Brussels, Paris (twice), and now Nice: Four crippling jihadist attacks in just over 18 months. The extremist group Islamic State’s fastidious sadism has arrived in Europe, and it looks like our problems are only just beginning.
Last week, on July 14, as evening celebrations for Bastille Day (France’s version of Independence Day) took place on the Promenade des Anglais -- the central promenade of the Mediterranean coastal city of Nice -- Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian living in France, deliberately drove a 19-ton refrigerated truck into the crowds, killing 84 people and wounding more than 300.
Panic broke out among the thousands that had gathered to watch the evening’s fireworks as the attacker entered the promenade, repeatedly swerving to hit as many people as possible. He exchanged some initial fire with police but was able to continue for almost 2 kilometers before they were finally able to surround the truck, strafe it with gunfire, and finally kill him. By that point, hundreds of twisted bodies and pools of blood littered the seafront. It was a true act of savagery.
As French security officials scrambled to make sense of the situation, it initially appeared that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel might be a “lone wolf” attacker, one with perhaps psychological problems or unknown grievances. He had, it emerged, a criminal record, mostly for violence and petty theft, as well a history of psychiatric problems. Critically, however, he was not on the French intelligence “fiche S” list of suspected jihadists.
Two days later, however, IS claimed responsibility for the attack, announcing on its Amaq News Agency channel that the “executor of the deadly operation in Nice, France, was a soldier of the Islamic State. He executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State.”
It does appear that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel may have been part of a wider network. On July 17, two Albanians were arrested on suspicion of supplying him with the 7.65 mm automatic pistol he used to fire on police.
But according to historian and Arabist Pieter Van Ostaeyen, the delay between the attack and IS’s claim of responsibility for it raises doubts over the true extent of his links to the group -- an assessment the French authorities appear to share.
“It seems he became radicalized very quickly," French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on July 17. "This is a new type of attack. We are now confronted with individuals that are sensitive to the message of [IS] and are committed to extremely violent actions without necessarily being trained by them."
This would be in keeping with IS strategy. As far back as September 22, 2014, IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani ash-Shami had advised wannabe jihadists who wanted to carry out lone attacks on the various means by which they could strike at the infidel:
“If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car...”
“This call to kill crusaders has been repeated many times since,” Van Ostaeyen told me by e-mail, and clearly it struck a chord with Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, on whose computer police found many IS videos.
But perhaps the real clue to all this goes even further back, to 2004, when the Islamist strategist Abu Bakr Naji published, online, The Management Of Savagery, a pamphlet aiming to provide a strategy by which Al-Qaeda could eventually form an Islamic caliphate. Published before IS even came into being (in its present form), it has since become one its guiding principles; it is reportedly read widely among the group’s commanders.
Central to Naji's ethos is that the more military responses Islamic extremists can provoke from the West, the more those powers will become worn down through a process of attrition -- both in terms of resources, public support at home, and anger among the ummah -- the world’s global Muslim community. If nothing else, the Iraq war proved him right on this count.
A more recent example came in November of last year, when, just two days after the Bataclan concert hall attack, which left 130 people dead, France launched its most extensive bombing campaign against IS to date, repeatedly pounding its stronghold of Raqqa. In essence, French President Francois Hollande played right into Naji's hands. But he had no choice. The enraged French public needed to see their leader take clear and decisive action. Thus did France expend military resources and anger Muslims in the Middle East -- without making a significant dent in IS’s capabilities.
IS has taken Naji's strategy and improved on it -- namely by forcing Western nations into a double bind by the use of terrorist acts carried out by (usually) locally born militants to create divisions, and preferably sow hatred, between minority Muslim communities and the majority in Western countries. The formula is simple yet deadly effective: The more homegrown jihadists appear in France, Belgium, and the U.K., the more their respective governments must monitor their Muslim communities. And the more they monitor them, the more it fuels resentment among them. And the more resentment that is fueled, the more jihadists are produced. It’s the definition of a vicious circle.
And that this strategy is working is plain to see. The attack was a gift to the French far right. The day after the attack, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the French National Front party, issued a statement urging the country to “declare war” against “the scourge of Islamist fundamentalism.” Several more attacks like Nice could one day see her become France’s president. What comes after that could destabilize the whole of Europe.
In the meantime, one thing is for sure: European jihadism is here to stay. And all Western countries that have participated in international military coalitions in the Middle East are targets.
As Van Ostaeyen explained: “The logic followed is that of qisas or retaliation (an eye for an eye, blood for blood). I'm afraid this climate of terror will haunt us for many years to come."