Almost 24 hours after the shocking attack in Nice, French investigators are trying to determine if the attacker, identified as Tunisian, was acting alone.
Authorities identified the attacker as 31-year-old Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel who ploughed a truck into crowds watching a fireworks display on Bastille Day on Thursday night before being shot dead. In what turned out to be the third worst attack in France in recent times, 84 people died while more than 200 were injured. President Francois Hollande said around 50 people were critically injured, battling “between life and death”.
Investigators, who are building up a picture of the attacker, say Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was a petty criminal who had no known terrorist links. He however had been convicted in a case of road rage this March.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s ex-wife was taken into custody as more details emerged about him. Police found fake weapons and explosives in the truck that he used to attack the crowds.
Though the Islamic State (IS) didn’t claim responsibility, French authorities are looking to see if Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had any ties to Islamic militant groups.
Hollande, who said the attack was “terrorist in nature”, said the country would “step up” military action against IS targets in Syria and Iraq.
“We will continue striking those who attack us on our own soil,” he said.
IS has repeatedly singled out France as a prime target for its military action against the group in Iraq and Syria, and hundreds of jihadists have left France to fight in its ranks.
In November last year, near-simultaneous attacks had been carried out in Paris, targeting a stadium, a theatre and restaurants, killing 147 people. Authorities carried out search operations through France and its neighbouring countries in a bid to capture those responsible for the attacks, and a state of emergency was imposed.
Following Thursday’s attack, Hollande said the imposition was being extended for three months instead of concluding this month as was planned.
Lahouaiej-Bouhlel’s victims included at least 10 children and teenagers among the dead as well as many foreigners who had come to see the pyrotechnic show.
Though no apparent link terrorist links surfaced in preliminary investigations, Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said they would try to determine whether Lahouaiej-Bouhlel benefited from accomplices, and if he had any ties to Islamist terrorist organizations even though he was “completely unknown” to the intelligence services.
“Although yesterday’s attack has not been claimed, this sort of thing fits in perfectly with calls for murder from such terrorist organisations,” he said.
Dramatic video footage showed police surrounding the heavily damaged truck and firing through the windscreen to kill the attacker.
In a Facebook video, witness Tarubi Wahid Mosta recounted the horror on the promenade.
“I almost stepped on a corpse, it was horrible. It looked like a battlefield,” he said.
World leaders rushed to condemn the bloodshed, with US President Barack Obama blasting “what appears to be a horrific terrorist attack” and the UN Security Council held a minute’s silence. Two US citizens were among the dead.
The massacre again prompted questions as to why France is such a persistent target for attacks and what can be done to prevent such a unsophisticated assault.
Hollande’s political opponents however attempted to draw more blood, questioning how such a tragedy could strike France again, with French presidential contender Alain Juppe saying it could have been avoided if “all measures” had been taken.