Nice-He lived on the 12th floor of a high rise in a heavily immigrant housing project and was known to his neighbors only as a moody and aggressive oddball. He never went to the local mosque, often grunted in response to greetings of “bonjour” and sometimes beat his wife — until she threw him out.
The French authorities had much the same view of the man, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a heavyset 31-year-old from Tunisia — definitely trouble but not a grave menace to the security of the nation.
At 10:45 on Thursday evening, however, Lahouaiej Bouhlel was starting an attack that would stun and horrify his old neighbors, the French security forces and much of the world: stepping on the accelerator of a 19-ton refrigerated truck he had rented, he turned the vehicle into a highly efficient instrument of mass murder.
Zigzagging so as to hit as many people as possible as the vehicle careered down the Promenade des Anglais, alongside the Mediterranean, Lahouaiej Bouhlel transformed the celebrated French Riviera boulevard, crammed with people who had just watched a fireworks show celebrating Bastille Day, into a vast tableau of carnage and panic.
By the end of his murderous drive, when he was shot to death by the police, 84 lifeless bodies were left scattered behind him and scores of others lay gravely wounded.
“We were all like zombies, just running and screaming,” recalled Alexia Carbonne, a 20-year-old who had gone out Thursday evening with a girlfriend to watch the fireworks.
The dead included 10 children and teenagers, François Molins, the prosecutor who oversees terrorism cases, said on Friday.
Among the victims were two German students and their teacher; two Americans; two Tunisians, and one Russian. Of the 202 people wounded, 52 had serious injuries and 25 were in intensive care, Molins said.
His rampage-by-truck, the third large-scale act of terrorism in France in a year and a half, highlighted the difficulties of guarding against unconventional attacks.
Yet it also left the French government facing uncomfortable questions about whether it had provided sufficient security in Nice even as it urged citizens to recognize that the terrorist threat would not be eradicated quickly or easily.
“I want to tell my fellow countrymen that we will win this war, but that we might be faced with new retaliations, that there will probably be more innocent victims,” said Prime Minister Manuel Valls.
Lahouaiej Bouhlel appeared not to have left behind any public declaration of his motive or indicated any allegiance to ISIS or another extremist group.
On Saturday morning, ISIS said Lahouaiej Bouhlel was a “soldier” for its cause and had “carried out the attack to answer the calls for targeting the nationals of countries in the coalition” fighting the extremist group in Syria and Iraq. But it remained unclear whether the claim of support was an effort by ISIS to associate itself with a high-profile attack without having been involved in its planning or having any direct contact with Lahouaiej Bouhlel.
He had a history of petty crime, including a six-month suspended sentence for assaulting a motorist last year. But he was never flagged as a potential jihadist radical and, Molins said, he was “completely unknown by intelligence services, both at the national and local levels.”
The lawyer who defended Lahouaiej Bouhlel in last year’s assault case, Corentin Delobel, described his former client as “a classic delinquent” in an interview with France’s BFM televisions news channel.
Still, French officials labeled the attack terrorism and cast the episode as the latest in a series that have made France a battlefield in the violent clash between Islamic extremists and the West.
The tool he chose for his attack, a speeding vehicle, also fits with a 2014 exhortation by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the spokesman for ISIS, to would-be jihadists who wanted to kill French or American citizens but did not have any bombs to hand.
“Smash his head with a rock or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car,” Adnani advised.
Valls said the attacker in all likelihood had ties to radical Islamist circles.
“He is a terrorist probably linked to radicals one way or another,” Valls told France 2 television.
Bernard Cazeneuve, France’s interior minister, was more cautious.
“We have an individual who was not at all known by the intelligence services for activities linked to radical Islamism,” Cazeneuve said, noting that he was not in any French intelligence databases for those suspected of radicalization.
He said that the ongoing investigation would determine whether the suspect had acted alone, possibly because of he was psychologically “unbalanced,” or whether he was linked to a terrorist network.
Residents in his former apartment building on a hill overlooking the city said they had never seen him at the local mosque and never heard him mention religion.
Indeed, they said he rarely spoke at all and seemed to be in a permanent haze of anger, particularly after his marriage fell apart.
The New York Times