Was France’s worst mass murderer a terrorist? Islamic State says he was. Certainly the modus operandi in Nice fits with that of ISIS-inspired attacks: a troubled individual callously exploiting a soft target, indiscriminately killing as many as possible and committed to giving his own life in the process. This is the pattern of attack we saw in December in San Bernardino and last month in Orlando.
In cases such as those, however, the attackers were at pains to make it clear they were acting in the name of ISIS and, even when investigations didn’t reveal prior connections with that organisation, there were clear histories of growing extremism and radicalisation. It’s still possible that investigations will reveal that the murderous truck driver in Nice, Mohamed Bouhlel, came recently under the influence of ISIS, despite not declaring a link, but so far he doesn’t fit the pattern of a radicalised individual.
Murder-suicide, including mass murder, and suicide by police have become all too common. But Bouhlel’s murderous rampage in Nice on Thursday night was not directed against a family home, a workplace or a college campus. Rather, he was acting exactly as ISIS would have him act.
At one level it doesn’t matter what Bouhlel’s motive was – his actions and ISIS’s claim make him a terrorist. At another level, however, it is vitally important to understand how radicalisation occurs if it is to be prevented or halted. And labelling anyone of Muslim background involved in criminal violence a terrorist, without any evidence of their being radicalised, only compounds the sense of alienation within Muslim communities and undermines legitimacy and trust in the difficult struggle against terrorism.
Another way in which Bouhlel’s actions conform to the pattern of ISIS attacks is that he launched an attack in his home town, operating in a familiar space. As a delivery driver in Nice, licensed to drive a heavy vehicle, his renting of the nineteen-tonne refrigerated truck raised no suspicions. He knew his way around the streets of Nice on Bastille Day and was at ease manoeuvring the heavy vehicle.
The genius of ISIS’s crowdsourcing approach to terror is that, by recruiting lone wolves, it catches authorities by surprise and, by having them work in a familiar setting, it increases the chances of their attacks succeeding. Even when that lone wolf is the sort of broken individual that other terror groups such as al Qaeda would have rejected, it does not deter ISIS. In fact, ISIS specialises in turning damaged goods into weapons. That, after all, was the story with Man Haron Monis, the Lindt Cafe siege gunman.
Many of the ISIS attacks of the past two years have been planned and directed by the organisation, and have involved dedicated cells of returned foreign terrorist fighters. But it is simultaneously crowdsourcing lone wolf attacks. In September 2014, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani issued a call for supporters and sympathisers to attack “where you are with what you have.” Not having access to weapons was not problem: “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.” Two days later, Numan Haider attacked two police officers in Endeavour Hills, Melbourne. Al-Adnani was again calling for such attacks in late May when he declared Ramadan a month of jihad. The call was answered in Orlando, Istanbul, Dhaka, Malaysia and Indonesia.
As ISIS loses territory in Iraq and Syria, it appears to be accelerating its campaign of attacks around the world. It clearly is under pressure. But recent developments in Turkey threaten to tilt things in its favour.
Turkey, long a stable democracy and emerging economic powerhouse, is also a key NATO ally and strategic partner in the fight against ISIS. When the civil war in Syria broke out five years ago, President Recep Erdoğan supported the flood of thousands of foreign fighters through Turkey into Syria to hasten the collapse of the regime of his erstwhile friend Bashar al-Assad. For too long this obsession blinded Erdoğan and Turkey to the real danger of ISIS. By the time they awakened to the threat early last year, Turkey was home to extensive networks of support for ISIS. Consequently, as Turkey repositioned itself to robustly oppose ISIS, it became an easy target for reprisals.
So where does this leave Turkey post the coup attempt? Since accusations of enormous corruption involving Erdoğan and his family broke three years ago, the nation has been sliding down the path of increasing authoritarianism as the president has sought to silence dissent in a nation dealing with recession and uncertainty. The accusations involved opportunistic collusion with ISIS in trading oil and munitions and have resulted in the purging of some of Turkey’s best intelligence and security officials.
After the failed coup, the masterful demagogue is looking more and more like a dictator. This is a huge tragedy for this once promising Muslim democracy. But, more than this, at this critical juncture in fighting ISIS, the global community can no longer count on the president prioritising the costly struggle against ISIS above personal interests.
A week ago it was easy to dismiss the increased tempo of ISIS attacks as a sign of weakness. That may still be true, but we now have in Nice a demonstrated method of attack that can easily be used in any of our cities. And, it appears, a reminder of ISIS’s capacity to inspire and innovate. At the same time, the relentless pressure being applied against ISIS in Syria and Iraq may just have hit a circuit-breaker. Things just got a lot more complicated and much less certain. •