In the 24 hours since 31-year-old Tunisian Muslim emigre Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel massacred at least 84 people, left several dozen on life support and another 200 wounded, when he drove a rented 19-ton Renault truck for more than a mile along a Nice, France beachfront roadway filled with Bastille Day celebration crowds, US and European counterterrorism intelligence authorities told Homeland Security Today there were “rudimentary” threat streams of chatter indicating a possible jihadi attack in France, including in Nice.
However, the sources emphasized, the threat streams were just that: “chatter.” None of the threat streams provided any actionable intelligence or information that made them believe any kind of attack was actually imminent. ISIS had, however, made threats hours before the Euro 2016 Soccer Finals in Paris on July 10.
According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors jihadi social media, “French speaking Islamic State (ISIS) media supporters [had] distributed images on Telegram [a chat and group application for smartphones and laptops ISIS uses as their primary medium for announcements] threatening the Euro 2016 finals … in the Stade de France near Paris.”
The Nice attack came two-and-a-half weeks after Nice hosted a game between England and Iceland that drew 50,000 people.
MEMRI said, “One image shows a crosshairs on the head of a French soldier patrolling the streets, and the caption is a quote from a speech by ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al Adnani Al Shami – also a senior ISIS leader and emir of ISIS in Syria — calling upon ISIS supporters to carry out attacks in the West.”
Al Adnani said, “Know that each one of us would like to be in your place in order to severely punish the crusaders, night and day, without sleeping. In order to frighten and terrorize them until each one is scared of his neighbor."
Another image showed a man triggering his suicide vest in a crowd with the caption, "Blow up France.” MEMRI said, “The images were distributed with the Euro2016 hashtag,” and noted that, “The ‘Stade de France’ was targeted by two suicide bombers during the November 2015 Paris terror attacks. The poster is added to several similar direct threats by ISIS supporters and operatives which have been recently distributed on internet.”
Still a ‘who done it’
If Bouhlel did in fact engage in jihad, the counterterrorism authorities told Homeland Security Today, then “it’s possible he simply was a self-starter – a lone wolf who’d self-radicalized,” as one said.
So far, neither France, other European or US counterterrorism officials have acknowledged finding any links to ISIS, Al Qaedaor other Islamist jihadi organizations, although Bouhlel’s use of a truck to kill and critically wound so many people is a tactic called for by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and, later, ISIS. Hamas has also vehicles against Israelis.
Dr. David Lowe, a terrorism expert at Liverpool John Moores University, told Britain’s The Sun newspaper Friday that, “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if this was an attack which was originally planned for the Euro 2016 championships.”
“There is clearly a degree of planning involved here,” he was quoted saying,” adding, “I believe it is probably a small cell which has been working on this attack for some time. If it was an attack originally planned for the Euros, then Bastille Day is an obvious replacement because of what it means to the French people.
Lowe told The Sun, “You need several people to plan this kind of attack. Someone needs to buy, rent or steal the lorry and someone needs to source the weapons – which is why I don’t believe this is a lone operator.”
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve also told media the use of a truck or other vehicle is a method of attack against Westerners that "terrorist organizations regularly give out on their videos and elsewhere."
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls Friday also hinted there was likely a compelling tie to terrorism, even though no jihadi group has yet openly claimed responsibility for the attack and Bouhlel had no known links to jihadi groups like ISIS, although he was known to police for a variety of criminal acts for which he was never sentenced.
Paris Prosecutor François Molins told reporters Bouhlel was “entirely unknown” to counterterrorism authorities, and although the “attack has not yet been claimed … I must say that this kind of attack is in line with the type advocated by the terrorist organizations in various videos.”
Molins said Bouhlel was "entirely unknown by the intelligence services, whether nationally or locally," and that he’d “never been the subject of any kind of file or indication of radicalization.”
This isn’t necessarily unusual in the case of a lone wolf, or “self-starter” who, for one reason or another, becomes radicalized. Other lone jihadists also weren’t known to counterterrorism or law enforcement authorities until after they carried out their attacks.
Jubilation on social media
MEMRI said almost immediately following Bouhlel’s attack, “jihadi supporters and fighters, who for the most part are linked to ISIS, [reacted] to the attack with expressions of jubilation and congratulations.”
In fact, MEMRI said some “ISIS supporters online … stressed that the attack came in retaliation for airstrikes by coalition jets, including ones from France, in Syria and Iraq, which killed innocent Muslims. ISIS sympathizers on Telegram also posted banners lauding the attack and vowing that members of the Islamic State would continue to strike France and the West.
MEMRI said, the Dabiq Telegram channel also “posted a comment by an ISIS supporter with the username miqdad, who wrote, ‘Whether the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the first operation in Paris or not – and it eventually did – and even if it has yet to claim responsibility for the Nice operation, which is still vague at this point – our hearts are still filled with joy of a level we have yet to experience! How can we not rejoice when we see the organs of the infidel Crusaders, who launched a war on Islam, strewn about here and there?! How can we not rejoice after being sad when they bombed Muslim lands in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in cold blood?! Do we not deserve joy?!’”
One poster distributed by ISIS members on Telegram following the Nice attack said, "Paris is burning, and the Islamic State is developing.”
“The messages and images shared following the attack express jubilation at the deaths of infidels and a sense that France’s participation in Operation Inherent Resolve (in France, ‘Chammal’) has been avenged.”
Operation Inherent Resolve is the US military’s operational name for the military campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.
Continuing, MEMRI said post-Nice attack “Messages call for more attacks and for Muslim jihadi militants and sympathizers in France to carry out lone-wolf operations, and state[d] that France had been warned of imminent vengeance against it. Moreover, many messages threaten of yet more deaths to come, and call for the French people to convince their government to put an end to the French attacks on ISIS.”
“On an ideological and religious level,” MEMRI noted, “several existing documents and fatwa were shared justifying terror attacks in general and the acceptableness of the collateral killing of the Muslims that might be among the victims, for the higher purpose of legitimately ‘spilling the blood of the infidels.’”
One image on jihadi social media portrayed French President Francois Hollande being killed by jihadists, with the message, "And yes, Hollande! We will kill you as you kill us. A problem??? So be ready for what is coming next, you will not know where we will come from and where we will be!"
Method of Nice atrocities familiar
Whether or not Bouhlel is found to have been radicalized, tied to an Islamist organization, or simply mentally ill, his use of a truck to deliberately kill as many people as he obviously intended to do is eerily reminiscent of the article, The Ultimate Mowing Machine, in the second issue of AQAP’s Inspire magazine, published in 2010.
The article provided its “readers suggestions on how to wage their individual jihad. Here is one idea of how an individual Muslim may do so. It is a simple idea and there is not much
involved in its preparation. All what is needed is the willingness to give one’s life for Allah.”
“The idea,” the article urges jihadists, “is to use a pickup truck as a mowing machine, not to mow grass, but mow down the enemies of Allah.”
“You would need a 4WD pickup truck. The stronger the better. You would then need to weld on steel blades on the front end of the truck. These could be a set of butcher blades or thick sheets of steel. They do not need to be extra sharp because with the speed of the truck at the time of impact, even a blunter edge would slice through bone very easily. You may raise the level of the blades as high as the headlights. That would make the blades strike your targets at the torso level or higher,” the article explained.
“Pick your location and timing carefully. Go for the most crowed locations. Narrower spots are also better because it gives less chance for the people to run away. Avoid locations where other vehicles may intercept you,” the article continued, emphasizing that, “To achieve maximum carnage, you need to pick up as much speed as you can while still retaining good control of your vehicle in order to maximize your inertia and be able to strike as many people as possible in your first run. Keep in mind that as soon as people realize what you are up to, they would scatter and run in every direction looking for cover. They would look for areas where the vehicle cannot reach them. Therefore, it is important to study your path of operation beforehand."
"The ideal location," the article said, "is a place where there are a maximum number of pedestrians and the least number of vehicles. In fact if you can get through to ‘pedestrian only’ locations that exist in some downtown (city center) areas, that would be fabulous. There are some places that are closed down for vehicles at certain times due to the swarms of people.”
And, the article further urged, “If you have access to firearms, carry them with you so that you may use them to finish your work if your vehicle gets grounded during the attack.”
“After such an attack,” the article cautioned, “we believe it would be very difficult to get away safely and without being recognized. Hence, it should be considered a martyrdom operation. It’s a one-way road. You keep on fighting until you achieve martyrdom. You start out your day in this world, and by the end of it, you are with Allah.”
The article then concludes by saying, “This idea could be implemented in countries like” Israel, the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, Denmark, Holland … and France, as well as “other countries where the government and public sentiment is in support of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the American invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq or countries that had a prominent role in the defamation of Muhammad! In such countries we may strike at the public at large. As long as they target our noncombatants, we will target theirs. This is one of many ways to implement this idea. You may modify it and add or subtract to it according to what is suitable for your particular conditions.”
Similarly, in September 2014, ISIS’s spokesperson Abu Muhammad Al Adnani Al Shami urged jihadists to use vehicles to run over “filthy French disbelievers.”
“If you can kill a disbelieving American or European — especially the spiteful and filthy French — or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be. Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him,” Al Adnani said in his statement to followers.
Al Adnani is ISIS’s main conduit for the dissemination of official messages, including ISIS’s declaration of the creation of an Islamic Caliphate. He also was one of the first foreign fighters to oppose Coalition Forces in Iraq before becoming the jihadi group’s spokesman. The US Department of State designated Al Adnani a Specially Designated Global Terrorist pursuant to Executive Order 13224 on August 18, 2014, and has a $5 million bounty on his head.