At least 84 people are dead in Nice, France, including two Americans, after a truck plowed through crowds at a Bastille Day celebration. French authorities are investigating the incident as a possible terrorist attack. This is the third major attack on French soil in less than two years.
Law enforcement sources have identified the suspect as 31-year-old Mohamed Bouhlel, a French-Tunisian man. Some have been quick to blame international terrorist organizations like the Islamic State, but uncertainty remains about Bouhlel’s motivation.
"A range of groups — including the Islamic State — [appear to be] trying themselves to figure out who this person was and what motivated him to conduct the attack."
That was Seth Jones, the director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the RAND Corporation, speculated that prominent terror groups might also have questions about the attacker.
Airtalk spoke with Jones and Patrick Simon, a professor in Paris who he specializes in sociology and race relations in France to get a better understanding of the context for the the attack in Nice.
Jones: Groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have generally taken responsibility for attacks that they have been directly involved in. In a few cases — and we saw this in Orlando, Florida — where someone did it in the name of a group, these kinds of organizations have used individuals’ names as examples of martyrs. In this case, it’s not clear that he did it in the name of or inspired by a specific organization. A lot of that detail has not come out yet. What appears to be the case is that a range of groups — including the Islamic State — are trying themselves to figure out who this person was and what motivated him to conduct the attack.
On the difficulty of preventing “lone-wolf” attacks:
Jones: I think what is going to be a challenge to law enforcement agencies is to try prevent these inspired individuals -- ones that aren’t connected directly to a terrorist organization or other militant group -- and such a wide variety of tactics used, from driving cars to assault-style attacks. Frankly, this is going to be a very challenging time for France and a range of other western countries.
On the Islamic State and Al Qaeda's efforts to inspire attacks
Jones: [Groups like the Islamic State are Al Qaeda] are focusing on this kind of an attack. That is to inspire an individual to conduct an attack that is so easy to perpetrate...This is the type of thing that these kind of extremist groups are encouraging people to do. It’s been the case for the last year or two, if not a little bit more than that.
On the likelihood of an increase anti-Muslim sentiment in France.
Patrick Simon: After the first two attacks in January and November we were expecting a surge in anti-Muslim sentiments, but the polls didn’t show that the public opinion was strongly against Muslims more than it was before. There is a very widespread anti-Muslim sentiment, which is not tied to the attacks themselves.
On how social isolation of Muslims in France has contributed to radicalization
Simon: The profile of the terrorists who have done the attacks these last events are related to an experience of social exclusion and discrimination. There is a link between [that and terrorism]. But the number of people who are exposed to this type of experience is pretty high, and only a very small minority of them are thinking or acting the way the terrorists are doing.
These situations of social exclusion that Muslims may experience in France are not the main explanation for the attacks. The attacks are related not to a domestic social situation in France, but more broadly the geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
Yesterday’s attack in France came on the heels of a spate of violence that has gripped our collective consciousness here in the U.S. We want to know how the string of recent events has affected you and your communities. Do you feel safe? Do you plan on changing your travel plans? Has any of this changed the way you live your daily life?
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Seth Jones, Director International Security and Defense Policy Center, RAND Corporation think tank; he has served as the representative for the commander, U.S. Special Operations Command, to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations; he is also the author of the book, "Hunting in the Shadows: The Pursuit of al Qa'ida after 9/11"
Patrick Simon, a professor at National Demographic Institute in Paris, where he specializes in sociology and race relations in France.