- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 17, 2016

NICE, France — Authorities detained seven people over the weekend in a probe of Thursday’s attack that killed 84 people, but officials were still scrambling Sunday to figure out whether the truck driver who plowed through Bastille Day crowds acted alone or as part of a terrorist cell.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the carnage, but investigators have not determined whether the 31-year-old Tunisian man who carried out the attack was recruited by the terrorist group or just was inspired by its militant propaganda.

Tunisian and French officials say Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was not previously known to intelligence services in either nation, although he had a petty criminal record in Nice, where he had been living since about 2005. He was shot dead Thursday night inside his large white truck, likened to a tractor-trailer.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls was quoted in the Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper as saying investigators believe Bouhlel was somehow “radicalized very quickly.” But evidence of how or whether the radicalization involved interactions with Islamic State operatives has yet to be made public.

A blanket of shock, sadness and fear hung over the promenade in this French Riviera city as a third day of national mourning came to a close Sunday. Residents and tourists were still struggling to comprehend the horror.

Two Americans — 51-year-old Sean Copeland of Texas and his 11-year-old son, Brodie — were among those killed.

Other victims hailed from more than a dozen nations. Hospital workers said at least 10 of the dead were teenagers or children. As many as a dozen victims were Muslims or from predominantly Muslim nations, including at least three from Algeria and four from Tunisia.

While concerns soared over the prospect of an anti-Islamic backlash in Europe, local Muslim leaders appeared on the promenade over the weekend to publicly condemn the attacks. Many people laying flowers and lighting candles along the promenade were French Muslims.

Some had been out with their families Thursday night to watch fireworks and celebrate Bastille Day, the nation’s biggest public holiday.

“I was here with my children,” said a somber young woman, slowly walking the promenade Saturday with a bouquet to leave as a memorial for the victims.

“We were on a side street when it happened,” said the woman, who asked to be identified only as Nathalie. She said she was pushing her 2-year-old son in a stroller with her 5-year-old daughter in tow when the screaming and hysteria began.

Nathalie’s face was framed by a modest white head covering when she spoke with The Washington Times on Saturday.

Asked if she feared the attack may heighten tension over Islam in France, she said she is a 30-year-old Muslim from Nice and that there should be no confusion about the attacker.

“This man, for me, he’s not a Muslim,” she said. “He’s a monster.”

Moments later, Nathalie clutched the arm of a friend as the two stepped around a large bloodstain on the promenade, one of dozens still visible through the weekend.

While candles burned and flowers piled higher, hundreds of families lay on the beach below the promenade. Squeals of children playing in surf could be heard as thousands wandered in the sadness nearby — along the stretch where Bouhlel’s truck repeatedly swerved into screaming and scrambling pedestrians.

Along the attack scene, mourners left not just candles and flowers but also teddy bears to remember the dead children. There were also hundreds of drawings left by children and handwritten signs. Many carried the words “Pray for Nice,” in English, and “Je Suis Nice,” (French for “I am Nice“) — a slogan of solidarity with the victims.

In addition to the 84 killed, more than 200 were injured. Officials said about 85 remained hospitalized Sunday, with 18 of them, including one child, in critical condition.

French President Francois Hollande, who visited a hospital in Nice on Saturday, said France is “facing a struggle which will be long.”

He appeared to be referring to the nation’s growing fight against terrorism, which has escalated since January 2015, when radical Islamic gunmen killed 11 people at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The fight has grown more intense since November, when an Islamic State-aligned cell carried out coordinated assaults that left 130 people dead in the French capital.

Authorities detained seven people over the weekend in connection to the Nice probe, according to Agence France-Presse.

Two men and a woman were taken in for questioning Sunday. Their identities were not released, but some reports said a 38-year-old Albanian was detained on suspicion of providing Bouhlel with a handgun used during the attack.

Bouhlel’s estranged wife, who was detained Friday in Nice, was released by authorities on Sunday.

Uncertainty and speculation have swirled over the extent to which the Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, was involved.

The Islamic State is widely seen to have supplanted al Qaeda as the world’s leading jihadi terrorist organization and may be pulling from the earlier group’s playbook.

As early as 2010, a terrorism instruction manual produced by al Qaeda outlined an attack plan using a truck or large vehicle at a public gathering that was in many ways similar to the horror in Nice.

Islamic State operatives said in a statement Saturday via the group’s formal news agency, Amaq, that the “person who carried out the operation in Nice, France, to run down people was one of the soldiers of Islamic State.”

The statement made no reference to Bouhlel, and authorities said they were still examining the legitimacy of the claim.

While it remained unknown whether Bouhlel trained with the terrorist group, Tunisian security sources told the BBC that he visited Tunisia frequently, most recently eight months ago.

CCTV footage along Nice’s promenade reportedly showed Bouhlel driving the truck slowly along the route early last week, presumably in preparation for the attack.

But the Nice Matin newspaper reported that investigators who raided Bouhlel’s apartment found no radicalization materials and that authorities were still searching for his laptop and cellphone.

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, ate pork, Reuters reported.

Speaking from his hometown in Tunisia, Bouhlel’s sister told the news agency that her brother experienced psychological problems when he left for France in 2005 and sought medical treatment.

Some analysts pointed to similarities in the case to other recent attacks by extremist sympathizers, including Omar Mateen, the gunman who carried out an attack on an gay nightclub last month in Orlando, Florida, that killed 49 people.

“Very often, they’re former petty criminals who get brainwashed in a matter of months, or even weeks, and do something like what happened in Nice,” said Youssef Cherif, a national security analyst and private consultant based in Tunisia.

Mr. Cherif told The Times that Tunisian and French counterterrorism officials likely are working in concert on the case. But he predicted the most telling evidence might be in Nice.

“What were his frequentations in Nice? What mosque was he going to and what websites was he looking at? I think that’s where the radicalization will probably be found,” Mr. Cherif said.

He said the assault was “a very easy and very cheap way of staging an attack, and that shows you can’t really stop terrorism” with security measures alone.


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