Nice attack: How solid are alleged IS group links?

Nice Attack

Nice Attack

Two days after the IS group said one of its “soldiers” carried out the Nice attack, France says the suspect was radicalised, but that no direct links to the group have been found. How direct do such links need to be before the group claims ownership?

On Thursday, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel killed 84 people and wounded nearly 300 others after ploughing a 19-ton truck through a crowded esplanade in the seaside city of Nice in the middle of France’s Bastille Day celebrations.

On Saturday, the IS group confirmed one of its “soldiers” had carried out the attack, saying it was in response to its 2014 call to kill Western “disbelievers”, and in particular targeting countries taking part in the US-led anti-IS group coalition in Syria. The group had urged sympathisers to “smash (a disbeliever) with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him”.

Aside from speaking positively of the IS group in the days leading up to the attack in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel is not known to have made a public pledge of allegiance to the terror group.

On Monday, Paris Prosecutor François Molins confirmed that the Nice terror attack had been premeditated, but reiterated a lack of direct links between 31-year-old Tunisian killer Lahouaiej-Bouhlel and the Islamic State (IS) group. He said, however, that there was evidence showing the suspect had searched radical Islamist movements on the internet.

FRANCE 24 spoke to several experts in a bid to clarify the distinction between the IS group’s claim and the French police findings that, so far, reject any direct links.

Wording of statement

Kristina Kausch, a nonresident associate of international think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told FRANCE 24 that one very important aspect to take into account when analysing Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s potential links to the terror network was the way the IS group had worded its Saturday statement concerning the Nice attack.

“It never claimed that attack per se. It said it was carried out by a ‘soldier’ and was in response to its call to kill Westerners. That doesn’t mean that there was any ideological context or that he had any direct contact with the organisation or any kind of logistical support.”

“It could of course be an Islamist that heeded the call from two years ago, but it could also be a mentally disturbed man who wanted attention,” she said, adding that: “It’s not sure that the IS [group] even knew the attack was going to take place.”

But, she said, “this is exactly the kind of attack that the IS group wants to see everywhere and it will happily jump on it”.

Direct contact not necessary

Matthew Henman, the editor of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre (JTIC), said that for a person to be perceived to have “links” with the group, “direct contact is absolutely not necessary”.

“The group has made very clear that all you have to do is pledge allegiance and then conduct operations per its repeatedly broadcast instructions,” he said, noting that Omar Mateen, the gunman who last month murdered 49 people in an Orlando gay club, had pledged allegiance to the group on the telephone to police.

“I don’t think watching videos etc [online] is quite enough per se. That might be enough to influence an individual to act, but more would be needed to suggest any such attack was done in the name of the group.”

Henman also said it was unusual for an IS group-inspired attacker to then not publicly pledge an allegiance to the terror network.

The fact that it took the militant group two days before it acknowledged Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as an associate “may have been caused by efforts to try and identify whether the attacker was a Muslim and whether it was plausible that he was someone that it would want to claim as one of their ‘soldiers’”.

FRANCE 24’s terrorism expert Wassim Nasr said that the IS group would never claim ownership of an attack that was not carried out by one of its followers or sympathisers.

“For sure there are links, but today they don’t need to be material, they can be virtual,” Nasr said.