Yesterday, millions of French men, women, and children took to their streets to celebrate Bastille Day. That revolutionary day recalls the natural right of individuals to set the destiny of a nation. Then, at around 10:30 p.m. French time, a 31-year-old Tunisian terrorist struck a celebrating crowd in the Mediterranean coastal city of Nice. Driving a large truck at high speed and apparently firing a pistol, Mohamed Bouhle plowed down the beachfront promenade, killing at least 84 innocents. Many more were wounded, 18 critically. And Bastille Day being a family celebration during the summer vacation, children were among those crushed to death. The videos of the attack and its aftermath are sickening. Nice is a city of beauty and charm, and the Promenade is a place of old school pleasure. No longer. Our enemy is brutal.
While the investigation is at its earliest stages, President François Hollande’s commitment to escalate French military operations in Iraq and Syria, and his order of increased border security, suggests that Daesh — or ISIS — is the leading suspect, at least in terms of inspiring the attack, but possibly in terms of active direction. Assessments of reactive Daesh Twitter activity by Michael Smith lend credibility to that theory. As does previous instructions by Daesh officers to use vehicles as weapons (al-Qaeda has issued similar instructions). President Obama’s quick description of Nice as a “terrorist” attack is also interesting (Mr. Obama prefers to wait as long as possible, if ever, to use that term). Regardless, because of the target (a crowd of civilian families), the day (the French equivalent of America’s July 4th), and the ferocity (a prolonged attack designed to maximize death), this atrocity is a successor to last November’s Paris attacks.
But while we should rightly be enraged, we should not be surprised. France continues to face an exceptionally serious terrorist threat environment. Although an array of terrorist groups operate in the Fifth Republic, Daesh operatives are particularly well trained in physical (see point 2 here) and technical operational security (users of encrypted communications), as well as well-resourced and highly determined. Thus it poses by far the greatest threat. Many — myself included — feared France would be targeted during last month’s Euro 2016 soccer tournament. Fortunately, that attack never came (though a Daesh plot in Belgium was disrupted). But now, either through inspiration in the vein of Omar Mateen or direction in the vein of the Paris attacks, an attack has come and, once again, a brave and proud people will be forced to bury dead innocents.
If ISIS is responsible — either directly or via inspiring the attacker — three immediate questions arise:
‐Investigation of the attacker: Was this attacker a lone wolf or part of a broader cell? The NSA’s unique capabilities will be at the forefront of this investigative effort: tracing Telegram and WhatsApp messages sent or received anywhere near Nice in the last two weeks in order to draw connections to other potential suspects.
‐The Syria question: What will France do there now? Will it follow Turkey’s reaction to the recent Daesh attack on Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, and accede to Vladimir Putin in Syria? Since his invasion in support of Assad, Mr. Putin has pushed the West towards a binary choice: accept Assad and defeat Daesh, or continue opposing Assad and suffer ongoing Daesh attacks. Yet there’s another option: whether France and the U.K. will escalate militarily against Daesh. Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, is likely to offer major support to Hollande in the days ahead. As the government minister in charge of U.K. domestic counter-terrorism for the last six years, Mrs. May is keenly aware of Daesh’s threat to British security. And as the U.K. moves towards Brexit, May will want to establish a foundation of goodwill and continuing cooperation with France
‐Presidential politics in the West: Will this attack impact Western electoral politics? I believe it will. Trump is likely to benefit by Clinton’s association with President Obama. And in France, heading towards next year’s presidential election, the National Front party is likely to see increased support. People are scared, angry, and are losing faith in government’s ability to protect them.
#related#Whatever else may happen, the U.S., sadly, is unlikely to play a leadership role. As I noted two weeks ago, the divergence between President Obama’s attitude towards Daesh threats and that of his allies is increasingly significant. Note, for example, the increasing frequency with which French president Hollande and just departed British prime minister David Cameron used the term “Islamist terrorism” in recent months. They did so in a deliberate riposte to the Obama administration. Today, witnessing yet another murder of their citizens and the fraying of their civil societies, their anger will only grow.