Since the Charlie Hebdo attack on Jan. 7, 2015, France has suffered seven terrorist attacks—three were acts of mass terrorism—with a total of 230 victims, leading many to wonder: Why has France become such a preferred target?
France is one of the first partners of the coalition attacking ISIS in Syria. The way the nation deals with Muslims, however, might be the main reason France has suffered these attacks. The prohibition of the veil since 2004 has shown a very negative attitude against Islam in general, which has not changed. The French social concept of “laïcité” wants to level down all manifestations of Muslim public presence. The debate in France on the presence of Islam is one of the most contentious in Europe.
This atmosphere has produced a different type of action linked to terrorism. The attacks last November at the Bataclan nightclub, which resulted in the deaths of 130 people, had been accomplished by a very organized group of 10 radical supporters of Daesh (the Arabic language acronym for ISIS). No improvisation and complete dedication were evident. Only one of them survived while the others committed suicide. This is one model of action directly linked to Daesh.
But with the Nice attack another operative mode is appearing: Mohamed Bouhlel, who used a 19-ton truck as his weapon, had no direct relation to radical Muslims as far as the investigation shows; he had no regular or intense practice of Islam. He was not known to the security service that monitored radical groups or individuals. He has never been imprisoned. He never went to Syria or to Afghanistan; he was not a soldier.
Bouhlel certainly was a frustrated man, violent against his wife in many circumstances and often in trouble with the police for violent behavior. He was in the process of a difficult separation from his wife. His neighbors thought he was somewhat crazy but certainly not a radical Muslim.
The call of Daesh to members of Europe’s Muslim communities to kill as many “unfaithful” Western people as possible, even “using a car to run them over” if a would-be killer could not use weapons or explosives, creates a new vista of possibilities for violent, frustrated men like Bouhlel, people who hate themselves and the society around them. Without a direct relation to Daesh and no explicit order issued from Syria, this general message still creates an incentive to kill in order to destroy “the enemy.”
From his own personal problems of identity and frustration, Bouhlel went directly to an act of political terror. He did not go through a long process of a religious radicalization. And unlike the terrorist in Orlando, Fla., he did not need to acquire an assault rifle.
A society cannot easily defend itself against this type of attack; the author is unknown by the police and does not belong to any organization. It is a challenge to France: how should it revise its attitude toward Islam, which is not welcomed by many here.
The other factor evident in this attack is the isolation of some people in our communities. They have personal problems, but no contact, no connections and no place to discuss their psychological difficulties.
Terrorism is changing. It is becoming less organized, less reliant on arms or explosives, but perhaps ultimately more deadly and more traumatic to a public that cannot comprehend how someone could run over men, women and children. Among them were some 30 Muslims.
French people have been extremely shocked by this event. But they will refuse to change their way of life and to divide themselves as Daesh would like them to, between Muslims and the rest of society. They might have to try to understand how their own culture is an incubator of extreme violence that can be exploited by Daesh. Police work alone will not suffice in countering this threat. Everyone must be concerned with it.
Pierre de Charentenay, S.J., is the former editor of Etudes in France and former Gasson Chair professor in political science at Boston College. He is currently a member of the Institut catholique de la Méditerranée in Marseille.