The Thursday night attack in Nice, France that left 84 dead may be the lowest tech, easiest entry point mass killing in recent history. And that’s cause for concern.
As Magnus Ranstorp, an international terror expert at the Swedish Defense College noted, “No training has to go into an attack like this. You get into the truck and turn the ignition and you’re armed and deadly. This is DIY terrorism, Do It Yourself terrorism.”
Whether the attack was an act of international terrorism was not known Friday morning, as the cleanup along Nice’s famous Promenade des Anglais began. But whatever the motivation, it was horrific and deadly. French President Francois Hollande called it a “monstrosity.”
“This attack has all the elements to be called a terrorist attack, it was once again an attack of incredible violence” he said in an address to the nation. “It is clear we have to do everything in our power to fight this terror plague.”
The attack began around 11 p.m. as the crowds that had massed along Nice’s wide promenade and Mediterranean Sea beaches to watch the Bastille Day fireworks began to head home.
The attacker was identified as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old French-Tunisian with a police record but no known terror ties. The French newspaper Le Monde said he had recently been charged for a fight after a traffic dispute. In the truck, Le Monde said, police found a plastic pistol, two plastic rifles and an “inactive” grenade.
Witnesses described him zig-zagging his white truck back and forth and running down panicked pedestrians.
Others said early in the attack, police on motorcycles tried to get into the truck, and shot at the driver, but failed to stop him. Videos of the attack show police running after the truck on foot. At least 18 bullets struck the windshield, photos of the truck after the attack show.
In all, the attacker traveled a little more than a mile through the crowd. Police killed him when he left the truck to shoot into the crowd.
Nice has been on high terror alert since February. A local government official of the Alp-Maritimes region recently noted that security officials were prepared for nuclear, chemical and bacteria weapons, and were rigorously checking ships in the harbor; attacks from the sea were of particular concern, he said.
There was no mention of trucks.
The attack is the third terror-style mass killing in France since January, 2015, when attackers believed to be affiliated with al Qaida’s Yemen-based branch attacked the offices of the Charlie Hebdo weekly satirical newspaper. By the end of that week, a total of 17 victims and three terrorists, one of whom claimed to be loyal to the Islamic State, were dead. Then on Nov. 13, attackers claimed 130 lives in shooting sprees at cafes and a concert venue that were quickly claimed by the Islamic State.
In both attacks, at least some of the attackers had been known to French anti-terror forces and had been on terror watch lists. Some of the attackers were known to have trained in Syria or North Africa.
The 31-year-old French-Tunisian in Nice apparently was not on any watch list, however, and while Islamic State supporters on social media celebrated the attack, there was no claim of responsibility from the group, according to the SITE group, which monitors jihadist communications.
French police said they are trying to determine if the attacker planned the Nice mayhem on his own or had help or support.
In Paris, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls set three days of official mourning. A state of emergency imposed last year that was scheduled to expire was extended.
“Times have changed and we should learn to live with terrorism,” he said. “We have to show solidarity and collective calm.”
The French, he said, “are facing a war that terrorism has started against us. The objective of the terrorists is to instill fear and panic. France will not allow itself to be destabilized.”
Ranstorp said that while the attack had some of the markings of a terror attack, it was also astonishingly simple. No particular training was needed, he said, just a will to murder innocent men, women and children. He suggested that there was some planning in this attack.
It was a day and a time and place where there would be a large crowd. A crowd can be protected at the event more easily than it can be protected on its way home. But the attack came along a road that many at the fireworks display were using to drive home, and that those leaving the seaside had to cross to get to their homes, hotels, cars or trains.
“I admit, as I went to bed last night I was thinking that it was a pleasant surprise that we’d gotten through a Bastille Day, and before that a (European soccer championship tournament) without incident,” he said. “I woke up to the news, and sadly it came as no surprise.”
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews