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Moment that mattered: A terrorist kills 86 people in Nice on Bastille Day

Forensic officers stand near a truck with its windscreen riddled with bullets, that plowed through a crowd of revelers who'd gathered to watch the fireworks in the French resort city of Nice, southern France, Friday, July 15, 2016. At least 80 people were killed before police killed the driver, authorities said. (AP Photo/Claude Paris)

Forensic officers stand near the lorry that ploughed through a crowd of revelers who’d gathered to watch the fireworks

It was shortly after 10.30pm when the large white lorry drove onto the Promenade des Anglais. Nice’s famous seven-kilometre boulevard was thronged with thousands of spectators who were slowly making their way home after watching the Bastille Day fireworks display. Behind the wheel was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian living in Nice, who had rented the 19-tonne vehicle to carry out what would become the second-deadliest terrorist attack in French history. Swerving along two kilometres of the pedestrianised pathway and deliberately running down as many people as he could, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s attack lasted for 15 minutes until he was shot dead by police. The final death toll of the onslaught would reach 86, with 434 more injured.

It would take two more days for Isis to claim responsibility for the attack, but Dr Shiraz Maher, deputy director of King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, immediately suspected an act of terror. “I saw those early videos which were quite graphic and horrific and thought, ‘This really feels like a terrorist attack’,” he says. “How could you mow down so many people with a truck accidentally? I remember I got a call from Simon Israel from Channel 4 News, who said, ‘What do you think of this?’ And I said ‘Terrorism’.

The Bastille Day attack was the tenth major attack to hit France since January 2015. Its death toll was second only to November 2015’s shootings and bombings in Paris in which 130 people were killed. “The date was a very symbolic choice,” says Dr Maher. “Bastille Day is an important celebration of the Republic. The perpetrator sent a signal that everyone’s a target and we’ll come and attack you at an event which is a national expression of identity.”

“The second reason it stood out is that it was a completely unsophisticated attack,” Dr Maher continues. “[Lahouaiej-Bouhlel] hired a truck and turned it into a weapon. He wasn’t acquiring explosives or firearms. It was just the everyday act of driving a vehicle and it represented a seismic shift.”

Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s weapon of choice shows the evolution of terrorism, says Dr Maher. “With 9/11, the perpetrators spent months learning how to fly in order to pull off the attack,” he says. “With the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005 these individuals still had to construct bombs. The Nice attack shows that terrorism doesn’t need to be sophisticated to have an impact.”

The high frequency of major attacks in France since the start of 2015 – roughly one every two months – is unprecedented, says Dr Maher. But he insists that this is mainly down to practicalities and circumstance, rather than issues of French identity. “Sometimes academics, commentators, and journalists read too much into this,” he says. “In the 2000s, we had a real problem [with terrorism] in the UK, and France didn’t. Everyone was saying that the British model of integration hadn’t worked whereas the French model had worked really well.”

“If you want to travel to New York from [Syrian Isis stronghold] Raqqa, that’s nearly impossible to do, you won’t be able to get on a plane,” Dr Maher continues. “Getting into the UK is slightly more plausible, but because we are an island there are pinch points of entry which security services can monitor. If you do manage to get into the UK, your ability to acquire firearms or explosives is much more limited, while in mainland Europe old criminal networks are able to supply weapons and bullets.”

“He hired a truck and turned it into a weapon. He wasn’t acquiring explosives or firearms. It was just the everyday act of driving”

In October 2010, al-Qaeda put forward the idea of using a truck as a “mowing machine, not to mow grass but to mow down the enemies of Allah” in its online magazine Inspire. But while al-Qaeda has now shifted much of its focus to its role inside Syria, Dr Maher claims Isis has recently ramped up its efforts to inspire attacks in the West. “Isis has been telling people to stop coming to their territory and instead to launch attacks at home in their name,” he says. “They feel that they have enough fighters in their own territory and it’s harder for fighters to get to Isis territory now. So they want people to carry out attacks at home rather than get arrested while travelling and waste their opportunity.”

On 27th July, several French newspapers including Le Monde declared that they would put in place a blackout on mentioning perpetrators of terror attacks to avoid “posthumous glorification”. “Nonsense,” says Dr Maher. “The kind of person who will be inspired by terror attacks is precisely the kind of person who will go around any attempt by mainstream media to censor the name and find that person on the web and glorify them.”

Dr Maher thinks the newspapers’ actions might actually end up being counterproductive. “When attacks like these happen, society says, ‘What is going on here? We need answers to this.’ If the topic isn’t addressed truthfully, openly and honestly then people get angry. That’s what fuels conspiracy theorists. It’s what fuels radical movements on the left and on the right,” he says.

On 16th October, a coalition of Kurdish peshmerga fighters, Iraqi militias and international forces started a campaign to take Mosul back from Isis, which had seized the northern Iraqi city in June 2014. Dr Maher believes that Russian forces may make a move for Raqqa, Isis’s Syrian capital, after their devastating military campaign in Aleppo comes to an end. While he believes that Isis will put major resources into maintaining and recovering their territories, he is worried its fighters might also lash out against their perceived enemies in the West.

“I’ve constantly asked governments in Europe and the US what their plan is for managing Iraq after they take away Isis territory there and I’m yet to be told of some intelligent way of working out what we do. There are 30,000 fighters in Isis. Al-Qaeda was only 500 people during 9/11,” he says. “It’s all well and good for us to prosecute this war against Isis abroad, but we don’t have a game plan for what we do once they all get scattered to the wind. That is inevitably going to mean more attacks on French streets, German streets, British streets. I think that the worst is yet to come.

Dr Shiraz Maher is the author of Salafi-Jihadism: The History of an Idea 

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