The most terrifying aspect of the massacre in Nice is not the scale of the carnage, devastating though it is, but the ease with which it was wrought. As IS shifted focus from encouraging young Muslims to come and fight in the Middle East to inciting them to launch crude DIY attacks on their home turf so the requirement for specialist knowledge, explosives and meticulous planning diminished. And now this. Eighty-four people at a Bastille Day celebration slaughtered – not by gunmen or grenades – but by a man at the wheel of a heavy goods vehicle. Fifty or so more in hospital “hovering between life or death”. How can a city protect its people against ad hoc attacks of this nature? How can the intelligence services thwart perpetrators who have no real links to the group which inspired them and no need to involve anyone else in their deadly plans?
IS is the first terrorist organisation to perceive that success lies not only in careful planning and orchestration (as seen in the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, and the Bataclan Theatre massacre in November) but also, sometimes, in the lack of it. So the French authorities ramped up security for the Euros, which passed off without a terrorist incident, but a random attack on a less obvious target caught them completely unawares.
The group has used its propaganda machine to egg on a rag-tag army of alienated misfits, motivated less by religious fervour than by a directionless anger at the world at large. In 2014, its official spokesman, Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, urged followers to “kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French” by whatever means they had at their disposal. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife or run him over with your car,” he said. Vehicles have been used to kill people before, but now they have been turned into weapons of mass destruction.
So, IS has left us vulnerable. It has also left us bewildered. With every fresh atrocity the desire to take up arms against it grows more fierce, but how do you wage war against something so amorphous? After the massacre, French President François Hollande announced an extension of the current state of emergency and the calling up of 10,000 reservists to man the borders (although the killer is thought to be French-Tunisian). Two days earlier, Hollande had pledged to redeploy the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, which allows the military to conduct a greater number of air strikes in Syria and Iraq. But – despite its commitment to a Caliphate – IS is not a geographical territory that can be bombed into submission. It is an ideology that feeds on disaffection; a many-headed hydra that appears to grow stronger with every blow the West inflicts.
This is not to suggest there is nothing that can be done to guard against further vehicular attacks. Some cities, including London, have already introduced crash-resistant bollards and barriers to stop vehicles smashing into buildings or pedestrian zones; it is unclear if there were any on Le Promenade des Anglais where last week’s tragedy took place.
And every public event in France should now be subject to the highest level of security. No doubt police investigations will shed more light on events, but there are early reports that officers allowed the killer – Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel – to park his truck on the street because he told them he was selling ice cream. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel may never have come to the attention of the intelligence services, but he had previous convictions for theft and violence. You’d think that alone might have been justification to move him on or at least to search the vehicle in which he had stashed a cache of guns. Continuing to pound Syria and Iraq will only further destabilise the region, displace more refugees and harden the resolve of IS. Instead France could focus on improving its intelligence gathering. Former prime minister and mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, believes little has been done to address shortcomings identified by a parliamentary inquiry into the November attacks. Though Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had not been identified as a potential threat, previous lone wolves have been flagged up to the security services.
But the most effective way to fight ideology is with ideology. Though programmes such as Prevent have had limited success (with some critics claiming they drive extremism underground) the answer must lie in attempts to catch young men early and convince them there are better ways to live.
More too should be done to improve the run-down estates on the periphery of cities where a sense of disaffection makes residents easy prey for Islamic extremism. Social exclusion does not explain or excuse Jihadism – and it may have nothing to do with Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s crime – but it does foster the febrile climate in which it flourishes.
Such arguments tend to be dismissed as liberal and naive, but really, what else is there? Right or wrong, if we cannot persuade French and British-born Muslims to reject the advances of IS then we will be chained to a future in which we can no longer enjoy the freedoms we take for granted; like gathering for street parties.
Here in the UK, of course, we are still discussing what to do about Trident. Tomorrow MPs will vote on whether or not to renew the fleet of four submarines at a cost, campaigners say, of up to £250bn. The Conservatives claim failing to replace them would leave the country defenceless against growing threats.
Yet, looking at the Bastille Day massacre – and those which preceded it – one can’t help feeling that this debate belongs to another era. As IS continues to flourish, nuclear missiles form a putative deterrent against increasingly distant threats and none at all against the clear and present danger of atrocities like the one in Nice.