July 2016 Attack in Nice
On July 14, 2016, at approximately 10:45 p.m. local time, a 31-year-old Tunisian-born resident of Nice drove a large white truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day at Nice’s Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 people and wounding more than 430 others. Among the dead were 10 children, as well as foreign citizens, including two Germans, two Americans, two Tunisians, and one Russian. (Sources: Guardian, New York Times)
The armed assailant, identified as Tunis-born truck driver Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, drove two kilometers down Nice’s seafront promenade using a rented, 19-ton refrigerated truck, swerving to maximize his deadly impact, according to witness reports. After exchanging gunfire with police officers outside Nice’s Hyatt hotel, the suspect was neutralized in the passenger seat of the vehicle. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was discovered to be carrying a fake automatic pistol, two fake assault rifles, and a nonfunctioning grenade, along with a mobile phone and identity documents. (Sources: New York Times, Guardian)
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was reportedly not on any terror watch list. He was, however, known to authorities due to a history of “threats, violence, and petty theft between 2010 and 2016,” according to French prosecutor François Molins. In January 2016, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was sentenced to six months in prison for assaulting a driver. (Sources: Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Le Figaro)
On July 16, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The ISIS-linked Amaq News Agency referred to Lahouaiej-Bouhlel as a “soldier” of the Islamic State and stated that “he executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State.” In response to the attack, France’s National Assembly approved an additional six-month extension of the national state of emergency, which was declared after the November 2015 Paris attacks. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, New York Times, BBC News)
November 2015 Paris Attacks
On November 13, 2015, assailants carried out a series of coordinated shootings and suicide bombings throughout Paris. The attacks claimed the lives of 130 victims and wounded more than 350 others. The first attack took place near the Stade de France during a soccer match attended by then French President Francois Hollande. A man carrying a fake Syrian passport bearing the name “Ahmad al-Mohammad,” detonated an explosive belt after being prevented from entering the stadium by security guards. Shortly after, two other suicide bombings took place near the stadium. Bilal Hadfi is believed to have carried out one of the attacks but the identity of the other suicide bomber remains unknown. Around the same time, assailants armed with assault rifles opened fire at restaurants in central Paris: Le Carillon, Le Petit Cambodge, La Belle Equipe, Cafe Bonne Bière, and La Casa Nostra. Chakib Akrouh and Salah Abdeslam were suspected to be among the gunmen. A man later identified on CCTV footage as Brahim Abdesalam carried out a suicide bombing at the restaurant Comptoir Voltaire. Nearby, three assailants wearing suicide vests and armed with guns and grenades attacked the Bataclan concert hall. After a standoff with the police that lasted over two hours, two of the assailants detonated their suicide vests. The third assailant’s vest was activated during a shootout with police. The three have been identified as Ismael Omar Mostefai, Foued Mohamed-Aggad, and Samy Amimour. (Sources: New York Times, Encyclopaedia Britannica, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, BBC News, USA Today, ResearchGate, BBC News, CNN)
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, calling them “the first of a storm.” Witnesses reported one assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar” at the Bataclan music venue. One of the attackers reportedly told captives, “It’s Hollande’s fault, […] he should not have intervened in Syria.” Investigations into the November 2015 Paris attacks have revealed that a number of the suspects had operated with ISIS in Syria, including assailants Mostefai, Amimour, and Hadfi, as well as Belgian-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected ringleader of the attacks. Media reports have suggested that key ISIS members Abu Suleyman al-Firansi and Oussama Atar may have also played a role in coordinating the attacks. (Sources: New York Times, New York Times, BBC News, New York Times, Associated Press, ProPublica)
In response to ISIS’s claim of responsibility, former French President Francois Hollande scaled up airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. Hollande labeled the attacks “an act of war” and declared a three-month national state of emergency, the first since 2005. Following the terror attacks, France and Belgium conducted a series of raids and crackdowns on suspected jihadist cells, seizing advanced weaponry and heightening scrutiny in the Brussels suburb of Molenbeek, an alleged hotbed of radicalization and criminal behavior. (Sources: New York Times, Al Jazeera, Guardian, BBC News, Washington Post, Telegraph)
On November 18, 2015, Abdelhamid Abaaoud was killed during a police raid in Saint-Denis. Another suspect tied to the attacks—Salah Abdeslam—who had remained at large for months was captured by Belgian police during a March 2016 raid. Abdeslam was extradited to France shortly thereafter and was sentenced by a Belgian court to 20 years in prison on April 23, 2018. He is currently in a high-security prison in Paris awaiting a separate trial in France expected to take place in 2019. (Sources: Guardian, CNN, New York Times, La Dépêche, La Dépêche, Pulse)
The coordinated set of attacks, while horrifying, do not come without precedent. For years before the November assault, France suffered through violent attacks by Islamic extremists as well as nationalist terror groups and right-wing extremist groups. In January 2015, France suffered the worst attack on its soil to date in 50 years, when gunmen attacked the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and later killed shoppers at a kosher supermarket. (Source: Le Figaro)
January 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher Attacks
On January 7, 2015, two gunmen—brothers Chérif Kouachi and Saïd Kouachi—stormed the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, claiming to be associated with AQAP, according to witness reports. Witnesses report that the assailants cried out “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) and announced, “We have avenged the Prophet Muhammad.” The assailants forced themselves into the Charlie Hebdo building and killed 12 people, including editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier, magazine cartoonists, other staff, and two police officers. (Sources: Guardian, International Business Times, CNN, BBC News, BBC News, CNN, France24, Reuters, New York Times)
The Kouachi brothers had a history of engaging in criminal and terrorist activities. Before the Charlie Hebdo attack, Chérif had been arrested multiple times on jihadist-related charges. In 2005, he was arrested while attempting to travel to Syria to fight U.S. forces in Iraq. In 2008, he was arrested, charged, and convicted for his involvement in a local jihadist network in Paris. In 2010, he was arrested and charged for plotting to help former member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) Smain Ait Ali Belkacem escape from prison. In 2011, Chérif’s brother and fellow assailant, Said Kouachi, allegedly traveled to Yemen to link up with AQAP. It was then that he reportedly met with notorious AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. (Sources: Guardian, International Business Times, CNN, BBC News, BBC News, CNN, France24, Reuters, New York Times)
Following the Charlie Hebdo attack, assailants the Kouachi brothers fled the scene and traveled to Dammartin-en-Goele, where on January 9 they besieged a printing building and took two hostages. One escaped and the other was freed when French armed forces stormed the compound, killing the Kouachi brothers. (Sources: Guardian, International Business Times, CNN, BBC News, BBC News, CNN, France24, Reuters, New York Times)
The Charlie Hebdo shooting was followed by two related acts of violence in Paris on January 8 and 9, 2015. On January 8, a French police officer was shot. On January 9, a gunman attacked the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket and took multiple hostages. Both acts were carried out by extremist assailant Amédy Coulibaly, who pledged allegiance to ISIS in a video that emerged after the shootings. In the video, Coulibaly admitted links to the Charlie Hebdo attackers and also claimed responsibility for planting a car bomb in Paris. Police linked Coulibaly to a shooting that severely wounded a jogger on January 7. (Sources: Daily Mail, Guardian, CNN, L’Obs, Guardian, Guardian)
Coulibaly was a convicted armed robber and drug dealer whose arrest history dated back to 2001. He was a convert to Islam and a suspected Islamist who purportedly radicalized in prison, where he converted to Islam and met Charlie Hebdo attacker Chérif Kouachi at some point between 2005 and 2006. Kouachi and Coulibaly shared a mentor: Islamist prisoner Djamel Beghal, a terrorist convicted of plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Paris. Like Kouachi, Coulibaly was arrested in 2010 for plotting to break former GIA member Smain Ait Ali Belkacem out of prison. (Sources: Daily Mail, Guardian, CNN, L’Obs, Guardian, Guardian)
On January 9, French armed forces attempted a rescue mission, storming the kosher supermarket and killing Amédy Coulibaly. Coulibaly’s widow, Hayat Boumedienne, is the second suspect in the kosher supermarket attack. Boumedienne reportedly fled to Syria. Five years after the attacks, French authorities sought to prosecute Boumedienne and 13 other accused accomplices of the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly. Three of the accused—Boumedienne and Mohamed and Mehdi Belhoucine—had previously fled to Syria. Unconfirmed reports claim Boumedienne was previously killed in a bombing campaign by coalition forces to defeat ISIS in Syria. French authorities arrested 11 others accused of facilitating the attacks, from securing an apartment to hide in to procuring weapons. The defendants argued they were only tangentially involved at best and did not know details of the attacks. (Sources: Daily Mail, Guardian, CNN, L’Obs, Guardian, Guardian, Barrons, BBC News, Reuters, New York Times, International Business Times, Associated Press)
On March 31, 2020, France pushed back the trial given confinement rules due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The trial began on September 2, 2020. On December 8, 2020, France’s anti-terror prosecutors called for the defendants to be given long jail terms, including a life sentence for Ali Riza Polat, the main defendant and Coulibaly’s alleged second-in-command. The prosecutors also asked that Boumedienne be given a 30-year sentence, while Mohamed Belhoucine be given a life sentence and his brother, Mehdi, should serve a 20-year sentence. Prosecutors requested that the 11 other defendants should be sentenced with prison terms of 13 to 20 years. On December 16, 2020, a French court found all 14 defendants guilty of criminal conspiracy or terrorist complicity in the January 2015 attacks. Boumedienne was sentenced in absentia to 30 years in prison. Mohamed Belhoucine received a life sentence in absentia. Mehdi Belhoucine was not sentenced because of what the court claimed to be overwhelming evidence that he was dead. Polat also received a 30-year sentence for an “essential role” in the attack but intended to appeal. (Sources: Associated Press, Barrons, BBC News, Reuters, New York Times)
Prior to the start of the trial on September 2, Charlie Hebdo republished the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad that led to the January 2015 attacks. According to Charlie Hebdo editors, the caricatures would serve as “pieces of evidence” to readers and citizens, claiming not republishing the cartoons would be an infringement on free speech. On September 25, 2020, Zaher Hassan Mahmood, a Pakistani national, stabbed and injured two employees of a documentary production company located on Rue Nicolas Appert, the same street where Charlie Hebdo’s office was located during the January 7, 2015, shooting. French police quickly arrested the suspect who claimed he sought to set fire to the Charlie Hebdo offices for republishing the cartoons. According to people associated with the suspect, Mahmood repeatedly watched videos of the founder of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan who organized a series of demonstrations in Pakistan following the republication of the cartoons. Mahmood is charged with attempted murder in relation with a terrorist enterprise. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, Voice of America, CNN, New York Times, New York Times, Associated Press)
History of Violent Islamist Groups in France
From 1994 to 1996, France was the victim of a series of attacks by the Algerian-based Armed Islamic Group (GIA). In December 1994, the GIA hijacked a French airplane in Algeria, allegedly with the intention of crashing the aircraft into the Eiffel Tower or blowing it up over Paris. Through 1995 and 1996, the GIA carried out a series of bombings in France that in total killed 16 and wounded over 300. These bombings mainly targeted France’s transit infrastructure, including the Paris metro and rail system, though one car bomb was set off near a Jewish school, wounding 14. (Sources: New York Times, Le Figaro, New York Times)
Violent Islamist ‘Lone Wolf’ Operations
France has been the victim of a series of lone wolf attacks in recent years. The attacks include:
- November 2011: Charlie Hebdo’s offices are firebombed, although no one is injured.
- March 2012: Over the course of 11 days, French-born Mohammed Merah goes on a shooting spree in Montauban and Toulouse in southern France, killing seven and injuring five.
- May 2013: A convert to Islam stabs French soldier Cedric Cordiez.
- May 2014: French-born jihadist Mehdi Nemmouche kills four at the Jewish Museum in Brussels.
- January 2015: On January 7, Cherif and Said Kouachi launch a deadly assault on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 12 in the name of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In the days following the attack, gunman Amedy Coulibaly goes on a shooting rampage, killing a policewoman before taking and killing hostages at a kosher supermarket in the name of ISIS.
- June 2015: On June 26 a man, believed to be suspect Yassine Salhi, drives into an American-owned gas factory in southeastern France. He throws gas canisters in the yard outside, and decapitates a man (Salhi’s boss), covering the victim’s head in the Muslim declaration of faith, “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” A flag emblazoned with Islamist inscriptions is found at the site of the attack.
- August 2015: On August 21 a man, believed to be suspect Ayoub El Khazzani, boards a Thalys train from Amsterdam to France armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, pistol, ammunition, and a box cutter. Two U.S. servicemen and two Europeans observe the suspect preparing to attack and intervene, preventing the suspect from inflicting what then French President Francois Hollande said could have been “a true carnage.” El Kahzani was kept on an international watch list and had reportedly traveled to Syria in 2014. (Sources: Telegraph, New York Times)
- January 2016: On January 11, a Turkish-Kurd teenager attacks a Jewish teacher with a machete in Marseille, allegedly in the name of ISIS.
- June 2016: On June 13, convicted terrorist Larossi Abballa stabs two married police officers in their home in Magnanville in an attack claimed by ISIS. Abballa holds the couple’s three-year-old son hostage and live streams the murder of his parents to Facebook before police storm the home and rescue the child. (Source: NBC News)
- July 14, 2016: Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian-born resident of Nice, drives a large white truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day on the French Riviera city of Nice, killing 86 people and wounding more than 430 others. The armed assailant drives 2 kilometers into a crowd on Nice’s promenade before he is neutralized by police during a standoff. ISIS claims responsibility for the attack through the Amaq News Agency on July 16. (Sources: Guardian, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal)
- July 26, 2016: Two assailants—19-year-old French citizens Abdel-Malik Nabil Petitjean and Adel Kermiche—storm the Saint-Etienne parish church in Normandy, slaying an elderly priest with a blade and taking five people hostage before being shot dead by police. ISIS’s Amaq News Agency claims that the teenagers pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi before carrying out the attack. (Sources: Reuters, New York Times, NBC News, Reuters)
- February 3, 2017: A man wielding a machete yells “Allahu Akbar” and lunges at police and soldiers outside the Louvre in Paris. A French soldier shoots at the alleged assailant, seriously wounding him. No one is killed. (Source: Reuters, Independent)
- April 20, 2017: A gunman—named by prosecutors as French national Karim Cheurfi— opens fire on policemen at the Champs-Élysées street in Paris, killing a police officer and critically wounding two others before being shot dead. ISIS claims responsibility for the attack, saying it was carried out by one of its soldiers. (Sources: France24, CNN, TIME, Independent, Telegraph)
- June 19, 2017: An armed assailant rams his vehicle at a police car at the Champs-Élysées street in Paris, seriously injuring himself but leaving no other casualties. (Source: Telegraph, The Local)
- August 23, 2018: A man with mental health issues stabs his sister and mother to death in the Paris suburb of Trappes. Police shoot and kill the assailant, who was known to police for advocating terrorism. French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb describes the man as “unstable” rather than someone who could follow orders from ISIS. ISIS claims responsibility for the attack but provides no evidence. (Sources: Reuters, WHAS11, Telegraph)
- August 31, 2019: A knife attack at a subway stop near Lyon, France kills one person and wounds eight others. The motive for the attack is unknown. The suspected attacker is a 33-year-old asylum seeker. (Source: CNN)
- October 3, 2019: Mickaël Harpon stabs and kills four officers and wounds another at the central police headquarters in Paris. Harpon was later shot dead by police. Police sources said the assailant was “in conflict” with his superiors. (Sources: BBC News, CNN, Telegraph, Wall Street Journal)
- February 3, 2020: An assailant armed with a knife attacks officers inside a police barracks in Dieuze, eastern France. Police immediately shoot and wound the attacker, Matthias R. According to reports, Matthias made a phone call to the police prior to the attack to say he was in the armed forces and was preparing an attack in Dieuze in the name of ISIS. Matthias, a young soldier two months into initial training at the time of the attack, has initiated new questions about how France will guard against radicalized individuals from entering its security services. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters)
(Sources: BBC News, Telegraph, Le Figaro, Guardian, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Guardian, Reuters, New York Times, New York Times, BBC News, New York Times, New York Times)
France has seen a surge of attacks on Jews and Jewish sites, including the January 9, 2015 hostage attack on a kosher supermarket in Paris that killed four Jews. Several victims of Islamist-inspired lone wolf operations were Jewish, including four of the seven victims from the March 2012 shooting spree in southern France. Increasingly, Jewish businesses and sites have become targets of extremist attacks. In addition to the Jewish Museum in Brussels, Jewish synagogues and businesses in France were firebombed, besieged and vandalized, particularly in the summer of 2014, when protests in support of Gaza residents and against Israel escalated into violence. Jews have been increasingly emigrating from France in light of anti-Semitic violence. In May of 2014, a poll revealed that 74 percent of French Jews have considered emigration. (Sources: France 24, Anti-Defamation League, Tablet)
On November 18, 2015, following the November 13 Paris attacks, a Jewish school teacher was reportedly stabbed by three assailants in Marseilles. According to reports, the assailants declared themselves ISIS supporters and used anti-Semitic phrases while attacking the teacher. On August 19, 2016, a 62-year-old Jewish man was stabbed in what appeared to be an Islamist-inspired attack. (Sources: BFMTV, Le Monde, Telegraph)
According to reports published by the interior ministry in February 2019, anti-Semitic incidents have jumped by 74 percent in 2018, to 541, up from 311 in 2017. The problem was starkly underlined on February 19, 2019 with the discovery of more than 90 graves in a Jewish cemetery in eastern France desecrated with swastikas and other abuse. It remains unclear who carried out the attack. Furthermore, on February 16, 2019, a group of around 30 “yellow vest” protesters were filmed harassing Alain Finkielkraut, a well-known writer and son of a Holocaust survivor, as he walked through a Paris neighborhood. Some commentators have blamed the increasingly virulent criticism of Israel coming from France’s far-left, unchecked incitement by fringe Islamist preachers, and the rise of anti-Zionism which has manifested into violent altercations. (Sources: New York Times, Reuters)
Islamic Extremist Attacks Abroad
French nationals have been victims of Islamic-extremist attacks abroad. In 1983, Hezbollah targeted the American and French Marine Barracks, killing 58 French service members and 241 Americans. In 2002, French expatriates were the victims of the bombing of a French naval defense contractor’s bus in Karachi and an attack on a Limburg supertanker off Aden. In recent years, French civilians and service members have been kidnapped and murdered in Afghanistan, Algeria, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and Yemen. (Sources: New York Times, France Diplomatie)
Nationalist and Separatist Extremist Incidents in France
In the past, France has faced attacks from both extreme-right groups like the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) in the 1950s and 1960s, and extreme-left groups such as Action Directe in the 1980s. Separatists, mainly Basque or Corsican ultra-nationalists, have also carried out terrorist attacks on France. (Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica, Le Figaro)