Attack in Nice

Terrorist underwent rapid radicalisation: French PM

18 victims of truck attack fighting for their lives; attacker drank alcohol, smoked marijuana till recently, say friends

Candles lit for the victims of the Bastille Day attack during a mass at the St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Nice yesterday. Eighty-four people were killed in the truck attack.
Candles lit for the victims of the Bastille Day attack during a mass at the St Nicholas Orthodox Cathedral in Nice yesterday. Eighty-four people were killed in the truck attack.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NICE • The man who killed 84 Bastille Day revellers in the French city of Nice by driving a truck into a crowd had been radicalised recently and quickly, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said, as a further 18 victims fought for their lives.

Last Thursday's attack plunged France into new grief and fear just eight months after extremist gunmen killed 130 people in Paris.

Interior Minister Bernard Cazenueve has called on young "patriots" to join and boost the 12,000- strong volunteer force to help relieve exhausted security forces.

Health Minister Marisol Touraine said 18 people, including one child, were in critical condition, while about 85 people in all were still hospitalised after the attack.

The French authorities have yet to produce evidence that 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, shot dead by police, had any actual links to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But the group claimed the attack and Mr Valls said there was no doubting the assailant's motives.

"The investigation will establish the facts but we know now that the killer was radicalised very quickly," he said in an interview with Sunday newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche.

No evidence had been produced to show how he underwent that rapid transformation from someone with no apparent interest in religion. Relatives and friends interviewed in Nice painted a picture of a man who at least until recently drank alcohol, smoked marijuana and according to French media even ate pork, unlikely behaviour in a devout Muslim.

A report in the Nice Matin newspaper yesterday said investigators had found no radicalisation material in his flat, but were still looking at his telephone and his computer.

Speaking from his hometown in Tunisia, Bouhlel's sister said he had been having psychological problems when he left for France in 2005 and had sought medical help.

As the authorities were trying to better understand his motives, two more people, a man and a woman close to Bouhlel, were arrested in Nice early yesterday. Three others arrested earlier were still being held, but Bouhlel's estranged wife was released without charges.

Amaq, a news agency affiliated to ISIS, claimed on Saturday that Bouhlel was an ISIS soldier. It considers France a key target given its military operations in the Middle East, and also because it is easier to strike than the United States.

France is also home to Europe's biggest Muslim population, and has been criticised in some quarters for fostering racial, ethnic and religious disharmony through its strict adherence to a lay culture that allows no place for religion and ethnicity in schools and civic life.

Mr Valls defended France's record on attacks, saying security services had prevented 16 over three years and said ISIS' modus operandi of cajoling unstable people into staging attacks was hard to combat.

"Daesh gives unstable individuals an ideological kit that allows them to make sense of their acts... This is probably what happened in Nice's case," he said, referring to the Arabic acronym for ISIS.

Despite mounting criticism from the conservative opposition and the far right over how President Francois Hollande's Socialist government is handling security, Mr Valls said there was no such thing as zero risk and that new attacks would occur.

"I've always said the truth regarding terrorism: There is an ongoing war, there will be more attacks. It's a difficult thing to say but other lives will be lost."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 18, 2016, with the headline 'Terrorist underwent rapid radicalisation: French PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe