Reader's Digest Asia Pacific
Untold Story of the Bastille Day Attacker
The French Government quickly announced he was a terrorist. The truth is a lot stranger
ON A MONDAY IN JULY 2016, a man phoned a rental agency on the outskirts of Nice, on France’s Mediterranean coast, to inquire about a large cargo truck. He would be moving to Montpellier on July 11, the man said. No trucks were available for that date, and he ended the call.
Some in Nice knew the man as one of the many playboy predators the city seems to beget – black hair slicked back, dress shoes tapering to varnished points, a dark shirt unbuttoned low. He was 31 but preferred older women, both for their erotic openness and, it seems clear, for their money. Those who knew him best knew him to be a cold and brutal man, detached, amused by little save rough sex and gore.
He worked as a delivery man, driving a 12- tonne truck. In late June, though, he had taken several weeks off, and now seemed to those he encountered to be restless and bored, or perhaps under the sway of some deepening madness, as several witnesses have testified. He might have spent his time off work with his three young children, but to see them would have meant arranging things with his estranged wife. Rather, as usual, he pedalled his blue bicycle around the city, took selfies, phoned acquaintances and browsed the internet.
“Terrible deadly accident,” “shocking video not for the faint of heart,” he typed. For months, he had been watching beheadings; he kept a folder filled with photographs of corpses and viscera. The particulars – the identities of the dead, the motives of the killers – were not of any evident interest; any butchery would do.
In the final two weeks of his life, however, the man appeared to develop an interest in Islam, the religion into which he had been born. He played recitations of the Koran in his car; he criticised a friend for listening to music; he began to grow a beard. Online, he researched a massacre at a Florida nightclub, carried out in the name of the Islamic State.
On Tuesday, July 5, the man called the rental agency again. There had been a cancellation; a white Renault Premium, with a total hauling capacity of 19 tonnes, had become available. The man visited the agency with a deposit cheque for 1600 euros. His driver’s licence identified him as Mohamed Salmène Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian living in Nice. “He was very relaxed, very calm and very attentive,” the receptionist said in a deposition.
Lahouaiej Bouhlel returned on July 11 to pick up the truck. When he got back to Nice, he guided the white truck along the Promenade des Anglais, a
busy road and broad walkway that runs along the Mediterranean. He drove along the Promenade at least ten times more in the coming 72 hours.
Since 1880, France has held a national celebration on July 14, the day on which, in 1789, several hundred Frenchmen stormed the Bastille SaintAntoine, a royal fortress and prison in eastern Paris, in the first pitched battle of the French Revolution. The festivities often include military parades, and Lahouaiej Bouhlel photographed himself that day on the Promenade in front of military jeeps and a tank.
At lunchtime he visited his aunt and uncle, who fed him melon and a salad. Their relations were cordial, but his relatives found Lahouaiej Bouhlel to be bizarre and inscrutable. Lately, to his uncle’s confusion, he had been speaking favourably about the jihadists in Syria. “He absolutely wasn’t religious,” the uncle said in a deposition. Lahouaiej Bouhlel told his aunt he would be going to watch the fireworks that night.
At 9.34pm, he drove the white truck towards the water, where the fireworks were to begin at ten. An estimated 30,000 tourists and locals had crowded the beaches and the Promenade. The fireworks ended at 10.20 or so; the streetlights lit up again. The crowds lingered. At 10.32, Lahouaiej Bouhlel pulled onto the Promenade’s wide southern thoroughfare. He rode along with
the traffic for 300 metres or so until, across from the children’s hospital, he drove up onto the broad footpath, filled now with revellers and families. He had turned off his headlights. Soon came the crack of exploding seaside benches, and the dull thud of bodies spinning off the front edges of the truck. Its driver grinned.
Ali Charrihi, 37, watched the fireworks from the footpath with his parents, his wife and three young children, and his cousin Saïd. Ali and his mother, Fatima, had come to Nice in 1984 from a Berber village in Morocco; his father, Ahmed, a factory worker and labourer, had moved to France 11 years earlier. Fatima, who cleaned houses, was a cherubic woman, with small, smiling eyes and round cheeks made to seem all the fuller by the hijab that ringed her face. That night she decided that the family would remain on the Promenade after the fireworks, to walk together.
Ali and his father hurried off with Ali’s two sons to re-park their cars. That left four of them on the Promenade: Fatima, Saïd and Ali’s wife, who was pushing her young daughter in a stroller. The girl asked to be picked up, and Saïd took her in his arms.
There was a loud crack, and Saïd turned to see the bench a few yards beyond them explode into splinters. “Truck!” he shouted. With the young girl in his arms, he leaped from the footpath down to the rocky beach below. The right edge of the truck passed centimetres from Ali’s wife’s face, and tore the empty stroller from her hands. Where Fatima had been, there was nothing.
The footpath was about nine metres wide, and revellers were fairly sparse on this stretch of the Promenade. Lahouaiej Bouhlel cut the wheel to aim at his victims, most of whom failed to see him coming in the shadowy light. In his wake, the crowd began to scream and run from the Promenade.
The first police officer to see the white truck was a military veteran with a clean-shaven head named Christophe*. He called it in at 10.33pm, confusion and urgency in his voice: “We’ve got a truck that’s completely crazy, that just ran people over!” He and two colleagues gave chase in their car, following the truck on the footpath, but in avoiding the bodies, they could not keep pace. They watched helplessly through the windscreen.
Lahouaiej Bouhlel accelerated to perhaps 55 km/h. The crowds were denser in this section. At about the one and a half kilometre mark, at 10.34, he struck Amie, a bubbly 12-year-old from Nice, out with another family for the festivities. At the children’s hospital, she told her parents that some kindly person had washed her face with towels from a beach club. She died within the hour.
The white truck accelerated to perhaps 90 km/h. It flew past a police
barricade in the roadway; behind the metal barriers, the streets were open to pedestrians, and Lahouaiej Bouhlel turned left off the footpath into the crowd. Jean-Pierre Joussemet, a 78-year-old retiree, a small man with white hair and glasses, was pushing his 80-year-old wife in a wheelchair. They lived in an apartment nearby. She was in the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis, and he cared for her, taking her out most days to walk on the Promenade. Their daughter found her later, frightened and confused, at the Gelateria Pinocchio; her wheelchair was in the street, and Jean-Pierre was nowhere to be found.
In addition to the din of the partygoers, there were loud concerts on the footpath, and the white truck thus seemed to arrive smooth and silent. For two kilometres, it drove no stampede, no rush to escape; the truck was rolling forwards far more quickly than the wave of panic it set off.
The crowds grew denser still, and Lahouaiej Bouhlel slowed considerably as he reached the Hôtel Negresco, a pink-domed Belle Époque palace. The rental-agency receptionist, who lived nearby, watched the white truck pass in front of the hotel. “He was slaloming, to hit everything he saw,” she told investigators.
It was 10.35pm. The police had been alerted that a truck was driving down the Promenade. Three officers, standing beside the thick palms in the centre of the road, watched as Lahouaiej Bouhlel approached, swerving sharply. One of the officers later said he assumed the driver was drunk. He trained his gun on the truck as his colleagues yelled, “You, stop!” Lahouaiej Bouhlel looked down on them silently from behind the driver’s-side window and slowed as if to speak. The window shattered suddenly, as Lahouaiej Bouhlel fired three shots and pulled away. The officers chased the white truck on foot.
It did not go far, only an additional 140 m or so. The truck was limping now, its bonnet and bumper gone, a front tyre squealing as it went flat. It came to a stop across from the Palais de la Méditerranée, a massive hotel and casino. For a time, nothing happened. The truck sat idling in the deserted street; the police giving chase half expected to see it explode. A man, a civilian, climbed up to the
THE OFFICER CALLED IT IN AT 10.33: “WE’VE GOT A TRUCK THAT’S COMPLETELY CRAZY, THAT JUST RAN PEOPLE OVER!”
driver’s-side door and tried to throw punches through the window. Lahouaiej Bouhlel pulled his gun on the man, who lost his balance and fell to the ground. Lahouaiej Bouhlel fired at him but missed.
The police shot back, and pockmarks appeared across the windscreen. The killer ducked and shifted to the passenger side of the cabin. An officer approached the truck on this side, raised her pistol above her head, and fired eight rounds into the open window. The shooting stopped; the engine was still running; it was 10.36. Lahouaiej Bouhlel had been shot 16 times.
Christophe, who had been the first to see the white truck, arrived just as the shooting stopped. The street was slippery with blood and brain tissue and scattered with telephones, wallets, keys. White bedsheets from the Palais de la Méditerranée were draped over the bodies. They were 20 nationalities in all, aged two to 92.
An elderly man wandered into the perimeter the police had set up around the truck, and when the officers saw him, he spoke. “I’m not a threat,” he said. “I want to stay with my wife.” He lay down on the pavement beside a white shroud.
A woman came to speak with the police. “But I don’t understand,” she said. “I was walking, I went to see the ocean. Then I heard a sound, and now I can’t find my husband and my child.” In her shock, it was as if she could not see the bodies,
the blood, the white truck riddled with bullet holes.
Two kilometres back down the Promenade, Ali Charrihi knelt at his mother’s side. Fatima’s eyes were closed, her lips pursed in a slight smile. She bled from a gash running from her palm down her wrist; blood pooled behind her head. A young nurse performed CPR. Ali’s father arrived and took his wife’s foot in his hand. The paramedics jolted her three times with a defibrillator before one of them pointed to Fatima’s ear and the blood trickling from it. “I’m sincerely sorry,” the man said. Ali’s father fainted. Fatima, it is believed, was the first to die.
In a local hospital, some days later, members of Jean-Pierre Joussemet’s family were taken to see a patient in a coma who could not be identified. The left side of his body, from his forehead down, was a continuous bruise, grotesquely swollen. The man was Jean-Pierre. He died in August, the 86th and final victim.
“FRANCE IS UNDER THREAT”
President François Hollande was in Avignon when told of the attack. He returned to Paris and the presidential palace, where, shortly before 4am, he gave a televised address. “Horror has once again befallen France,” he said. At the time, 77 had already been declared dead. The identity of the driver of the white truck had not yet been ‘verified’ but his motives were self- evident, Hollande said. He mentioned the November 2015 jihadist attacks in Paris. “Now Nice is the one to be hit,” he said. “The whole of France is under threat from Islamist terrorism.”
By July 15, investigators had confirmed Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s identity, but this did not immediately suggest that he was, as the president had wagered, a jihadist. He had been convicted on assault charges earlier in the year for attacking a man after he had complained that his delivery truck was blocking traffic, announced François Molins, the country’s top prosecutor, and had received a suspended six-month prison sentence. “He is, on the other hand, utterly unknown to the intelligence services.” Lahouaiej Bouhlel seemed to have produced no jihadist propaganda or pledge of allegiance to a terrorist group.
The next morning, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack. Amaq, one of the group’s propaganda agencies, said that the killer had answered the “calls for targeting the nationals of countries in the coalition that is fighting the Islamic State”. At a press conference, however, Molins described Lahouaiej Bouhlel as “an individual at a great remove from religious considerations, who did not practice the Muslim religion, who ate pork, drank alcohol, consumed drugs and had an unbridled sex life.”
Still, he noted that the killer had shown “a recent interest in the radical jihadist movement” and that the
attack looked very much like the sort the Islamic State had encouraged. But he cautioned that “no element of the investigation at this time shows an allegiance by Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel to the terrorist organisation, nor ties to individuals presenting themselves as members of that organisation”.
A VOLATILE AND UNRULY BOY
Lahouaiej Bouhlel was raised in Msaken, Tunisia, one of ten siblings. He was a volatile and unruly boy, hitting other children, breaking doors at home. He obsessed over his appearance, and began lifting weights as an adolescent. “I am ugly,” he told a psychiatrist at 19, in 2004, according to a report in the New York Times. “I’ve got to build myself up.”
The doctor prescribed an antidepressant, an anxiolytic, and Haldol, an antipsychotic often prescribed to treat schizophrenia and aggression. “There were the beginnings of a psychosis,” the psychiatrist told the Times. A good student, he would have liked to go abroad to university; his father, a livestock trader and property owner who was reputed to be prosperous but miserly, refused to send him.
Marriage was his path out. Hajer Khalfallah, a practicing Muslim who wore a hijab, had been born in Msaken but was raised in Nice and held French citizenship; she was his first cousin. They married in 2006, when she was 22 and he was 21. “Our marriage was happy at the start,” Khalfallah told police. They moved to a housing project in the northern part of Nice. She called him Momo. Lahouaiej Bouhlel continued to lift weights, and he asked his wife to take pictures of his body, to track his “progress”. “It was always him first,” she said. “He paid a lot of attention to himself.”
In 2010, he went to work for a beverage-distribution company as a delivery driver. After about six months, clients began to complain about his behaviour. “He tended to strut around, to show off,” one of his managers said. After a company party in late 2011, there were complaints that Lahouaiej Bouhlel had made inappropriate advances to several waitresses and waiters. He was fired; he had to be escorted off the premises by police.
His marriage began to deteriorate. He complained about his wife’s cooking and cleaning, and believed she spent too much time with her mother. Her interest in sex was not suitably strong, in his estimation. He began to hit her. On several occasions, she called her husband’s friend Roger* and asked him to intervene. Roger, a gay man in his 70s, would scold his friend, who would inevitably respond, “You’re right.”
Roger and Lahouaiej Bouhlel had met at a gym in Nice. Roger found him to be “charming” and “exceptionally kind”. They bonded over a shared distaste for Maghrébins, or North African Arabs. “He loved France, he loved the
French, and he hated the Arabs,” Roger told investigators.
Roger, too, called him Momo; he called Roger “dear friend”. Many of Roger’s friends, like many of those who knew Lahouaiej Bouhlel, assumed the two men were lovers. “He wasn’t interested in men,” Roger said. “He liked women too much.”
Eventually, Lahouaiej Bouhlel and his wife separated and began divorce proceedings. He moved to a small apartment in the east of the city. In 2012, Lahouaiej Bouhlel began taking lessons in salsa and bachata dance, as often as four nights a week. He was said to have slept with several of his female classmates.
In 2015, jihadists murdered 12 staff members of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper based in Paris, for publishing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. Roger received a message from his friend: Je suis Charlie, the slogan of support for the victims. Roger believed Lahouaiej Bouhlel hadn’t the faintest idea what Charlie Hebdo had done to so anger the jihadists. “That was all over his head,” he told investigators.
Lahouaiej Bouhlel had seemed sad before the attack, Roger suggested, perhaps depressed. He allowed for the possibility that his friend had indeed been indoctrinated, but this would have had to have occurred “only at the very end,” he said, and invisibly. Roger mentioned Andreas Lubitz, the pilot who in 2015 killed himself and 149 other people when he deliberately crashed Germanwings Flight 9525 into the mountains north of Nice. “Momo did the same thing,” he suggested. “He wanted, in death, for people to talk about him.”
In addition to Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s lifeless body and a 7.65-mm pistol, the police found two plastic imitation assault rif les – an M16 and an AK- 47 – a plastic imitation Beretta handgun, and an inactive grenade in the cabin of the white truck. What he intended to do with these props is hardly clear.
Also with his body was a phone, which displayed a text message he’d sent moments before steering onto the Promenade. “Salam Ramzy,” it began. “The pistol that you gave me yesterday is great, so let’s have five more from where your buddy lives, 7 Rue Miollis on the fifth f loor. It’s for Chokri and his friends.”
“SALAM RAMZY,” THE MESSAGE BEGAN. “THE PISTOL THAT YOU GAVE ME YESTERDAY IS GREAT, SO LET’S HAVE FIVE MORE”
Oddly, Lahouaiej Bouhlel had several hours earlier made a voice recording on his phone that contained almost identical language. The recording placed the gun purchase on “the day before yesterday”: police say this was the actual day on which Lahouaiej Bouhlel had gone to an apartment at 7 Rue Miollis and, with the assistance of Ramzi Arefa, his drug dealer, purchased a gun. The recording also noted ominously that “Chokri and his friends” were “ready for next month”, and that they were “now at Walid’s”.
On July 15, on the advice of his lawyer, Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s friend Mohamed Oualid Ghraieb, widely known as Walid, contacted the police, offering his assistance and hoping to make clear his horror at what his friend had done. He was originally from Tunisia, he said in a deposition, and for the past seven years had worked as a receptionist at a small hotel in Nice. He and Lahouaiej Bouhlel had met more than a decade earlier, at a gym in Tunisia, and had seen each other again by chance in 2009, at a gym in Nice.
The police asked questions about Islam, and Ghraieb explained that he considered himself to be a Muslim but that he did not practice. He was asked about the religious practices of his friends in Nice. “I don’t have any friends here,” Ghraieb said. “My life is with my wife and my stepdaughter, my dogs. I don’t spend time with Maghrébins, because I don’t like them.”
The police placed Ghraieb under arrest. “I wanted to show my good faith by coming to see you to offer my help,” he protested. He called Lahouaiej Bouhlel “a coward, a thug, a murderer,” and a “bastard,” and added that he condemned his “abominable act”.
Over the following days, Ghraieb insisted that he and Lahouaiej Bouhlel were not close. When he was told that their telephones had been in contact 1278 times over the preceding 12 months, he conceded that they would exchange “dumb messages” and calls, “but there was nothing special in these calls”. Ghraieb also admitted that he’d ridden in the white truck after Lahouaiej Bouhlel had picked it up at the rental agency, but said he had gotten scared when his friend began driving erratically. “I told him I wanted to get out, and he finally stopped. But he made fun of me, and told me, ‘You’re afraid of dying!’ and laughed.”
In the days preceding the attack, Lahouaiej Bouhlel had sent cryptic text messages to various friends and acquaintances, including Ghraieb. On July 5, Lahouaiej Bouhlel reserved a small moving truck from a rental agency called ADA; that morning, he sent Ghraieb a message that read, “Towards ADA.” (He later cancelled the ADA rental.) Two days later, Lahouaiej Bouhlel appears to have sent Ghraieb two more text messages, reading “18.104.22.168” and “15.8.” The first was apparently a garbled reference to July 14; the second seemed to refer to August
15, the date of another major public party on the Promenade.
The police also questioned Ghraieb about two text messages sent from his phone to Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s on January 10, 2015. Charlie Hebdo had been attacked three days before. “I’m not Charlie … may God do even worse to them.” The second message read: “Oh yes comrade, these people who insult our dear prophet are devils, and see how God sent soldiers of Allah to finish them off!!”
Investigators concluded that the ‘Chokri’ mentioned in Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s final message was likely Chokri Chafroud. Like Ghraieb, Chafroud had received a message from Lahouaiej Bouhlel mentioning “ADA”. There were numerous other strange messages. On the morning of July 13, Lahouaiej Bouhlel wrote, “I found you housing with a guy”, and later that day, “All set”. On July 14, two hours before the killings, he wrote, “I’m on the Prom, come, I’ll give you … It’s for … 159.” After his arrest, Chafroud told police he hadn’t understood the messages and did not respond.
Initially, he claimed Lahouaiej Bouhlel was simply an ‘acquaintance’. When confronted with evidence – including a picture of Chafroud in the background image on Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s phone – he admitted that he had lied. “But I didn’t know anything about his plans,” he said. In April, Chafroud had sent Lahouaiej Bouhlel a Facebook
message that seemed to prefigure the attack. “Load the truck,” it read. “Put 2000 tonnes of iron in it … cut the brakes my friend, and I watch.” Chafroud admitted to writing the message but could provide no credible explanation as to why. “I can’t deny having said this,” he said, “but I didn’t want him to kill anyone, and I didn’t think he’d do what he did.”
On July 21, Molins, the prosecutor, announced the indictment of Ghraieb, Chafroud, Ramzi Arefa and two Albanians who had allegedly provided the gun used by Lahouaiej Bouhlel; terror charges were brought against all five. Molins noted in particular a photograph on Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s telephone taken five and a half hours before the attack. The photograph showed a sheet of paper listing ten handwritten telephone numbers, three of them grouped with the name ‘Ramzi’, Molins announced, and five with the name ‘Chokri’.
The paper sketched the structure of an apparent criminal conspiracy; several similar sheets of paper were found at Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s apartment, bearing further groups of names, numbers and addresses.
It seemed the miraculous good fortune of the police that all of this evidence had fallen into their hands. Lahouaiej Bouhlel had made little effort to protect his alleged co-conspirators; on the contrary, he effectively delivered them to the authorities.
In police custody, the men began to wonder aloud if Lahouaiej Bouhlel had sought to frame them. “From the outset, I’ve been saying I’m a victim here,” Ghraieb said. Arefa cried and banged his head against the wall. Chafroud said, “I think something was wrong with [Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s] head and he inserted me into all of this.” Lahouaiej Bouhlel had taken photographs of another man, Hamdi Zagar, in front of the white truck. “I didn’t understand why he wanted pictures of me,” Zagar told investigators. “Afterwards, I understood that he wanted to frame me.” Zagar was charged several days after the others.
TO SUGGEST THAT the attack in Nice may have been born of an impulse more ambiguous than fanatical belief is not to diminish the threat that jihadism poses to France. Only days after the Nice attack, two 19 year olds burst into a church in Normandy during morning Mass, slit the throat of an 85-year-old priest, and shouted, “Allahu Akbar” as they left. The following day, the Islamic State released a video that the young men had recorded before their attack, in which they pledged allegiance to the caliphate.
The authorities might reasonably have expected to discover that Lahouaiej Bouhlel had recorded a similar video. Instead, the most notable documents Lahouaiej Bouhlel left behind were those that methodically implicated various friends and acquaintances as his co-conspirators. “There
is nothing, at this stage of the investigation, that shows a link to Syria,” a spokeswoman for François Molins said last year.
Yet from the beginning, French politicians have fashioned their assumptions about Lahouaiej Bouhlel into pronouncements of fact. “They’re at war with us, and we’re at war with the terrorists,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared on July 15. “Why are they attacking France?” he asked. “Because it’s the country of human rights, of liberté, of égalité, of fraternité.”
Perhaps the government’s bombast consoled the populace, suggesting that the 86 dead were not the victims of a crime without discernible meaning but, rather, martyrs in a struggle for good. Yet there is danger in this rhetoric, too. To endorse the notion of civilisational clash is to accept the premise upon which the Islamic State is fighting, legitimating the absurd claim that the group poses an existential threat to France and the West.
In the meantime, it is quite probable that the most constructive counterterror policy to come out of Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s attack had nothing at all to do with France’s international stature, or with jihadism, or even with the police and the intelligence services. In time for the festivities this summer, the city of Nice will have completed the installation of a guardrail along the length of the Promenade and bollards across the footpath, unobtrusive but sturdy enough to stop a truck.