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Five years after Nice's deadly attack, is France's terror threat any weaker?

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By Sandrine Amiel
FILE - In this Monday July 18, 2016 file photo, people look at flowers placed on the Promenade des Anglais at the scene of a truck attack.
FILE - In this Monday July 18, 2016 file photo, people look at flowers placed on the Promenade des Anglais at the scene of a truck attack.   -   Copyright  Claude Paris/AP
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Just five years ago, the seafront of Nice turned from a place of celebration to a scene of horror when a man driving a truck ploughed through crowds watching fireworks on Bastille Day.

86 people were killed, including 10 children, and another 458 were injured.

Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the Tunisian-born attacker, was shot dead during an exchange of gunfire with police after his two-kilometre rampage on the Promenade des Anglais.

The attack was claimed by the so-called Islamic State group, who said that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had heeded the militant group’s call to arms. But according to prosecutors, there was no evidence that Bouhlel had sworn allegiance to the extremist group.

The mass killing was part of a wave of jihadist terror attacks across France. It came less than a year after the deadly assaults in November 2015 that saw 130 people killed in bombings and shootings across Paris, including the victims at the Bataclan concert hall.

In total, terror attacks in France since 2014 have killed 264 people and injured another 1,200, according to France's domestic intelligence agency.

Five years after the Nice atrocities, media attention has largely shifted away from the terror threat to focus on the pandemic and its fallout.

With the so-called Islamic State group militarily defeated in Iraq and Syria and no more mass terror attacks on French territory, there is a perception that the jihadist menace in France has waned. But how accurate is it?

As France remembers the horror of the Bastille Day attack, Euronews looks at the evolution of the terror threat in the country over the past five years -- and its capacities to tackle it.

Threat still 'very substantial'

"The threat level is still very substantial in France right now and we've had several attacks over the past months perpetrated by lone actors," said Marc Hecker, Director of Research and Communications at the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).

Over the past 18 months, seven jihadist attacks were perpetrated in France, intelligence officials have said, while five attack plots were thwarted.

Among the atrocities that shocked the nation was the murder of history teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded in October last year after showing cartoons of Islam's Prophet Mohammed to his students during lessons about freedom of expression.

The latest terrorist attack took place in April when a policewoman was stabbed to death at her police station in Rambouillet, southwest of Paris.

"Interestingly enough, the perpetrator Jamel Gorchane originated from the same town, M'saken in Tunisia, as a Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, the perpetrator of the Nice attack," Hecker told Euronews.

"Actually, we know that the two knew each other," the terrorism expert went on, adding that the Rambouillet attack was a "stark reminder" of Nice.

Asked if an attack on the scale of the Bastille Day rampage could still take place today, Hecker said that was "still a possibility."

"The Nice attack was not that sophisticated. It was just a man who drove a truck into a crowd, so that's a very simple tactic and there was not a huge preparation with an important group behind the perpetrator."

"This attack is included in a category that we usually call a low-cost attack," Hecker went on, contrasting it with the November 2015 attacks which were "much more sophisticated and required an important preparation as well as a logistical base," and "a sanctuary to train terrorist commandos."

The expert was more optimistic that such complex attacks could now be prevented even if the system can "never be 100% foolproof," he told Euronews.

Threat 'contained' but taking on different forms

While the terror threat in France remains high, it has taken on different forms over the years.

"The intervention of the international military coalition in the Levant, as well as the action of security services in the targeted countries, made it possible to contain the jihadist terrorist threat," according to the French domestic intelligence agency.

On its website, the agency known as DGSI describes an "endogenous threat" from "individuals radicalised alone, notably on the Internet" and "with greater autonomy vis-à-vis terrorist organisations."

"Five or six years ago, the core of the problem was to trace the people who wanted to go to Syria and to trace those who wanted to come back from Syria," Hecker noted.

In total, the so-called Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria recruited over 1,400 volunteers from France, according to the DGSI. But with the fall of the caliphate, only about 150 French fighters remain active in the region, while 200 adults and 300 minors are detained in Kurdish camps.

The number of people reported on authorities' files for the prevention of radicalisation also went down from 10,000 in 2018 to 7,768 now.

Meanwhile, the profile of attackers has changed, with fewer homegrown jihadists. "Over the past two or three years, we've moved to attacks perpetrated mostly by foreigners whereas, in the previous years, most of the attacks were perpetrated by French citizens," said Hecker.

The terrorism expert noted that perpetrators of recent attacks on French territory had not been on the radars of French intelligence agencies. "That's also a striking difference," he said, noting "between 2014 and 2018, a significant proportion of the attackers were actually known by the intelligence agencies" prior to the attacks.

Psychiatric problems were also mentioned in recent terror attacks, the expert said.

One hypothesis, he told Euronews, is that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, marked a form of "transition from the terrorism that we knew in 2015 and, in most of the cases in 2016 and 2017, to what we have now, that is to say, something that's much harder to trace, some profiles that are blurred between psychiatry, crime and terrorism, and some people who are inspired by the propaganda but do not have obvious links with a terrorist organisation in terms of command and control."

In addition to the jihadist threat, France faces a threat of the “ultra-right, conspiratorial, survivalist,” movements, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told reporters at a press conference in April.

Darmanin said that five terror plots from such groups were thwarted, including three that targeted places linked to Islamic religion or culture.

France boosting anti-terror arsenal

While the jihadist threat has evolved over the past years, so has France's anti-terror arsenal.

"The legislative arsenal has been dramatically strengthened in France over the past six years," Hecker told Euronews.

"There have been a number of laws to reinforce the power of judges, of the ministry of interior, of the armed forces. There have also been reinforcements in terms of recruitments and financial means" given to security enforcement agencies.

When a new structure for the domestic intelligence agency was created in 2014, it had 3,200 agents compared to 4,700 now. The DGSI will soon grow to 5,500 agents.

A new anti-terrorism bill is currently under examination by the French Parliament and has drawn sharp criticism from opposition lawmakers and civil liberties advocates.

The controversial text aims to make permanent some of the exceptional measures adopted during the wave of attacks of the mid-2010s under the state of emergency.

These include for instance the supervision of former prisoners freed after convictions for terrorist crimes, which could continue for up to two years under the proposed law.

The most controversial measure concerns the so-called "algorithm" technique which allows the automated processing of connection data to detect threats while extending it to web addresses (URLs).

"I would describe the French system as pretty robust right now," Hecker told Euronews," but this does not mean that there won't be any more terrorist attacks," he added.

"Of course, it's always tragic. But I'd say that hoping that our system could prevent all the terrorist attacks is just not reasonable and perhaps not even rational. What we can hope for is that our system can be and even must be able to prevent the most important terrorist attacks, those that are more sophisticated and organised."

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