NICE, France/MSAKEN, Tunisia (REUTERS) - Described by his neighbours as a handsome but “frightening” man, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, who killed at least 84 people in the French city of Nice by driving his truck into a crowd, had run-ins with the law but was not on militant watch lists.
Bouhlel ploughed a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the French Riviera late on Thursday (July 14), in what President Francois Hollande called a terrorist act by an enemy determined to strike all nations that share France’s values.
While a history of threats, violence and theft had brought him to the attention of police, Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Nice resident born in Tunisia, was not French intelligence services’ list of suspected militants.
He was convicted for the first time in March this year, for road rage, French Justice Minister Jean-Jacques Urvoas said. “There was an altercation between him and another driver and he hurled a wooden pallet at the man,” Urvoas told reporters.
As it was his first conviction, Bouhlel was given a six-month suspended sentence and had to contact police once a week, which he did, Urvoas added.
He had three children but lived separately from his wife who was taken into police custody on Friday, prosecutor Francois Molins said.
A former neighbour in Bouhlel’s hometown of Msaken, about 120km south of Tunis, told Reuters he had left for France in 2005, after getting married, and had worked as a driver there.
Tunisian security sources told Reuters Bouhlel had last visited Msaken four years ago. They also said they were not aware of Bouhlel holding radical or Islamist views, saying he had a French residence permit for the past 10 years without obtaining French nationality.
Neighbours in the residential neighbourhood in northern Nice where Bouhlel lived said he had a tense personality and did not mingle with others.
“I would say he was someone who was pleasing to women,” said neighbour Hanan, standing in the lobby of the apartment building where Bouhlel lived.
“But he was frightening. He didn’t have a frightening face, but... a look. He would stare at the children a lot,” he added.
His home town Msaken is about 10km outside the coastal city of Sousse, where a gunman killed 38 people, mostly British holidaymakers, on a beach a year ago.
Many residents of Msaken have migrated to Nice, where there is a large Tunisian community.
Relatives and neighbours in Msaken said Bouhlel was sporty and had shown no sign of being radicalised, including when he last returned for the wedding of a sister four years ago.
A nephew of Bouhlel, Ibrahim, said his uncle had called three days ago saying he was preparing a trip back for a family party.
Bouhlel’s brother, Jabeur, said he still doubted whether his sibling was the attacker. “Why would my brother do something like this?” he told Reuters, adding: “We’ve been calling him since yesterday evening but he’s not responding.”