The Islamic State said on Saturday that a Tunisian man who barrelled his truck into a crowd in the French resort city of Nice was a “soldier” of the group, though the veracity of the claim couldn’t immediately be determined.
Interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve hinted that 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel may have had a last-minute adoption of a more extremist worldview. He also confirmed the attacker “had not been known to the intelligence services because he did not stand out... by being linked with radical Islamic ideology”.
“It seems he was radicalised very quickly,” Cazeneuve said following a ministerial meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris.
Information so far had suggested Bouhlel was a troubled, angry man with little interest in the ultra-puritanical brand of Islam. Bouhlel’s neighbours said he had a tense personality and was “frightening” to some extent.
Eighty-four people, including 10 children and teenagers, were killed and 200 were wounded when Bouhlel slammed his 19-tonne truck into a throng of spectators on Nice’s seaside boulevard on Friday as the traditional July 14 national day fireworks celebration was ending.
Bouhlel was born in Msaken of Tunisia, but moved to France years ago and was living in the country legally, working as a delivery driver.
He had a series of run-ins with the law for threatening behaviour, violence and theft over the past six years. In March, he was given a six-month suspended sentence by a Nice court for a road-rage incident.
At an apartment bloc in the Quartier des Abattoirs, on the outskirts of Nice, neighbours described the father of three as a volatile man, prone to drinking and womanizing, and in the process of divorcing his wife.
His father said Bouhlel had violent episodes during which “he broke everything he found around him”.
“From 2002 to 2004, he had problems that caused a nervous breakdown. He would become angry and he shouted... he would break anything he saw in front of him,” Mohamed Mondher Lahouaiej Bouhlel told BFM television.
“Each time he had a crisis, we took him to the doctor who gave him medication,” he said.
“What I know is that he didn’t pray, he didn’t go to the mosque, he had no ties to religion,” said the father, noting that Bouhlel didn’t respect the Islamic fasting rituals during the month of Ramzan.
And as forensic scientists, backed by armed police, searched his apartment in a four-storey block in a working-class neighbourhood of Nice, neighbours said they had little to do with the man, who was often seen drinking beer.
They portrayed him as a solitary figure who rarely spoke and did not even return greetings when their paths crossed.
Only one neighbour said she had any concerns about him, describing him as “a good-looking man who kept giving my two daughters the eye”.
Hanan, another neighbour, said: “I would say he was someone who was pleasing to women.”
“But he was frightening. He didn’t have a frightening face, but ... a look. He would stare at the children a lot,” he added, standing in the lobby of the apartment building where Bouhlel lived.