Footage filmed by a German tourist – in which panicked police are seen running frantically after a truck, which is seconds away from plowing into the thousands of people gathered on the promenade in Nice to watch Bastille Day fireworks – brings home the impotence of a country like France in dealing with the waves of terror that are crashing over it, again and again.
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The cruel irony is that the deadly attack, which has so far claimed the lives of at least 84 people, with over a hundred injured, came only four days after the end of a nation-wide security operation to protect the Euro 2016 football tournament – during which a terror attack had been expected.
In his traditional Bastille Day television interview only hours before the tragedy in Nice, President Francois Hollande said that there were those who had counselled that the tournament be canceled or moved. But, had they done so, “we wouldn’t have been France” he said.
The thousands of police and soldiers stationed around stadiums across the country and the fan-zones in city centers, indeed prevented terror attacks (though they were less successful against the hooliganism of Russian supporters.) France had reason to hope that, after eighteen months of non-stop alert, beginning back in January 2015 with the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks in Paris, it might get a bit of respite; perhaps even a bit of a summer vacance. And then came the truck in Nice.
Terrorists, whether working in organized cells or on their own accord and encouraged from afar, find the weak spots; the moments in which the guard slips a little. That was the case in November 2015, when an ISIS team attacked the Bataclan Theater, nearby restaurants and cafes and the Stad de France stadium. The security forces had been preparing for an attack they feared would come a few weeks later, when dozens of heads of state were scheduled to arrive in Paris for the climate summit.
The attackers came a bit earlier. But defending a summit or a small number of football matches is a much simpler proposition than imposing a tight security regime across an entire democratic nation.
Every town and village in France holds its own fireworks and dancing event at the end of Bastille Day. It is beyond France’s current security resources to secure each of these against a ramming truck, a car bomb or a shooting spree. And, more crucially, it is beyond the country’s mindset, as well as that of most democracies.
Israel of course is different. It has decades of bitter experience and every local council that holds a large event on Independence Day knows the drill of cordoning off the streets around, with barricades and police forces on the stand-by, equipped with the weapons that could stop a murderous vehicle. For France and any other country in the west to do the same would mean not just the investment of billions of euros, but to entirely change their mindset. It is almost unthinkable and would take years to implement anyway.
The only option for now is prevention, and France, along with its European and other allies, has been doing much better in recent months in disrupting the Islamic State cells operating between France and Belgium. But the cells, which receive orders and support from ISIS leaders in Syria and Iraq, are only half the problem. It is unclear yet whether the French-Tunisian perpetrator in Nice was a member of a cell or whether he was radicalized from afar and acted on his own, as a freelancer.
In a closed briefing in May to a parliamentary commission investigating the November Paris attacks, Patrick Calvar, director-general of the French internal security service, the DGSI, said that the main danger is from between 400 and 500 people who trained and fought in Syria and Iraq and have returned to France. But, he added, they are thousands of citizens of Tunisian, Algerian and Moroccan origin, who “live in France but don’t feel French” and who could also carry out attacks.
He didn’t have much of an answer regarding how his service intends to deal with this threat – and neither do the other western democracies.
Nice, on France’s southern Mediterranean coast, is a crossing point from the Maghreb for many citizens of North African origin and their relatives, who daily use the city’s international airport. It also the hub for numerous local authorities that were won by the far-right, anti-immigration National Front Party in local elections. They are sure that they have the solution.