Very early thoughts on Nice

If I have said it once, I have said it many times: it is best to wait for information to come in before issuing “definitive”analyses of what has just happened.  The tragic attack in Nice may be over but it is far too soon to give in to speculation about who was responsible and why they acted. I know the 24/7 media beast has to be fed, but we really need more time on an event of this magnitude.

So this blog will not provide any sureties.  I may have spent 30+ years in intelligence and 15 in counter terrorism but I am not a fortune teller.  The following points are just some things to consider as we learn more in the days and weeks ahead.

  1. The one thing that is 99.99% certain is that this was a terrorist attack and not a driver who lost control of his vehicle.  Whether it was one or several terrorists remains to be seen.
  2. There have been no claims as of 20h30 EDT.  Any subsequent claim must be treated with care.  Anyone can make a claim and it is certainly in the interest of a group like Islamic State to do so, whether or not they had anything to do with this.  The attack could have been directed by IS (or another group), or supported, or inspired or locally generated or none of the above.
  3. France ranks #1 among European countries from which foreign fighters have left to Syria/Iraq.  For every one who went there are undoubtedly many more who were either stopped or did not have the resources.  We may learn that the Nice attackers were returnees or wannabes.
  4. Aside from the foreign fighter issue, there are tens of thousands of radicalised Muslims in France.  The causes of this radicalisation are myriad and have been the subject of many books and articles.  It is safe to say that French authorities have a Herculean task trying to monitor everyone.  If it turns out that one (or more) attacker was “known to officials” this means little.  Can we please stop calling every attack an “intelligence failure”?
  5. French prisons are raging out of control when it comes to radicalisation.  Authorities are struggling with the lock them up together/spread them around dilemma.  Compared to Canada many more French terrorists have criminal backgrounds: if the assailant(s) spent time behind bars this would not be unusual.
  6. The attack venue was virtually impossible to protect.  It is one thing to lock down a building, quite another a city celebrating Bastille Day (remember the Boston Marathon attack?).  Unless we want an armed soldier n every corner, terrorists will succeed on occasion against so called “soft” targets.
  7. The use of a truck to mow down pedestrians is a tactic called for often by terrorists in magazines such as Inspire.  We in Canada saw this on October 20, 2014 when terrorist Martin Couture Rouleau ran over two Canadian Armed Forces members, killing Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. This is not a sophisticated tactic, the discovery of weapons in the back of the truck notwithstanding.

At the end of the day I am afraid this is the new normal.  It is primordial to remember, however, that these terrorists do NOT constitute an existential threat to France or to us in Canada.  We need to allow our agencies to do their jobs and, as the Brits always say, keep calm and carry on.

My thoughts and prayers to the wounded and to the families and friends of those killed.  On this day of national celebration for my French colleagues – Vive la France!

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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