Bastille Day Terrorist Attack Reflects a Strategy of Low-Tech Carnage
The Islamic State wants to carry out more attacks more often
by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
The terrorist attack on civilians crowded along Nice’s Promenade des Anglais celebrating Bastille Day appears ot be part of a trend by the Islamic State toward low-cost and grotesque carnage that is extremely difficult to prevent.
At least 84 people died as a man plowed a semi-truck into the crowd, mowing down people for more than a mile. It’s unknown if the attacker, identified by a French newspaper as 31-year-old Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Nice resident of Tunisian origin, had an operational connection to the Islamic State or pledged affiliation with it.
French T.V. interviews with neighbors illustrated a portrait of a depressed man with financial problems whose wife had left him. He was “not particularly interested in religion,” The Telegraph reported neighbors saying, and was also “known to the police for assault with a weapon, domestic violence, threats and robbery.”
This hasn’t stopped the Islamic State, as in other attacks, from cheering the murders on social media.
The Islamic State prefers it that way.
In recent years, the group has shifted to rely more on lone attackers who do not have the technical skills or organizational ties to produce bombs, which are the most devastating weapons a terrorist group can deploy.
To be sure, terrorists still rely on bombs. The July 3 Baghdad bombing killed nearly 300 people. The two bloodiest attacks in Europe in the modern era — the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 and the 2004 Madrid train bombings — were both caused by explosives.
But as the attack in Nice — and the Orlando shooting — horrifyingly demonstrated, a single person with a gun or a truck, but without any moral scruples or respect for human life, can inflict mass casualties on a civilian population.
“The latter trend is related to the skills and capabilities of lone actors, but it is also a reflection of the willingness of [foreign terrorist organizations] to encourage and to sponsor directly more rudimentary forms of attack rather than accepting greater risk of detection in the hope of pulling off something more spectacular,” Sam Mullins, a professor of counter-terrorism, wrote in the June newsletter of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
Mullins compiled data on terrorist attacks since 2012, and compared the types of attacks, weapons used and lethality to similar data sets since 9/11.
He found that terrorist attacks in the West are increasing in frequency. At the time of publication and before the attack in Nice, jihadists had carried out 12 assaults during the first six months of 2016, which is more than all of 2014.
In 2015, there were 16 total jihadist-linked attacks in the West.
However, most of the attacks in Europe have failed and killed relatively few people. Mullins noted that a significant number of attacks are committed by young men with criminal backgrounds — a trend which has become more common in recent years.
Some attacks are directly tied to the Islamic State, some are linked only ideologically, and others “are conducted by troubled individuals who seem to be driven at least as much by mental illness as by exposure to jihadi propaganda or related media coverage … the manifestation of jihadist-inspired violence in the West is clearly extremely diverse.”
Bouhlel’s motives are unclear, and until there is more information, the connection to the Islamic State may remain a matter of the connected social media accounts cheering the massacre from abroad.
In many cases, the terrorist is stopped and killed by the police before they inflict mass damage. By far the most attacks have occurred in France, but most are small scale and do not receive the worldwide media attention aired after the extreme violence seen in Nice and at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris.
From the Islamic State’s perspective, it’s no problem if most attacks fail — or fail to match the body counts of previous killing sprees.
The group has not succeeded in matching Al Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, or the Madrid subway bombings, which killed 192 people and injured around 2,000. But again, the Islamic State doesn’t need to approach that level of bloodshed to stay in the headlines and horrify the West.
The terrorist group explicitly tells its followers in propaganda messages that it’s better to kill a few people than to attempt a more spectacular attack and risk being spotted by the police. Eventually, a loner will get lucky.
“If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman, or any of their allies,” Islamic State spokesman Abu Muhammad Al Adnani instructed in 2014. “Smash his head 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.”
We can expect more Islamic State attacks to occur — and more often. And this should continue as the terrorist group loses further ground in Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State wants revenge, but also more recruits and to distract attention away from territorial losses.
A self-proclaimed Caliphate seeing its territory overrun is a dangerous beast willing to lash out anywhere it can.