Thursday's attack on crowds celebrating Bastille Day in Nice was the latest in a series of terror incidents in France. Since January 2015 alone, at least 238 have been killed in 10 assaults across the country. ISIS supporters on social media were quick to celebrate Thursday's attack as if it was carried out by one of their own, long before anything was known of the attacker. ISIS officially claimed the massacre on Saturday.
The incident itself raises many questions. How can we defend against a weapon as ubiquitous as a lorry? Why is France the victim of such extensive violence? And, regardless of the motives of the attacker, how do we prevent jihadi groups claiming such attacks as PR victories?
How do we prevent jihadi groups claiming such attacks as PR victories?
Both ISIS and al-Qaeda have long encouraged simple attacks by individuals across the West. Such encouragement explicitly calls on would-be jihadis to do whatever is within their capabilities, with whatever weapons they can come across. These 'low investment, high impact' attacks are starting to become more common as ISIS loses more ground in the Iraq and Syria. In fact ISIS' spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, recently put out a call to ISIS supporters to carry out attacks exactly like the massacre in Nice.
Using vehicles as a lethal weapon is a tactic that has been used used repeatedly in Israel over the past year. It was employed by the murderers of Fusilier Lee Rigby in London in 2013, and also previously in France. Nevertheless, this is by far the most serious assault of this kind, with the third highest death toll from a terror attack in Europe since 2000.
According to reports, the attacker was a French-Tunisian dual citizen known to the police for violent crime, who had no known terrorist links. This fits a common narrative of the propensity of criminals to turn to terror, although research shows that, at least for senior jihadis, this is not always the case. It does, however, demonstrate the ease with which someone can be motivated to carry out attacks, even if they are acting alone. On top of that, the way we all operate online means that a curious internet user can find extremist content via a simple Google search, without having face-to-face contact with extremist recruiters. Such material can radicalise individuals.
Nevertheless, despite encouragement from ISIS and al-Qaeda for their sympathisers in the West to attack wherever they can, France has been disproportionately targeted. More than 1,000 French citizens may have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS and other jihadi groups, but this is not the highest number per capita in Europe. Still, propaganda encouraging attacks has singled out the French particularly. An October 2014 issue of Dabiq, ISIS' English-language propaganda magazine, called for attacks on all who have participated in airstrikes against the group, but especially the "spiteful and filthy French."
In part, this is because ISIS and al-Qaeda regard France as fighting a particular war against Islam. But it also reflects history: France's conquest of Algeria in the 19th century was presented by many within France as a continuation of the crusades. Meanwhile, Salafi-jihadi groups in the civil war that engulfed Algeria in the 1990s launched attacks on France regarding it as supporting a dictatorship attacking their 'pure' Islamic movement. Research from CRG shows the importance of that war to the current global Salafi-jihadi movement.
To prevent attacks like this, we must ask how the attacker was radicalised in the first place.
Attacks such as the one in Nice last night – particularly carried out with weapons as crude and deadly as a heavy goods vehicle – can rarely be predicted with sufficient accuracy to prevent them, but that does not mean that there is no defence. By the time an individual has decided to murder as many people as possible in the name of their brutal and primitive theological understanding, only the security services are in a position to do anything about it. The key to ensuring attacks like this become a feature of the past is to ask how the individual got into that position in the first place.
CRG research has shown clearly the importance of ideology in driving Islamist violence. Though there are myriad reasons that an individual might be drawn to terror, it is the ideology that gives cohesion to the movement, and provides some pathetic justification to the attacker for their violence. It is only through a sustained assault on that ideology that such attacks can be prevented in the long run.
This requires intense support for mainstream Muslim voices who are working hard to dismantle the ideology of Islamism at its weakest point: its interpretation of Islamic theology. These efforts are harmed by attempts to suggest that Islam itself is the problem. The Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which ended last week, saw thousands of Muslims murdered in Islamist violence. If we turn our legitimate assault on Islamist extremism into an assault on Islam itself, we are doing PR for ISIS and al-Qaeda ourselves.
This analysis was first published on Friday 15 July.