Nice and the terrorist war on France

Nice and the terrorist war on France

The July 14th terrorist attack in Nice came as a stern reminder of the elevated threat looming over France and of radical Islamists’ will and capabilities to hit the country. It also highlights the ongoing tensions within the political class in regard to the response to the current threat.

On the night of July 14th, as crowds were enjoying the end of the French national day celebrations, a single assailant rammed his heavy truck against large crowds along the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. The attack caused at least 84 deaths and was the second deadliest terrorist incident in France’s modern history after the November 13th assaults in Paris.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. However, the tactics used and the targeting of civilian soft targets on a highly symbolic date have promptly pointed toward the likely involvement of a radical Islamist militant. The perpetrator conducted the attack alone and investigations are ongoing to determine whether he received logistical support in the Nice region and whether he had connections with oversea militant groups.

The July 14th attack comes as a stern reminder of the ongoing terrorist threat that France faces, as well as of the current socio-political tensions within the country that challenge counter-terrorist efforts.

France: A high-priority target for radical Islamists

The string of high-profile and lone-wolf attacks that have hit France since January 7, 2015 highlight the fact that the country is at the top of Sunni extremists’ international terrorist strategy. Militants linked to al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, as well as self-radicalised assailants, see in France and French interests abroad a key target to hit as part of their global effort.

Radical Islamists’ propaganda networks have repeatedly called for attacks against French territory and French citizens and properties have specifically been singled out in attacks spanning from the African Sahel region to the Middle East. This is part of a long-lasting strategy that dates back to the days of the Algerian civil war. Dozens of Sunni extremists who fought in northern Africa in the 1990s returned to France and worked for the  radicalisation of local Muslim communities.

Most recently, France’s active role in the anti-Islamic State coalition prompted calls to conduct retaliatory attacks against the country. Militants linked to the November 13th cell planned to hit the Euro 2016 football championship while Syria and Iraq-based Islamist fighters issue periodic calls for terrorist attacks against the country. This threat was further highlighted by the decision of the French ministry of foreign affairs to close all of the country’s diplomatic facilities in Turkey ahead of the national day due to a heightened fear of terrorist attacks.

The presence of deep-rooted Islamist networks

The presence of deep-rooted radical Islamist networks in the country is one of the key elements negatively affecting France’s security. According to recent estimates approximately 2,000 French citizens are currently operating alongside Sunni extremist militants in the Middle East. In addition, Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated, after the November 13th attacks, that intelligence services are tasked with monitoring approximately 10,000 suspects for their support and ideological sympathies in regard to Middle East-based extremist groups.

Radical networks often collude with criminal groups involved in the smuggling of weapons and drugs within the country. This enables those planning attacks in the country to recruit among personnel already involved in petty or violent crime, as well as acquire weapons and potential safe havens. The Nice wider area is known to host several Islamist cells involved in recruitment operations for the Islamic State.

November and July: The two extremes of terrorist attacks

The Nice attack also highlights two extremes within the current terrorist threat in France. On the one hand, the November 13th assaults were highly-coordinated operations conducted by a large Islamic State-linked cell. These required prior planning which involved target reconnaissance missions, the acquisition of weapons, as well as the recruitment of militants to perpetrate the attacks. The overall operation was overseen by an international network linked to Syria-based militants. On the other hand, the Nice attack appears to have been conducted by a single assailant who rented the truck he used for the assault.

These two different tactics highlight the current approach that radical Islamist are taking in regard to their strategy in Western Europe. Coordinated and complex attacks may have a higher impact, but are more difficult to plan and more likely to be disrupted by security operations. As such, senior militants have been calling for lone-wolf attacks in an attempt to galvanise self-radicalised Islamists. Operations needing a low level of preparation will remain difficult to prevent and, as shown by the Nice attack, have the potential of resulting in high fatality numbers.

Tensions within the political sphere

The latest attack in Nice has further brought to light political tensions linked to the ongoing terrorist threat. While the French political class united behind President Hollande after the November 13th attacks, in July the government is increasingly being challenged for its anti-terrorist policy.

The state of emergency that was slated to end on July 26th will be extended for an additional three months, but the vote in parliament is likely to receive weaker support than expected. In addition, centre-right officials as well as members of the security community are increasingly questioning the government’s usage of the military forces in the country as they claim the national capabilities are not put to their best use. The response to the July 14th attack will be a key test for an already heavily-weakened president Hollande.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Riccardo Dugulin

Riccardo Dugulin is an analyst at Drum Cussac, a global business risk consultancy. He specializes in supporting international organizations and large corporations operating in emerging markets by providing them with critical risk management intelligence. His regions of expertise are the Near East, the Gulf, North Africa and Continental Europe. He previously worked as project manager for a French medical assistance company. He gained field experience in the Middle East having worked for leading think tanks in Dubai and Beirut. Riccardo holds a Master in International Affairs from the Sciences Po – Paris and a Bachelor in Middle Eastern Studies from the same university. Follow him on Twitter @RiccardoDugulin.