Don’t Overstate the Terrorist Threat
As the investigation of the massacre in Nice continues, authorities continue to find no evidence that killer Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel had any ties to terrorist networks. So why have so many so quick to invoke ISIS? And more importantly, why do so many continue to conflate “ordered or planned by ISIS” with “ISIS-inspired”?
For all the speculation of real connections—and ISIS’ own attempt to claim “credit”—the evidence has pointed the other way from the start. Compare the awful expertise and professionalism shown by the ISIS killers in Paris the night of November 17 with Bouhlel’s awful wild ride. The Paris attack involved three coordinated attacks, suicide belts, shooting prowess, and slipping past security guards. In Nice, the perpetrator simply rented the biggest truck he could a couple of days beforehand and cased the location. Bouhlel didn’t even wear easily obtainable body armor that might have allowed him to kill far more people before being shot himself. The reports of the truck being packed with weapons including grenades proved false, although he did have one working gun.
Then yesterday French police announced, “Attacker in Nice Plotted for Months with ‘Accomplices,’ Prosecutor Says,” as a CNN headline put it. They are “investigating five suspects who are in custody,” said the report. (Police had earlier arrested his wife and released her after three days in custody.) But the only example provided was that a Facebook “friend” (which actually means nothing more than somebody you’ve agreed to connect to, not “friend” in the traditional sense) sent him a response to a message reading “Load the truck with tons of iron and cut the brakes. I’ll look brother.”
An accomplice? This is a legal issue and I don’t know French law. But one international criminal tribunal has held that if the accused “is aware that one of a number of crimes will probably be committed, and one of those crimes is in fact committed, he has intended to facilitate the commission of that crime, and is guilty as an aider and abettor.” This definition was later used by a U.S. federal appeals court, albeit in a civil case. So technically it appears the Facebook friend probably was an “accomplice.” But Bouhlel didn’t even take his advice.
As for being “plotted for months,” what was there to even plot? “Maybe I’ll rent a big truck and drive it through a thick crowd during festivities. And maybe I’ll hurt them even more by making it Bastille Day.”
Oh, and the French prosecutor also found Bouhlel’s phone contained an article referring to the “magic potion called Captagon,” an amphetamine-type substance that he said was “used by certain jihadists preparing terrorist attacks.” Yes, because it’s commonly used throughout the Arab world, also “popular with wealthy young people in the Middle East,” noted one publication. How many jihadist planners used aspirin, too?
If this is the best the authorities can do, it speaks volumes.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of evidence that Bouhlel was the proverbial ticking time bomb. He had previously been convicted of assault, having hurled a wooden pallet at another driver after a traffic accident. His wife had recently thrown him out of his home, taking his kids away in the process, for allegedly physically abusing her and other family members. This is not only evidence that he was already unbalanced, but also the sort of thing that could have pushed him even further in that direction. His father said that his mental health indeed deteriorated after the separation.
It appears Bouhlel has long had serious mental-health problems. His father said he suffered from nervous breakdowns in which he “broke everything,” and that, while still living with his family, he “defecated all over the place” and shredded his daughter’s teddy bear.
Religiously motivated? Though nominally Muslim, “Bouhlel was not religious,” his wife’s cousin, Walid Hamou, told the British Daily Mail. “He did not go to the mosque. He did not pray. He did not observe Ramadan. He drank alcohol, ate pork and took drugs. This is all forbidden under Islam.” Not to mention his womanizing and bisexuality.
In previous vehicular attacks involving unhinged Muslims, French authorities labeled them so. In the city of Dijon in December 2014, a middle-aged convert to Islam injured more than a dozen pedestrians with a car while occasionally shouting “God is great!” in Arabic. Yet the chief prosecutor in Dijon described the attack as the work of a mentally unbalanced man whose motivations were “quite vague and hardly coherent.” The very next day, another Muslim man mowed down people in a van in the French city of Nantes, and around that time yet a third Muslim male attacked officers with a knife in a police station before being shot to death. They too were dismissed as manifestations of extreme anger and mental illness, not of jihad.
This time, in contrast, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls turned the explanation on its head, saying that ISIS “provides unbalanced individuals with an ideological kit that gives their acts meaning.” Of course, Bouhlel is not the calm, cool, trained psychopath that terrorist groups including ISIS normally deploy. It’s doubtful they see ripping apart stuffed animals and excreting all over an apartment as pluses. They want disciplined soldiers, not loose cannons.
Ah, but ISIS took responsibility for the slaughter! Yes, exactly as one would expect. Terror groups win by terrorizing. Taking credit for slayings ex post facto is like winning the lottery without buying a ticket. ISIS will take credit for any successful attack by any Muslim anywhere. (Those three French incidents in 2014 were all slipshod and killed nobody but the knife wielder.)
Otherwise, ISIS doesn’t care how weak the evidence is, and apparently neither do we. In Orlando, killer Omar Mateen gave ISIS credit in a text message. But he never indicated he received help from them, nor was any evidence ever found that he did. And as it happens, he had also claimed to be affiliated with al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, the first of which has denounced ISIS while Hezbollah is fighting them in Syria.
So why do we insist on an ISIS connection? Start with the obvious: Everything we see is through the prism of the media, and terror sells. The networks aren’t going to assemble “expert panels” to discuss random vehicular homicide no matter how awful. You won’t get a flood of articles and op-eds for months afterward. By contrast, “Omar Mateen’s killing of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando tapped into deep fears that extremists are lying in wait to prey upon the West at home,” as one publication put it, “fears that [the] Islamic State fans at every available opportunity.”
Pinning the blame on ISIS also helps us cope, because we want to believe that by hammering hard enough at ISIS with airstrikes we can put an end to attacks by Muslims. Bombing is what we do best, after all. But as the ISIS “caliphate” has shrunk, we’ve seen terror attacks increase. Seizing all of ISIS’ territory could weaken the organization and certainly would liberate those under its monstrous yoke, but to believe we can destroy ISIS by doing this is folly. Safe territory facilitates terrorism; it’s not a requisite.
Further, good intel may stop a carefully planned, ISIS-organized attack. But short of a predicting murders with psychics à la Phillip K. Dick’s novel Minority Report, it’s almost impossible to stop somebody who merely buys a couple of weapons and walks into a nightclub, or who rents a large truck and figures out where he can find the most people clustered together. It’s very hard to stop a conspiracy of one.
Giving random acts meaning and purpose can also be politically handy. As the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it in a headline, “ISIS’ Claim of Nice Attack Solves Many Political Problems for the French.” These include an end to calls to lift the extension of the “state of emergency” initiated after the Paris attacks that allows the setting of curfews, forbidding of mass gatherings, and establishing of secure zones where people can be monitored in public. It also gives the police and security services power to search houses without a warrant and confiscate even legal weapons.
Nobody wants to live under such laws unless they’re temporary and absolutely necessary. And since inherently the impact will be on Muslims, for whatever good extra police power may accomplish, it will foster resentment, anger, and feelings of isolation. Presumably the homes of people of French heritage are rarely raided. There will also be abuse of these laws; it’s human nature.
This targeting plays right into the hands of extremists. No, it wasn’t a bleeding-heart liberal who invented the term “hearts and minds.” Ironically, it apparently was a French general who successfully employed it during a colonial rebellion in the late 19th century. “The history of counterinsurgency operations has taught us that winning people’s hearts and minds and changing the adversary’s mind-set is always matter more than physical destruction of the enemy,” as Military Review has noted.
And oh yes, a generalized blaming of the followers of a faith instead of an individual is a nice justification for bigotry and hate. That’s always a big seller, too.
So notwithstanding that FBI investigations also found no evidence of outside collusion in San Bernardino or Orlando, we wish—and others want us to wish—there to be a connection. And we build one, no matter how flimsy. Like the ancient Greek constellations.
But we must resist the temptation. Otherwise, we fail to understand our enemy correctly, focus resources away from the highest and most preventable threats, and give terrorists “wins” they actually contributed nothing to.
Michael Fumento is an attorney, journalist, author, and veteran paratrooper who has frequently written on both hysteria and terrorism. He currently lives in Colorado.