abrogate the possibility of terrorism.
On 22 December 2014, on the other side of France, in the west, a white Peugeot van was driven at a stall selling mulled wine in Nantes by a man named Sébastien Sarron, whose blood alcohol level was four times over the legal maximum; ten people were injured and one was killed. Sarron also shouted “Allahu Akbar” during the attack and attempted to stab himself to death after he had run down his victims. Sarron was arrested and stabilized in hospital, and an evaluation soon confirmed that he, too, was mentally unbalanced, having allegedly written “incoherent, suicidal phrases” in his notebook. The Interior Minister called it a “terrorist attack”. In the aftermath it transpired that Sarron was a regular cannabis user—more than 1.5 lbs of cannabis were seized from his home—and also a heavy drinker (particularly rum, apparently). Nearly a year later at trial, Sarron claimed that he used the phrase “Allahu Akbar” to give himself courage.
The three attacks over 20-22 December 2014 were not believed to be linked.
On 1 January 2016, a “29-year old Frenchman of Tunisian descent rammed his car into a group of four soldiers in a car park outside a large mosque in a suburb of Valence … [The attacker] was shot in the legs and arm by the troops … A soldier and a Muslim man were also slightly injured in the incident.” Jihadist material was uncovered on the assailant’s computer. “These are downloadable images that are a few weeks old. Not the worst type of images, but rather bellicose slogans,” a French prosecutor said. “It shows he had an appreciation of that but it does not prove he had links with terrorist organisations.”
None of these four attackers seem to have had direct contact with IS. That the 21 and 22 December 2014 attacks were even “inspired” by IS seems open to doubt, though the lack of information since makes a proper judgement difficult.
France has also suffered:
- The 7-9 January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack by Saïd and Chérif Kouachi
- The 9 January 2015 siege of the Hypercacher in Porte de Vincennes by Amedy Coulibaly
The 15 January 2015 Verviers cell rollup, which, while in Belgium, was deeply linked to the French networks
- The 3 February 2015 stabbing attack against a Jewish community centre in Nice by Moussa Coulibaly (not related to Amedy)
- The 19 April 2015 murder of a schoolteacher and narrowly-averted attempt to bomb two churches in Villejuif
- The 26 June 2015 beheading of Hervé Cornara by his employee, Yassine Salhi, at the Air Products factory in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier near Lyon in south-eastern France
- The 21 August 2015 Thalys train attack
- The 13 November 2015 coordinated assaults on the Stade de France, the restaurants, and the Bataclan
- The 7 January 2016 attack, deliberately on the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack, with a meat cleaver against police officers in the heavily North African Goutte d’Or district in Paris, which resulted in one injury and the attacker—who had on him a note swearing allegiance to IS and who shouted “Allahu Akbar”—being shot dead
- The 13 June 2016 murder of a police officer and his wife by Larossi Abballa in Magnanville, Paris.
Thus, since IS’s call for foreign attacks in September 2014, there have been up to fourteen IS-related terrorist attacks in France.
Inspiration for Attack Type
The proposed use of cars as a means of jihadist terrorism goes back at least to the second edition of al-Qaeda’s Inspire magazine in October 2010, which ruminated on the “use [of] a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” In truth, however, the Islamic State has long had this idea on its own account—in practice, if not in theory.
Bilal Abdulla, a British doctor of Iraqi origin, planted two car bombs outside night clubs in the West End of London on 29 June 2007, which were disabled, and the next day attempted to drive a jeep into Glasgow International Airport, which killed only his co-conspirator and driver, Kafeel Ahmed (Khalid Ahmed), an engineer. It does not appear to have been a suicide attack, but an attempted ramming attack where some combination of the car crashing into the barriers and the intervention of pedestrians to stop the terrorists throwing petrol bombs led to Ahmed catching fire. This was less than a year after what is now IS had declared its state in October 2006. Abdulla was found to have written a will that said IS had set him on his “ideological path” and from IS he had “learned … the love for death”. In October 2008, then-ISI claimed the Glasgow attack.
The Islamic State has been more explicit about taking on this idea since its caliphate declaration. On 22 September 2014, Taha Falaha (Abu Muhammad al-Adnani) put out his call for attacks against the West, in which he said, inter alia, “If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. 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. Do not lack. Do not be contemptible. … If you are unable to do so, then burn his home, car, or business. Or destroy his crops. If you are unable to do so, then spit in his face. If your self refuses to do so … then review your religion.”
On 19 November 2014, three French IS jihadists—Abu Usama al-Firansi, Abu Maryam al-Firansi, and Abu Salman al-Firansi—appeared in a propaganda video, “What Are You Waiting For?” The video, produced by Al-Hayat Media Centre, showed the Frenchmen burning their passports and inciting Muslims with a script clearly drawn from Falaha. “Terrorise them and do not allow them to sleep due to fear and horror. There are weapons and cars available and targets ready to be hit. Even poison is available, so poison the water and food of at least one of the enemies of Allah,” Abu Salman says. “Kill them and spit in their faces and run over them with your cars. Do whatever you are able to do in order to humiliate them, for they deserve only this.” Abu Usama calls on French Muslims to make hijra to the caliphate, and Abu Maryam lists grievances against the French government—including the banning of the hijab and the airstrikes against IS—before threatening France. The video was re-circulated by IS on 14 November 2015.
Abu Rahin Aziz, 32, a citizen of the United Kingdom from Luton who would later call himself Abu Abdullah al-Britani, was wanted on criminal charges for stabbing a man in the eye with a pen, allegedly for insulting the prophet, when he departed Britain for the caliphate. Aziz appeared in a picture with Mirza Tariq Ali, 38, a former NHS surgeon and another wanted criminal who fled the U.K. while on bail in 2013. On 26 January 2015, Aziz tweeted: “A call upon Muslims in Europe to carry out attacks whether by explosive devices, bullets, car, rocks or even stones.” Aziz had made threats against the U.S., specifying that attacks would occur on Independence Day. There was some irony, therefore, when a U.S. drone struck him down on 4 July 2015.
 https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2014/jan/13/captagon-amphetamine-syria-war-middle-east; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/11/19/the-tiny-pill-fueling-syrias-war-and-turning-fighters-into-super-human-soldiers/
 “Doctor guilty of car bomb attacks,” BBC, 16 December 2008, news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7773410.stm
 “Iraqi doctor’s road to radicalism,” BBC, 16 December 2008, news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/7784799.stm
 “Al Muhajir Says Al Qaeda In Iraq Behind London And Glasgow Car Bombings,” CBS, 24 October 2008, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/al-muhajir-says-al-qaeda-in-iraq-behind-london-and-glasgow-car-bombings/