July 15, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A Massacre in Nice

• During a July 14 Bastille Day celebration in Nice, France, a driver intentionally drove through crowded promenade and killed at least 84 people.

• No group has claimed responsibility for the attack; the perpetrator reportedly had a firearm and explosives in the truck.

• The Nice attack is one of the deadliest non-explosive vehicle attacks ever, and fits the recent trend of shocking and simplistic attacks. 

• The weaponization of everyday life is a hallmark of terrorism and presents insurmountable challenges for security officials.


At the end of a fireworks display celebrating Bastille Day and the birth of a free society in France, a driver with unknown motivations deliberately drove a large truck or lorry through a crowded promenade in Nice, France. In what may be the deadliest such terrorist attack of its kind, at least 84 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. The attacker, identified as a French-Tunisian man with no known ties to extremism—but an all-too-familiar criminal record—reportedly had weapons and grenades in the truck, though the truck itself was the most deadly weapon.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack fits with repeated calls by the so-called Islamic State for supporters to use whatever is on hand to kill the group’s enemies—defined as anyone outside of the group. In a January 2015 message, Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani exhorted the group’s followers to kill using a ‘bomb, bullet, knife, car, rock, or even a kick or a punch.’ The group has called for these simplistic attacks since October 2014, when an Islamic State supporter ran over two Canadian soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, killing one.

There is no information yet regarding the attacker’s motivation or possible group affiliation. Recent attacks such as Orlando or San Bernardino were inspired by the group, while attacks in Paris and Brussels were by members of established cells. Both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda call for attacks from their supporters across the world, though the Islamic State has had more people answer its call in recent years.

Current counterterrorism capabilities are not designed to prevent attacks like these. Absent tell-tale communications or travel—or alerting behavior beyond the merely ‘suspicious’—there is little authorities can do to detect and deter attacks of this nature. Such attacks can be considered intentionally spontaneous, in that they take some forethought, but little to no planning or training. The results are mass-casualty terrorist attacks.

In the aftermath of Nice, more cities will review the need for even more security measures embedded into the fabric of normal life, such as barriers and bollards to block vehicle traffic from pedestrian zones. The nature of these inspired attacks, however, has broadened the target zone to encompass all public and private spaces. Just as terror alerts advising the public to be on the lookout for ’something' are ineffective and possibly counter-productive, efforts to harden cities against these attacks and assaults are problematic because the venue and method of attacks are limitless. 

The societal impact of attacks such as the one in Nice is immense. French officials had only just decided this week to lift the country's state of emergency, imposed after last November’s Paris attacks. Persistent states of emergency are unhealthy for democratic societies, yet the nature of the threat yields a slippery slope of well-intended but heavy-handed policies. The French government has now announced that it will extend the current state of emergency for another three months. The uncomfortable reality is that few counterterrorism laws or measures can address the weaponization of everyday life due to the unrelenting call to terror.


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