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French Authorities Probe Motive For Nice Attack

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In Nice, France, last night, at least 84 people were killed when a man plowed a large truck through crowds gathered for Bastille Day celebrations, their independence day. The exact motives of the attacker in Nice are still unknown, but the event has been called a terrorist attack by French President Francois Hollande.

We're joined now in studio by Peter Neumann. He is professor of security studies at King's College, London. Thank you for joining us.

PETER NEUMANN: Thank you. Good morning.

MONTAGNE: What at this hour do we know about the attacker?

NEUMANN: We know his identity. We know he is 31 years old. He apparently came from the Nice area. He is a French citizen of Tunisian descent. That's pretty much all we know. We also know that he had been involved in crime before, but as the authorities stress it was ordinary - quote, unquote, "ordinary crime." It was nothing terrorism related, so a lot of people are concluding based on that that it may actually have been a so-called lone wolf, someone who has had no existing connections or was not part of the command structure of groups like the so-called Islamic State.

MONTAGNE: And I'd like to talk about that for just a moment. His name - Mohamed Bouhlel. Was that it?

NEUMANN: Yes.

MONTAGNE: Were he - a lone wolf would appear to be the case in the sense that he was all alone in this big, huge truck. It's like a white UPS truck or something like that, you know - very big. But when - at this stage of the game, can we know that? I mean, were - are you saying he possibly is self-radicalized or will it turn out in the end that, say, some group will claim him?

NEUMANN: So this is - so we're looking at two things really. And first is we're waiting for an official claim. We've seen last night that on the Internet on social media supporters of the so-called Islamic State have been very enthusiastic about this attack. They've claimed it, but the organization hasn't. And I think that they are themselves still trying to figure out whether that was a person that was actually affiliated with them.

The second point is that, of course, the modus operandi fits very well with the sort of attack that Islamic State has been promoting. September 2014, its spokesperson actually said if you can find any disbeliever, especially the French, then run them over with the car. And, in fact, in December 2014, there was a wave of so-called car attacks on Christmas markets in France, so it fits with the modus operandi. What we do not know for sure at this point - whether this was carried out in the name of the Islamic State.

MONTAGNE: Well, let's remind listeners that France also released a big report on the attacks last November in Paris, mentioned widespread failures in intelligence services and an ineffective bureaucracy. What does this attack say about how much France can protect its citizens?

NEUMANN: It's very hard, and, in fact, the prime minister of France today said that there is no guarantee, and people shouldn't be expected to be protected. And it's almost making him look helpless in the sense that he realizes this is such an enormous challenge. Radicalization in France is - it's such an enormous extent. And the security authorities have to some extent lost the plot. It takes about 20 offices to monitor one individual 24/7.

If you imagine you have a thousand, 1,500 people to watch, it is almost impossible. They constantly have to make judgments. They constantly have to decide we're going to watch that person because we think he's dangerous. We're going to not watch another person. And, of course, mistakes happen as a result.

MONTAGNE: And especially when they're radicalized individuals within society.

NEUMANN: Exactly - because they are coming from within, and there's no effective means of preventing someone from driving a car into the crowd if he doesn't talk about it.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

NEUMANN: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: Peter Newman is an expert on radicalization talking to us here in the studio. He's from King's College London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 18, 2016 at 10:00 PM MDT
A previous version of the Web summary for this story misidentified the interview subject as journalist Harold Hyman. In fact, host Renee Montagne spoke with professor Peter Neumann.
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