Just as France was breathing a sigh of relief and celebrating its national holiday, Bastille Day, after an incident-free Euro 2016 football tournament, terror struck in the city of Nice. A French citizen of Tunisian descent drove a large white lorry to deliberately ram crowds at Nice’s Promenade des Anglais. Zig-zagging for almost 2 kms, the driver killed as many as 84 people and left scores injured some of them critically.
This attack on Bastille Day has rocked a nation that was still reeling with the aftermath of attacks in November 2015 in Paris that killed 130 and in January 2016 that killed 17. This is the third large-scale terror attack that France has suffered since Islamist gunmen attacked the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in January last year; just 18 months ago.
No terror group has claimed responsibility for the Nice attack so far, but if it turns out to be the handiwork of Islamic extremists, it will earn France, which is already struggling with a kind of uneasy resignation, the uncomfortable sobriquet of Da’esh’s ‘target No.1.’ (Note: Daesh has said that the attacker was one of there own, but not that it was a sponsored attack)
France is now facing a level of terrorist threat that probably surpasses that of any of its European neighbours. A large numbers of young French men have joined the ranks of the Islamic State (IS), even as French jets conduct bombing raids against the IS in Iraq and Syria and the French special forces battle Al Qaeda in Maghreb, Africa.
As distinct from the seemingly ‘lone wolf’ attack in Nice, the November attack in Paris was orchestrated by IS’s command structure in Syria and executed by operatives who slipped back into Europe. But the worrying fact is that all the attacks of recent months have seen French citizens (some second-generation migrants) as perpetrators and participants.
France is seen to be struggling with serious social divisions, particularly around the social integration of its migrants, many of them Muslim, who find themselves excluded on underprivileged estates on the outskirts of cities. This social fault-line appears to have become accentuated with the West’s war on Islamist militancy in general and IS in particular.
Andrew Peek, a former US Army intelligence officer and a professor at Pepperdine University feels that besides not doing a good job of integrating its 7% to 9% Muslim, mostly immigrants and descendants of immigrants from its North African empire (in a population of 66 million), France is a cultural target for the Islamist, accentuated by its “hedonistic” celebration of life and liberty. The French are a target for a third reason, as well; they are seen as vulnerable. In September 2014, IS’s main spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, had called on its followers to kill Westerners, “especially the spiteful and filthy French”.
The Nice attack came despite heavy military presence and expanded police powers being imposed under France’s state of emergency declared after the Paris attack in November last year. Under a plan dubbed “Sentinelle”, the French government has deployed heavily armed soldiers to guard 1,395 sites across the country, ranging from tourist spots to Jewish schools. During the Euro2016 concluded a week ago, 90,000 security forces were deployed to protect football fans at ten different venues across the country.
Law enforcement agencies have conducted some 3,600 raids on homes and businesses under state of emergency powers, carrying out searches without prior judicial authorization. About 550 people had been placed under house arrest after being identified as potentially dangerous during the state of emergency, though some of those house arrests have been lifted.
The point here is that given the nature of threat, how much security is sustainable and good enough to keep citizens safe is still questionable. Even during normal circumstances, terrorist suspects in France are seen to have fewer rights than almost anywhere else in the western world. Suspects, who are already stripped of their basic rights and face discrimination, have to further deal with judge-prosecutors who work on their own warrants and detain suspects for several days without charges.
Limits of Intelligence
The fact that the perpetrator of the attack in Nice was a French-Tunisian petty criminal known to the police raises familiar issues of methods of monitoring potential Islamist terrorists. It would also reflect on the capacity constraints of national and local intelligence services struggling to monitor fighters who have returned, not to mention sympathisers and those who have been radicalised in prison or online, without ever leaving the country.
Nice attack underlines a reality security services around the world are struggling to cope with; lone attackers can inflict great harm, especially if they are willing to die. With attack plans and trigger in their minds and virtually no logistics attacks of this nature they are extremely difficult for intelligence services to identify or stop in advance, even with extensive surveillance of electronic communications.
The second cause of concern is the choice of weapon; terrorists can use such a wide range of means to kill people, even if they cannot get hold of guns or explosives. Procurement and movement of guns and explosives is a major indicator intelligence agencies look for to be forewarned.
While the use of a civilian truck in the attack has been seen as some success in denying access to more conventional weaponry to terrorists, it has had no effect on the final outcome, which is loss of innocent lives. Cars have often been used in the past by Palestinians to kill Israelis. In France too there have been precedents; vehicles were used to ride down pedestrians in much smaller attacks in Dijon and in Nantes in 2014.
The Nice attack also highlights the uncomfortable gaps in France’s surveillance net, which has been bolstered in the last two years by some very intrusive legislations, to enhance powers of its intelligence services, police and prosecutors to monitor potential jihadists .
The initial responses from Paris point to a familiar cycle/spiral of events. As flags were lowered to half-staff in Nice and in Paris, the French President Hollande extended the state of emergency which had been imposed after the November terror attack with much deliberation, by another three months. The state of emergency was due to be lifted by the end of this month.
Besides continuing the state of emergency and the Operation Sentinel with 10,000 soldiers on deployment, Hollande is calling up “operational reserves”, those who have served in the past to help police, particularly at France’s borders. The country is also bolstering its presence in Iraq and Syria, where military advisers would be on the ground to help Iraqis take back the IS stronghold of Mosul. The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle is expected to sail out to the Middle East once more to support the current wave of anti-terrorist operations.
There are other more complex and troubling manifestations. The recent attacks have stirred up further public discontent over migration and open borders, fuelling the limited but very real rise of the hard-line Right Wing (Marine le Pen’s National Front). With French presidential elections due in April and May next year, France is staring at some turbulent time ahead.