French authorities are saying that Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, the man behind this week’s terror attack in Nice, “radicalized himself very quickly,” which if you grab your decoder ring is another way of saying “we have no idea who this guy was or why we’ve never heard of him before.” But whoever he was or whatever his motives may have been, responsibility for his attack has now been claimed by ISIS:
The Islamic State had kept silent on the Nice attack until Saturday morning, when it declared, in a bulletin issued in Arabic and in English on its Amaq News Agency channel: “Executor of the deadly operation in Nice, France, was a soldier of the Islamic State. He executed the operation in response to calls to target citizens of coalition nations, which fight the Islamic State.”
There is as yet not even any hard evidence that this guy was radicalized, though circumstantially that seems pretty clear, but the only piece of evidence reported so far that makes a connection between him and any international terrorist group involves al-Qaeda, not ISIS:
While Cazeneuve said no evidence had yet been found to tie Bouhlel to jihadism, a source close to the investigation told CNN that a phone number belonging to Bouhlel cropped up in a counterterrorism investigation into an associate of Omar Diaby, a 41-year-old Senegalese jihadi who lived in Nice before traveling to Syria.
Diaby, who calls himself Omar Omsen, commands a French jihadi battalion in Syria affiliated with Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The source said investigators made the link after cross-referencing case files after the attack in Nice. Investigators are looking into the nature of the links between Bouhlel and Diaby’s associate, but they cannot rule out that the two were possibly just part of the same social circle.
Now, this doesn’t look like an al-Qaeda attack (they are, believe it or not, generally more targeted in their attacks than this), but at the same time there’s not yet anything to show that it was an ISIS attack beyond ISIS’s claim. Yes, they referred to Bouhlel as their “soldier,” but they said the same thing about Omar Mateen–which seemed significant at the time–and yet nobody’s found any direct contact between him and ISIS yet either. Of course, for ISIS there’s not much distinction between an attack they actually carry out and one that they claim after the fact, as Brookings’ Will McCants points out:
It’s an immaterial distinction for the caliph. So long as he believes they answered his call for reprisals against the countries fighting to destroy his kingdom, he is only too happy to applaud his rabid fans from afar regardless of their motives. He hopes the attacks will persuade countries to abandon the coalition arrayed against him or provoke them into an unwise course of action that plays into his hands.
The attacks also help the caliph recruit. He adduces them as proof to his critics in the global jihadist community that only he can inspire such devotion. He cheers them so citizens will fear that every Muslim is a lone wolf in docile sheep’s clothing. When the fear and suspicion lead to legal measures that single out Muslims, such as veil bans, the caliph’s recruiting pitch finds more receptive ears. It is a vicious cycle that assures we will see more ISISish attackers for years to come.
But as McCants also notes, these are not pious jihadi fighters–they’re spree killers, who engage in acts of violence because they’ve been convinced they can get right with God by doing so, or because they just want to, and the message ISIS preaches offers them a convenient excuse, or because of some mix of the two plus who-knows-what else. It’s impossible to really know what’s motivating each of these attackers because they generally don’t live to tell us. It may not matter to ISIS why these people carry out these attacks, but it should matter to us in terms of understanding the limits of the War on Terror.