On the evening of 14 July 2016, 84 people were killed and 303 injured when a 19-tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France. The driver was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian resident of France. The attack ended following an exchange of gunfire during which police surrounded the truck and shot the driver, killing him.
Agence France-Presse described the incident as the third major Islamist terrorist attack in France since the beginning of 2015, following the Île-de-France attacks in January of that year and the Paris attacks in November 2015. On 16 July, Amaq News Agency, associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel “executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations which fight the Islamic State”. ISIL later included the claim on its daily al-Bayan radio news bulletin. On 21 July, the French prosecutor said that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel planned the attack for months and had help from five accomplices. The five suspects were held in custody on charges of ‘terror offences’ related to the attack.
In response to the attack, the government announced three days of national mourning. It extended the state of emergency, declared following the Paris attacks, for another three months. Thousands of extra police and soldiers were deployed while the government called on citizens to join the reserve forces.
On the morning before the attack, French President François Hollande said the state of emergency put in place after the November 2015 Paris attacks would end after the Tour de France finished on 26 July 2016. France had just finished hosting the Euro 2016 football tournament, during which the country had extensive security measures in place. Some matches were played in Nice, ending with the England–Iceland match on 27 June.
On the evening of 14 July, tens of thousands of people were celebrating Bastille Day on the Nice waterfront. As well as the customary fireworks, the celebrations included an air force display.
At approximately 22:10 CEST (20:10 UTC), 30 minutes before the incident, a 19-tonne white cargo truck was seen approaching the Promenade des Anglais, driven erratically. A witness described how the vehicle was repeatedly speeding up and slowing down. The truck then turned on to the Promenade and headed southwest, but finally doubled back again.
The fireworks were finishing at approximately 22:40 CEST (20:40 UTC), when the truck slowly breached the vehicle barriers opposite the Lenval children’s hospital. Alexander Migues, a motorcyclist pursued the truck and attempted to pull open the driver’s side door, he clung on to the vehicle but was forced to let go after the driver directed a gun at him. Watching this, two nearby police officers opened fire on the truck. At this point, the driver sped up, drove northeast, and plunged into the crowds on the Promenade, swerving to hit pedestrians. The episode was filmed from a first-floor balcony at Hotel Westminster.
Police attempted to stop the truck with gunfire, as the driver continued for 2 kilometres (1.2 mi), killing and injuring pedestrians. Following an exchange of gunfire, the attacker was stopped near the Palais de la Méditerranée hotel. Prosecutor François Molins said, “the driver fired repeatedly on three policemen, who returned fire and pursued him for hundreds of metres”. According to eyewitness Éric Ciotti, an individual identified as M. Migues jumped onto the truck, distracting and drawing gunfire from the driver while the police surrounded the truck. Police fired into the vehicle, killing the driver.
Police discovered a magazine, pistol, empty grenade, and replica Kalashnikov and M16 assault rifles in the truck.
French police identified the perpetrator as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old man of Tunisian nationality, born in Tunisia, with a French residency permit and living in Nice. His parents live in Tunisia and rarely heard from him since he moved to France in 2005. His father said he underwent psychiatric treatment before he moved to France. He married a French-Tunisian cousin, living in Nice, with whom he had three children; however, according to his wife’s lawyer, he was repeatedly reported for domestic violence and the couple separated. Police analysis of his mobile phone has shown that after this separation he had numerous sexual relations with both men and women. He was known to French police for five prior criminal offences, notably for threatening behaviour, violence and petty theft. He was not registered as a national security risk (fiche “S”) with French authorities and, at the time of the attack, he was not known by French or Tunisian authorities to have links to terrorist organizations.
François Molins, the prosecutor leading the investigation, announced that information gathered since the attack suggested that, except for a short period leading up to the attack, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “a young man completely uninvolved in religious issues and not a practising Muslim, who ate pork, drank alchohol, took drugs and had an unbridled sex life.” Neighbours reported that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel rarely spoke to them. Authorities believe Lahouaiej-Bouhlel became radicalised shortly before the attack and the transformation happened quickly. Prosecutor François Molins said he had a “clear, recent interest in the radical jihadist movement”.
Friends say he began attending a mosque in April and recently grew a beard for religious reasons. They say he also began expressing extreme Islamist views and support for Islamic State. Police found images of dead bodies, Osama bin Laden, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the Islamic State flag and a cover of Charlie Hebdo on his computer, along with links to jihadist websites; he had shown friends an Islamic State beheading video on his phone. His uncle in Tunisia said he heard from a relative that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was recently indoctrinated by an Algerian Islamic State member in Nice.
An examination of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s phone records found evidence he was in contact with “known Islamic radicals”, although an intelligence source noted this “could just be a coincidence, given the neighbourhood where he lived. Everyone knows everyone there. He seems to have known people who knew Omar Diaby,” a local Islamist believed to be linked with Al Nusra. Days before the attack, he sent 240,000 dinars, approximately US$100,000, to his family in Tunisia. His brother said he received images of him laughing amongst the holiday crowds in Nice hours before the attack. The newspaper Nice-Matin published an interview with an eyewitness who recounted hearing from his balcony “Allahu Akbar” during the attack, with similar reports being circulated by other news organizations and on social media. Officials have not confirmed the press reports, while BBC News dismissed the rumours on social media as false.
The attacker killed 84 people and injured 308, 52 critically; 25 remained on life support the next day. As of 17 July, 65 remained in hospital, 18 in critical condition. At least ten of the dead were children. The figure of 308 indicates the total number of people admitted into hospital with injuries after the attack; some of these admissions did not occur immediately. Among the 84 dead, 38 were from 19 countries other than France. According to Kawthar Ben Salem, speaking for the Union of Muslims of the Alpes-Maritimes, at least 30 of the dead were Muslim.
– Nationalities of victims
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The case was assigned to Paris prosecutor François Molins, who has national jurisdiction in terrorism matters. In his initial statements, Molins said the attack “bore the hallmarks of jihadist terrorism” although a preliminary investigation by French officials had not connected Lahouaiej-Bouhlel to any international terror groups.
On 15 July, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s estranged wife and a man were arrested, followed by three more men the next day. The prosecutor’s office did not immediately disclose who the men were or why anyone was detained. A source close to the investigation told CNN local associates of Lahouaiej-Bouhlel who were detained for questioning said he started speaking in support of ISIL in the days before the attack. The wife was released on 17 July.
On 17 July, two more people, a man and a woman, were arrested in Nice following a police raid the day before. The two people arrested were Albanians suspected of helping Lahouaiej-Bouhlel obtain the firearm used in the attack. Police sources have disclosed to BFMTV that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s mobile phone, discovered in the truck after he was shot by police, has been one of their main sources of information concerning his activities and contacts prior to the attack. Phone records showed he contacted some of the six arrested, and may have contacted known Islamic radicals in his neighbourhood. He was found to have sent text messages to an unidentified contact during the attack, asking for “more weapons”.
On 18 July, Molins announced that CCTV footage showed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel in the rented truck surveying the area of the attack on 12 and 13 July. He said that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel stopped the truck in front of the Hotel Negresco with ‘warning lights’ lit early on 12 July.
– Charging of five suspects
On 21 July, Molins announced that investigations showed the attack was planned for months and the driver had accomplices. Four men and one woman, aged between 22 and 42, faced preliminary terrorism-related charges for their alleged roles in helping Lahouaiej-Bouhlel. Those facing charges were two French-Tunisians,—one of them born in Nice in 1994—a Tunisian, an Albanian and his wife, with dual French and Albanian nationality.
The Albanian couple were reported to have supplied the firearm used by Lahouaiej-Bouhlel during the attack. Molins said that the younger French-Tunisian had been questioned about breaking the French law on weapons in relation to a terrorist group; while under arrest, he had disclosed the location of a stashed kalashnikov mentioned in text messages. It was reported that immediately before the attack he had been in communication through text messages with Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who had thanked him in one for the firearm supplied the previous day.
Molins said that the Tunisian suspect had filmed the scene of the attack on the Promenade des Anglais on 15 July, when it was filled with emergency services and journalists, before taking a selfie. He and Lahouaiej-Bouhlel were recorded to have contacted each other 1,278 times between July 2015 and July 2016. He was said to have sent a text message to Lahouaiej-Bouhlel in January 2015 shortly after the attack on Charlie Hebdo saying, “I am not Charlie … I am happy, they have brought soldiers of Allah to finish the job.” The older of the French-Tunisians was said to have sent Lahouaiej-Bouhlel a Facebook message in April reading: “Load the truck with 2,000 ton … release the brakes my friend and I will watch”. According to Molins, fingerprints on the passenger door and selfies placed the Tunisian and French-Tunisian in the truck in the days before the attack. He also said that CCTV footage showed the Tunisian suspect seated next to Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as he drove the truck along the Promenade des Anglais on the evening of 12 July.
Although the youngest suspect had a police record for petty crime, none of the suspects were known to intelligence services. All five suspects were held in custody: the Tunisian and two French-Tunisians were charged as accomplices to “murder by a group with terror links”, and the Albanian couple was charged with “breaking the law on weapons in relation to a terrorist group”.
– French officials
President François Hollande returned to Paris from Avignon to have an emergency Interior Ministry meeting regarding the attacks. He addressed the French nation in a televised broadcast from Paris in the early morning of 15 July announcing future measures against terrorism, including a three-month extension of the state of emergency, previously due to end on 26 July. In the speech, he said, “There’s no denying the terrorist nature of this attack”. He also announced more security personnel would be deployed. The Prime Minister of France Manuel Valls later announced three days of national mourning on 16–18 July.
Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve initiated the ORSEC plan immediately following the attacks. He later announced plans to increase security in response to the attack by calling 12,000 police reservists to add to the 120,000 person force. He urged “all patriotic citizens” to join the reserve forces to boost security following the attacks.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the attacker was “probably linked to radical Islam in one way or another”, and put the attack in the context of a “war” against terrorism and radical Islam both outside and within France. This claim was initially cautioned by the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve who said “We have an individual who was not known to intelligence services for activities linked to radical Islam”.
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian claimed the attacks were linked to ISIL, also known as Daesh. He said “I remind you that Daesh’s ideologue, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has for several weeks repeated calls to attack directly, even individually, Frenchmen, in particular, or Americans, wherever they are, by any means necessary,” adding “Even if Daesh doesn’t do the organizing, Daesh inspires this terrorist spirit, against which we are fighting.” Minister Cazeneuve said if Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was radicalised, “It seems that he was radicalised very quickly — in any case these are the elements that have come up from the testimony of the people around him”.
On 18 July, France observed a one-minute silence in remembrance of those killed by the attack. In Nice, as the Prime Minister arrived to observe the silence, the crowd booed him and some shouted for his resignation, with some calling him a murderer. President Hollande was similarly booed at by crowds when visiting Nice the day after the attack. The booing was described by BBC as “unprecedented”, and as “a stark warning of how the mood in the country has changed” in comparison to public responses after other recent major terrorist attacks in France.
– ISIL claim of responsibility
Two days after the attack, the Amaq News Agency, an online presence said to be affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), called Lahouaiej-Bouhlel “a soldier of the Islamic State.” It cited an “insider source” which said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel “executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State”. ISIL mentioned Amaq’s claim through its al-Bayan radio station later the same day, saying the attacker executed a “new, special operation using a truck” and “The crusader countries know that no matter how much they enforce their security measures and procedures, it will not stop the mujahideen from striking.”
– Social media
Immediately after the attack, when it remained unclear whether the threat had ended, people used social media, particularly Twitter, to help others find shelter, using the hashtag #PortesOuvertesNice (Open Doors Nice), a variation of a hashtag used in other recent attacks in France.