December 22, 2014: Van attack targets Christmas market in France

On December 22, 2014 a man ran over ten pedestrians at a Christmas market in the French city of Nantes, before attempting to stab himself to death.

NANTES, FRANCE – Just because an attack looks like a terrorist one, walks like one and quacks like one does that make it one?

On any given day around the world we are witness to any number of violent incidents. All you have to do is take a look at your daily newspaper, online or in the copy you get at the local store or have delivered to your home. It is inevitably filled with accounts of stabbings, shootings, beatings or whatever. Humans’ propensity for causing harm to one another is both an ancient and relentless custom.

But God liked him better so he deserved what I did to him! (Photo: By Yair Haklai – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Still, the vast majority of these deliberate acts have nothing to do with what we call terrorism. Despite our lack of agreement on a universal definition, most who are well-versed in this field recognise that the violence perpetrated as an instance of terrorism has to be tied to some ideology. Killing for the sake of killing is not terrorism.

Then there are times when what we all see as incontrovertibly an act of terrorism turns out not to be…or at least that is what it seems. Maybe…

On this day in 2014

Sebastien Sarron ran over ten pedestrians in his white van at a Christmas market in the French city of Nantes, before attempting to stab himself to death. Ten people, including the suspect, suffered non-fatal injuries; one person was pronounced clinically dead the following day.

Here is where it gets interesting. Some say Sarron yelled ‘Allahu Akbar‘, a phrase used by a lot of Islamist terrorists, and the attack bore strong resemblances to similar jihadi ones in France. Even Canada’s Globe and Mail said it was inspired by Islamic State (ISIS) which has long called for such individualised actions.

But Sarron was also known to have psychiatric issues. A notebook in his van contained “incoherent suicidal phrases” as well as a conviction he would be murdered by France’s secret services. A subsequent examination found he had four times the maximum legal rate of alcohol in his blood. Sarron ended up hanging himself in his cell in April 2016.

I wouldn’t say it was a terrorist attack. I would call it a deliberate act.

French Interior Ministry spokesman

A French court found Sarron could stand trial for his acts despite his mental state. But was he a ‘terrorist‘? THAT is a very good question.

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By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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