Truck at­tacker rad­i­cal­ized quickly, French of­fi­cials say

The Hamilton Spectator - - CANADA & WORLD - COLLEEN BARRY AND ANGELA CHARLTON

There is mount­ing ev­i­dence that Mo­hamed La­houaiej Bouh­lel, the Tu­nisian-born truck driver re­spon­si­ble for the deadly car­nage in Nice last week, had re­cently ab­sorbed ex­trem­ist ideas and had be­come rad­i­cal­ized, French author­i­ties said Sun­day.

The im­age of a re­li­gious ex­trem­ist is at odds with the por­trait that neigh­bours and fam­ily mem­bers ini­tially painted of a man who ig­nored even the most ba­sic rules of Is­lam, eat­ing pork, drink­ing al­co­hol and shun­ning the mosque.

Many of those who knew him said in the days af­ter Thurs­day’s Bastille Day at­tack that Bouh­lel was a dif­fi­cult person, de­scrib­ing him var­i­ously as aloof and hos­tile, even vi­o­lent at times. In March, he re­ceived a sus­pended sen­tence for a road­rage in­ci­dent — not enough to put him on the radar of France’s se­cu­rity ser­vices.

But of­fi­cials said Sun­day that the 31year-old had ap­par­ently un­der­gone a rapid con­ver­sion to rad­i­cal Is­lam and care­fully planned the at­tack that claimed the lives of at least 84 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 10 chil­dren, rais­ing the ques­tion: how did a de­liv­ery driver go from petty crime to car­ry­ing out an act of mass slaugh­ter in the space of a few months?

Hours af­ter the Is­lamic State group claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the at­tack Satur­day, Prime Min­is­ter Manuel Valls said author­i­ties “now know that the killer rad­i­cal­ized very quickly.”

Nei­ther ISIL nor the French govern­ment have pro­vided tan­gi­ble ev­i­dence of a link be­tween the group and Bouh­lel. But Valls told the news­pa­per the Jour­nal du Di­manche in an in­ter­view Sun­day that the ex­trem­ist group “is en­cour­ag­ing in­di­vid­u­als un­known to our ser­vices to stage at­tacks.”

“That is without a doubt the case in the Nice at­tack,” said Valls, warn­ing that “terrorism will be part of our daily lives for a long time.”

While author­i­ties have said lit­tle pub­licly about their in­ves­ti­ga­tion, a French se­cu­rity of­fi­cial told The As­so­ci­ated Press on Sun­day that Bouh­lel sold his car just be­fore the at­tack, which ended only when he was killed by po­lice.

Bouh­lel rented the re­frig­er­ated truck on July 11, pur­chased a pis­tol and was seen on closed-cir­cuit TV footage vis­it­ing the prom­e­nade in the fol­low­ing days, ac­cord­ing to the se­cu­rity of­fi­cial, who wasn’t au­tho­rized to be pub­licly named speak­ing about an on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

On July 14, France’s na­tional day, Bouh­lel sent text mes­sages to peo­ple who may have been ac­com­plices, the of­fi­cial said. One of those who re­ceived text mes­sages was among eight peo­ple taken into cus­tody af­ter the at­tack. The of­fi­cial wouldn’t com­ment on the con­tent of the text mes­sages or con­firm re­ports that they in­cluded a re­quest for more weapons.

At least two of the three peo­ple de­tained Sun­day are sus­pected of help­ing Bouh­lel ob­tain the pis­tol found in the truck, the of­fi­cial said.

Most of those taken in for ques­tion­ing, in­clud­ing Bouh­lel’s es­tranged wife, who has since been re­leased, de­scribed him as vi­o­lent and un­sta­ble. While they all said he had long been in­dif­fer­ent to reli­gion, some de­scribed a re­cent and very rapid con­ver­sion to rad­i­cal Is­lam.

Ex­perts say Bouh­lel would have moved in an en­vi­ron­ment where he would have been ex­posed to the ex­trem­ist ide­ol­ogy preached by the Is­lamic State group and oth­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to Yas­mina Touaibia, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Nice, the re­gion is home to more than a dozen in­for­mal mosques known to spread rad­i­cal and fun­da­men­tal­ist ideas.

A lawyer for one of those de­tained by po­lice said his client hadn’t rec­og­nized any signs of rad­i­cal­ism in Bouh­lel.

Jean-Pascal Padovani said his client had known Bouh­lel ca­su­ally and con­sumed drugs with him in re­cent months. “(Bouh­lel) wasn’t re­ally a sol­dier of God who went to Syria and came back to France,” Padovani said. “He was a de­pressed person who used terrorism to jus­tify this act.”

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