The Nice attacker's road to terror
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Investigations into the truck attack that killed 84 in Nice have shown that the terrorist had recently developped an interest in radical Islam. From petty crime to his murderous attack, here is the profile of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel.
Paris Prosecutor François Molins, who oversees terrorism investigations, confirmed on Monday that the Nice truck attack has been clearly premeditated, with several reconnaissance visits to the beachfront. Molins described a quick radicalisation of a man who in the past hadn't been at all religious. He said a review of Bouhlel's computer and phone showed online searches relating to the Islamic State (IS) group, other jihadist groups and violent images.
“If there are no elements in the investigation to suggest at this stage an allegiance to Islamic State nor links with individuals from the group ... he (Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel) showed a certain recent interest in radical jihadist movements,” Molins said.
Bouhlel’s life is unfolding piece by piece, from his childhood in Tunisia to his descent into violence, radicalisation and terrorism.
Bodybuilding, drugs and dancing
His childhood in Tunisia, his descent into violence, his divorce, his alleged radicalization…Bouhlel’s life is unfolding piece by piece.
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was born in Tunisia in January, 1985. He spent his childhood in the small town of Msaken, located a short distance south of Sousse.
Along with his brothers and sisters, he came from a respected family.
When he was in his 20s Bouhlel married a Franco-Tunisian cousin who also hailed from Msaken. In 2008 the couple moved into a 12th floor apartment in the heart of the Bateco housing project, north of Nice. The following year Bouhlel received his ‘Carte de Séjour’ residency visa, valid for 10 years.
In short time the couple had three children and Bouhlel led a life that showed little proof of religiosity. He never set foot in his neighborhood mosque, and he drank beer and ate pork, according to people who knew him. He smoked pot and tried to pick up women. He was repeatedly reported to authorities for acts of domestic violence. When he launched the attack in Nice, he had multiple restraining orders against him and was in the middle of divorce proceedings.
Residents of Bateco who knew Bouhlel describe a violent alcoholic on the edge of madness. “His wife had asked for a divorce after a violent argument,” one neighbor who asked not to be identified told AFP. “He defecated everywhere, he cut up his daughter’s teddy bear and slashed the mattress. “
On one occasion Bouhlel asked a neighbor to come over to confirm that his wife hadn’t done the dishes. The building concierge, who knew the couple, said he was “very violent with his wife”, who was described as “discreet”, “shy” and “nice”.
Eventually Bouhlel, who worked as a delivery driver, separated from his wife. He left the family home and moved to the working class neighborhood east of Nice. His neighbours there describe him as quiet and arousing suspicion. His only interests were weightlifting, boxing and mixed martial arts. And he loved salsa dancing and women.
The young muscle-bound man maintained his physique, but not his ties with friends and family. He had little contact with his relatives in Tunisia, and eventually fell off the radar. But his family knew he was unstable. His father told reporters that before he had moved to France, Bouhlel had suffered from depression. “From 2002 to 2004, he had problems that caused a nervous breakdown,” AFP reported the father saying. “He would become angry and he shouted... he would break anything he saw in front of him.”
From little delinquent to terrorist
Mouhlel had several brushes with the law for making threats, and for theft and violence, according to Paris Prosecutor François Molins. Last January he attacked a motorist who asked him to move his truck because he was blocking traffic. He exploded, and threw a wooden palette in the driver’s face, fracturing his skull. He was put on parole for two months before being given a six-month suspended sentence. He was a “classic delinquent”, his former lawyer told the newspaper 20 minutes.
But nothing in the case presaged the magnitude of the carnage he wrought on the Promenade des Anglais.
Despite his hot temper, all signs point to a premeditated attack on July 14. On July 11 he went alone to Saint-Laurent-du-Var to rent, in his own name, a 19-tonne refrigerated truck, which he was able to do with his commercial driver’s license. The day before the attack, he sold his car. And on the 12th and 13th of July, he visited the scene of his crime, according to information obtained by Europe 1 and confirmed by sources close to the investigation. And he appeared on surveillance video, driving the truck and carefully observing what was going on around him. The night of the attack, he sent SMS messages about weapons.
A quick radicalization
A few hours after the attack, French authorities suggested that the perpetrator might have ties to a terrorist organization. Two days later the Islamic State group took credit for the operation, calling Bouhlel a "soldier of the Islamic State". And yet he had shown no visible signs of radicalization.
Did Bouhlel manage to fool everyone around him and hide his terrorist leanings? His former lawyer is dubious. “Honestly, I didn’t find him to be an individual of great intelligence,” he said. “I don’t think he would have been able to manipulate and deceive that many people. I had more of the impression that he was a blundering offender, somewhat violent and impulsive.”
According to France’s Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, the Tunisian “seemed to have been radicalized very quickly”.
“This is a new type of attack,” Cazeneuve said on Sunday. “We are now confronted with individuals that are sensitive to the message of ISIS (Islamic State group) and are committed to extremely violent actions without necessarily being trained by them.”