French investigators are scrambling to establish why a 31-year-old French-Tunisian with no obvious links to terror groups or radicals rented a 19-ton truck and killed at least 84 people, including 10 children, on the seafront in Nice, in France’s third massacre of civilians in 18 months.
Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a chauffeur, petty criminal and father who lived in the Riviera city, accelerated the heavy goods vehicle through thick crowds for more than a mile along a beachfront esplanade on Thursday night, turning a Bastille Day festival of fireworks and families into carnage, before police shot him dead.
In all, 202 people were injured, 80 of them critically, and the death toll was expected to rise. About 50 children were injured, many of them young, many of them seriously. No European attack in recent years has taken such a heavy toll on pre-teens. France will start three days of mourning on Saturday.
The French president, François Hollande, extended for another three months the state of emergency imposed after last November’s Paris attacks, and flew to the scene of the outrage.
“We are facing a long battle because we have an enemy who will continue to hate all the people who enjoy liberty,” said the president, who is coming under increasing pressure to take more decisive action to defend France from its gravest security crisis since 1945. “The whole of France is facing the threat of Islamist terrorism.”
But according to François Molins, the Paris prosecutor leading the investigation, the perpetrator, pinpointed by identity documents found in the truck, had no obvious links to radical Islamism. Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was “totally unknown to intelligence services … and was never flagged for signs of radicalisation,” Molins said.
Molins said the perpetrator was known to police for a series of minor fracas over the past six years, including one violent altercation with another motorist earlier this year for which he received a suspended sentence.
The prosecutor said that although no group had claimed the attack, “this sort of thing fits in perfectly with calls for murder from such terrorist organisations”. He noted there were two kalashnikovs, bullets and a grenade in the truck cab, where the driver was shot dead by police.
Locals from the Nice neighbourhood where he lived said Lahouaiej-Bouhlel did not seem religious and did not go to the mosque.
The horror began shortly before 11pm on Thursday when the truck somehow gained access to the Promenade des Anglais and began mowing into bystanders and revellers, who had gathered to watch Bastille Day fireworks. Officials said the driver wove along the road, knocking people down “like skittles”, for a distance of at least 2km.
Witnesses said people pushed each other out of the way, jumped down to the beach and even ran into the sea to avoid the vehicle. Others described victims being hurled around like mannequins, bodies littering the esplanade in the wake of the truck’s acceleration.
A local official said the truck was only brought to a stop by the heroics of a person who tried to jump on to its front. The driver then opened fire before police killed him with a volley of shots through the windscreen.
Most of the dead were French, but there were also at least three Germans, two Americans and one Russian national, as well as Tunisians and Algerians. A number of Britons were also caught up in the attack.
As investigators continued to comb the vehicle, questions were being asked as to how the truck managed to get down to the waterfront. The city centre has restrictions on heavy lorries, and there were additional security restrictions for the festival including metal barriers.
Hollande is under intense pressure to do more to shore up security nationwide. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader and a rival for next year’s presidential election, called for a “war on Islamic fundamentalism”, saying that all that had happened so far was a “war on words”.
“Nothing that we have proposed has been put in place,” she told Le Figaro. “Considering the new nature of terrorism which is now a terrorism of opportunity, that’s to say without hierarchical structure, the urgency is to attack the ideology on which this terrorism is based.”
Alain Juppé, a centre-right presidential hopeful, said: “We know there are faults and shortcomings – the parliamentary inquiry after the November attacks showed us that. We must absolutely lead this struggle against radicalisation and better coordinate our intelligence services.”
World leaders were more sympathetic in their responses. Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and the new British prime minister Theresa May all spoke with Hollande to convey condolences. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, sent a message to the French president, saying “we have sympathy for and solidarity with the French people”.
Religious and political leaders across the Muslim and Arab condemned the attacker. He committed an act of “extreme cowardice”, the Tunisian government said in a statement. The hashtag #PrayforNice trended worldwide on social media.
Solidarity rallies were announced in at least a dozen French towns and cities for the weekend, and a mass for the victims was held in Nice cathedral on Friday evening. The mood in the city was one of anger rather than despair.
Nice’s waterfront was all but deserted on Friday, beaches empty, cafés abandoned, the esplanade cordoned off and the white goods truck visible from a distance, its windscreen pockmarked with bullet holes and its front buckled.
On the street, Piero Bianculli, 37, an Italian musician who grew up in Nice, said he had been at his stepfather’s apartment on the beachfront watching the firework display from the balcony when the truck hit.
“We had been invited over to watch the fireworks because he had such a beautiful view of the sea,” Bianculli said. “Suddenly we saw people in the street running and screaming. We thought it was a false alarm or some sort of joke, but when I looked to the right I saw bodies flying in the air, and people thrown to the ground who didn’t get up.
“I took my binoculars and looked all the way up the promenade, and saw dead bodies lying scattered where they had fallen, bleeding. There was blood streaming across the street.”
A man in a white blanket, haggard and dazed, limped down the street as neighbours tried to hold him up.
“He’s lost his whole family,” said a woman, crying behind her sunglasses.