16 July 2016

A lorry attack in Nice suggests no end to the acute terrorist threat that menaces France

At least 77 people are reported dead, just two weeks before the country’s state of emergency was due to endJul 15th 2016 | PARIS | 
FRANCE was just breathing a sigh of relief. It hosted the Euro 2016 football competition without suffering a terrorist assault of the sort that jihadists had staged in Paris in November and Brussels in March. France says it is at war with Islamic State (IS) and its ilk, and intelligence officials feared the tournament would be the next target; some 90,000 security forces were deployed to protect football fans at ten different venues across the country. Yet it ended without serious incident.

But late on July 14th, as crowds in cities across France celebrated Bastille Day with fireworks displays and concerts, the next attack did come—this time in Nice, a southern coastal town packed with holidaymakers.
Witnesses described how the driver of a large white lorry deliberately rammed crowds on the Promenade des Anglais, zig-zagging for 2km (1.24 miles) to kill as many people as possible (see map). “I saw bodies flying like bowling pins. I heard sounds and shouts that I will never forget,” said one journalist at the scene. “Around me people were running, shouting, crying. Once I realised what was happening I ran with them.” Police marksmen eventually shot the driver dead, riddling the cab with bullets.
News reports suggested that at least 77 people were killed, and over 100 injured. That would make the attack in Nice the second-worst terrorist assault in France’s recent history. Only the attack in Paris in November, in which 130 were killed, was deadlier.

The French president, Fran├žois Hollande, his prime minister, Manuel Valls, and other officials immediately held an emergency gathering in Paris. As they met, neither the identity nor the motivation of the attacker had been made public. But the slaughter was another reminder that France faces a level of terrorist threat that probably surpasses that of any European country. Large numbers of young French men have volunteered for IS in Syria; French jets conduct bombing raids against the group.

Domestic intelligence services struggle 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.

The attack in Nice highlights two other long-running concerns. First, even lone attackers can inflict great harm, especially if they are willing to die; yet they are extremely difficult for intelligence services to identify or stop in advance, even with extensive surveillance of electronic communications. A second worry is that would-be terrorists can use such a wide range of means to kill people, even if they cannot get hold of guns or explosives. Spokesmen for Islamic State have called on their followers to carry out assaults using whatever comes to hand, including vehicles. Cars have often been used periodically by Palestinians to kill Israelis. And in France, two mentally troubled individuals (with no proven affiliation to extremist groups) used vehicles to ride down pedestrians in much smaller attacks in Dijon and in Nantes in 2014.

For French politicians and members of the public, the constant threat of attacks is the new normal. A state of emergency declared after the November attacks in Paris had been due to be lifted on July 26th. Tens of thousands of French soldiers, who have been stretched to the limits of their capacities by months spent supporting police—patrolling streets and metro stations and standing guard outside schools—are eager to return to their barracks. Mr Hollande will now have to decide whether he can stand down any of them after all. France will be living with the threat of new attacks for years to come.

No comments: