At least 84 people were killed in the French Riviera city of Nice when a man rammed a truck through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day.
And he used an especially ordinary weapon – a delivery truck like the millions on the streets every day throughout the world.
It is not yet known whether it was a politically motivated attack. But whether or not the driver had ties to extremists, the killing shows that such attacks can happen anywhere.
“The nature of these inspired attacks … has broadened the target zone to encompass all public and private spaces,” according to an analysis from The Soufan Group, an organisation of security consultants.
“Just as terror alerts advising the public to be on the lookout for ‘something’ are ineffective and possibly counterproductive, efforts to harden cities against these attacks and assaults are problematic because the venue and method of attacks are limitless.”
Thursday night’s attack was even more indiscriminate than last year’s bloodshed in Paris, which targeted various locations, with many of the victims aged from their 20s to their 40s, out enjoying a celebration.
This time, the target was a crowd of all ages, with a truck to kill and maim anyone in its zigzag path. A hospital in Nice said it treated about 50 victims aged 18 and under, including two children who died. The inclusion of so many children among the victims distinguished this attack from others that targeted adults.
The heavily armed gunmen who attacked in January 2015 chose targets that were more political: the journalists at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and Jews at a kosher supermarket.
The November 13 gunmen who killed 130 people went after specific symbols of France’s free and easy way of life – the Bataclan concert hall, Paris restaurants and cafes and the national stadium.
In a statement claiming responsibility, the Islamic state group called it an attack on “the capital of prostitution and obscenity.”
While France’s July 14 national holiday appears to have been chosen for its symbolism, the victims seemed to have been random. The driver didn’t differentiate among adults and children, men and women, foreigners or French. That made it an attack on all of humanity.
Such blind hatred adds a new dimension to the terror the French now live with on a daily basis: People of any religion, any background and any age seem to be fair game.
“It’s to hit France that this individual committed this terrorist act,” President Francois Hollande said on Friday.
In September 2014, then-Islamic State spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani referred to “the filthy French,” telling Muslims in the country to attack them in any way they could, including “crush them with your car”. That call was echoed last week in an ISIS video listing all the places where attacks had been carried out and calling on Muslims in France to “attack these infidels however you can.”
Trained on roads
France’s roughly 54 million people who don’t live in the Paris region could, before Thursday, draw some comfort from the fact that last year’s attacks were geographically limited to the capital, the seat of power.
While all of France has been blanketed by the state of emergency in force since November, the threat was most keenly felt in the capital, where troops in camouflage are on regular patrol. The Nice attack, on the balmy Mediterranean coast, utterly punctures the illusion that areas outside of Paris are risk-free. From Europe’s major cities – Madrid, London, Paris, Istanbul, Brussels – mass terror has now spread to quiet provincial areas.
Unlike Paris, Nice isn’t a high-value political target. It is vacation spot on the French Riviera, with a long and illustrious history of offering the best France has to offer in the way of beaches, climate and the art of putting one’s feet up.
The city of palm trees and azure warm waters is where artist Henri Matisse went in 1917 to treat a bout of bronchitis. Wowed by the surroundings and crisp light, he stayed for life, dying in his Nice studio in 1954.
The Rolling Stones recorded chunks of “Exile on Main Street” at Nellcote villa that Keith Richards rented on the outskirts. Lance Armstrong lived in Nice and trained on its roads.
After the attack, people from Calais in the north to Perpignan in the south and from the Atlantic coast to the Alps cannot be 100% sure they are out of harm’s way.
“It’s a new era,” said Thierry Clair, the national secretary for all areas outside Paris for the UNSA police union. “A new era because we are facing people who are kamikazes. … Their aim is to kill a maximum of people.”
Unlike the January and November violence, the Nice attack violated the summer holiday period that the French regard as a sacrosanct escape from the pressures of daily life.
It also came just hours after France marked its Bastille Day national holiday with a traditional display of military might, with hardware and soldiers parading on the Champs-Elysees in Paris and trailing red, white and blue smoke in the skies above.
All that proved useless in protecting the crowd on the seafront Promenade des Anglais from a man with his foot on the gas.
The French – who have been made painfully aware of keeping an eye out for suspicious packages on public transportation – are liable to start looking differently at trucks now.
France also is the biggest source for European recruits to the cause of Islamic extremism. Nice was home to a prolific producer of French-language jihadist recruiting videos, a former petty drug dealer named Omar Omsen, who is now fighting in Syria.
“It’s terrorism by proximity,” said Nathalie Goulet, a French senator who led an inquiry into jihadi recruitment networks.
This was apparent in the recent killings of two French police officials – a couple with a young son- who were stabbed by a neighbor who had pledged allegiance to Islamic State on Facebook.
And it was chillingly amplified in Nice, where a resident hopped into a truck and drove down from the hills onto the seaside promenade.