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)
On July 16, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The ISIS-linked Amaq News Agency, citing an unidentified source, stated that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel “was a soldier of the Islamic State,” and that “the operation was done in response to calls to target nations of coalition states fighting the Islamic State.” In response to the attack, France has extended its national state of emergency, repeatedly extending it into 2017. In October 2017, France is scheduled to debate a bill that would make permanent certain elements of France’s national state of emergency. (Sources: Guardian, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Counter Extremism Project, France 24)
November 2015 Paris Attacks
On November 13, 2015, eight assailants attacked sites throughout Paris: the Stade de France, the Bataclan concert hall, and restaurants in central Paris: Le Carillon, Le Petit Cambodge, La Belle Equipe, Cafe Bonne Bière, Comptoir Voltaire, and La Casa Nostra. The death toll was staggering—130 victims and more than 350 wounded, more than 100 of whom were at some point in serious condition. For months, one suspect tied to the attacks—Salah Abdeslam—remained at large. Abdeslam was captured by Belgian police in a raid in March 2016. He was extradited from Belgium to France shortly thereafter and is currently on trial in Paris on charges of murder and terrorist-related charges. (Sources: New York Times, CNN, Guardian, New York Times, CNN, CNN, BBC News)
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attacks, calling them “the first of a storm.”
The November 2015 Paris attacks exposed a plot with international roots, and was later discovered to have been directed by suspected ISIS terror chief Abu Suleyman al-Firansi. At least one suspect, known as “Ahmad al Muhammad,” carried a Syrian passport, believed to be counterfeit, and traveled through Greece; another, Ismaël Omar Mostefaï, was a French ex-convict who was arrested for low-level crimes from 2004 to 2010; his suspected accomplice, French-born Samy Amimour, was the subject of a police wanted order; Foued Mohamed-Aggad had reportedly traveled to Syria in 2013. The local coordinator of the attack was identified as Belgian-born Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is believed to have been under the command of Paris attacks organizer Oussama Atar. A number of the suspects—including Abaaoud, Bataclan assailant Bilal Hadfi, Stade de France assailant Ibrahim Abdelsam, and suspected accomplice Salah Abdeslam—were born in Belgium. At least three of the suspects—Abaaoud, Hadfi, and Aggad—are understood to have spent time in Syria before traveling back to Europe. (Sources: New York Times, CNN, Guardian, New York Times, CNN, CNN, BBC News, Associated Press, ProPublica)
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.” In response to ISIS’s claim of responsibility, former French President Francois Hollande scaled up airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria. Hollande had labeled the attacks “an act of war” and declared a national state of emergency—the first since 2005—which was originally supposed to last for three months, but has since been extended into 2017. 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: Le Figaro, Guardian)
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 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)
Charlie Hebdo Attack
On January 7, 2015, two gunmen—brothers Chérif Kouachi and Said 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 twelve people, including the magazine’s 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 Hebdoattack, 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 Chérif and Said Kouachi 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)
Kosher Supermarket Hostage Attack
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 a 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 a planting a car bomb in Paris. Police have 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 dates back to 2001. He was a convert to Islam and a suspected Islamist who is believed to have been 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 share 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 live-in partner, Hayat Boumedienne, is the second suspect in the kosher supermarket attack. Boumedienne has reportedly fled to Syria. (Sources: Daily Mail, Guardian, CNN, L’Obs, Guardian, Guardian)
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)
(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)
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)