Nice on French counter-terrorism radars long before deadly truck attack
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The latest terror attack to hit France took place in a city where the threat of jihadist blowback has long been the focus of national and local authorities, raising doubts about the ability to stop extremists bent on death and destruction.
Tragedy once again struck France on Thursday evening, this time in Nice, where a Tunisian citizen living legally in the city drove a truck through a large crowd celebrating Bastille Day – the country’s national holiday – killing at least 84 people and injuring around a dozen more.
The massacre once again shocked France, which is still reeling from a series of terror attacks last year, but nonetheless happened in a place that was better prepared than most for such a scenario.
Nice is known as a holiday hub popular with both French and international tourists. But just two years ago the affluent city on the French Riviera avoided an earlier attack and has gradually gained the unhappy reputation as a breeding ground for would-be jihadists.
Foiled bomb plot
There is little information about terror attacks that have been foiled by French security and intelligence agencies, but one exception is a bomb plot targeting Nice’s carnival in 2014.
A document by the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), France’s domestic intelligence agency, says Ibrahim Boudina, a young Frenchman born in Algeria, planned to detonate bombs during the event that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Boudina was arrested near Cannes in February 2014, just two days before the start of the Nice festivities and less than two months after returning to Europe from Syria. He had left for the war-torn country in 2012 with a friend, where French investigators believe he received bomb-making training.
He returned home via Greece, and first spent time in Nice, where police put him under surveillance before his eventual arrest.
Top jihadist recruiter
Nice once again made headlines in connection with radical Islam in late 2014, when it was reported that an entire family, 11 people in all, had left there for Syria. The family’s oldest son had reportedly been on intelligence radars for two years due to his radical religious views.
More recently, Nice has been linked to one of France’s most prominent jihadists, Omar Diaby, whose Senegalese family moved to Nice when he was five years old.
Diaby, better known as Oman Omsen, is known in counter-terrorism circles as one of the most prolific recruiters of foreign fighters in Syria, boasting of recruiting over 80 French citizens to the jihadist cause.
He was reportedly killed in August 2015, but in a widely viewed documentary aired on French television in June 2016 he revealed he had staged his own death to avert detection while getting medical attention outside Syria.
A member of the Al Nusra jihadist group, he has expressed differences with the more prominent Islamic State (IS) group, but in the documentary voiced approval for the January and November 2015 attacks in and around Paris.
He said he was currently at the head of a katiba, or combat group, that included 50 men, adding that around 15 of his fighters were, like him, natives of Nice.
The Mediterranean resort city has seen a significant number of its young men join the ranks of terror organisations waging war in the Middle East.
While not specific to Nice, the phenomenon appears to have affected its poor neighbourhoods disproportionally in comparison to other towns and cities across France, prompting national and local officials to take action.
Former Nice mayor Christian Estrosi built a reputation for being tough on crime and made the city one of the most advanced in France in terms of security. Nice has the highest proportion of surveillance cameras in all of France, with one for every 360 residents, and the country’s biggest police force for its size, with 380 full-time officers.
In addition to the man power, it also allows its municipal police to carry firearms -- which is rare in the rest of France -- as well as knives and taser guns.
In terms of prevention, the city counts its own team of lawyers, psychologists and social workers who aim to dissuade young people from leaving the country to wage jihad abroad. Nice also has one of France’s few existing programmes for helping returning jihadists to re-integrate into society.
Yet the city’s sophisticated security apparatus has done little to curb crime in recent years. Nice still has some of the country’s worst statistics for robberies and violent assaults. And on Thursday evening, for all its preparations, the city failed to prevent the carnage wrought by a man who turned a truck into a deadly weapon.