PARIS — What French investigators found on the phones of the Muslim murderer who slaughtered 84 people on the promenade along the sea in Nice, France, on Thursday night should not be surprising.
But it was.
The cops were looking for imams. What they found were johns.
It turns out Mohamed Mondher Larouaeij Bouhlel was “a hustler,” as one senior member of the French security establishment told The Daily Beast. He was inclined to have sex with any gender, and, according to a report in Le Parisien, which has strong law enforcement sources, his most devoted client/lover was a 73-year-old man.
The profile of Bouhlel, 31, that has emerged from leaked reports of his cellphone contacts and police interrogations with his acquaintances is not just of a troubled young immigrant from Tunisia living in France, it’s of a midnight cowboy on the Côte d’Azur, depressive, confused, filled with rage.
None of which means Bouhlel did not, in his last days, choose to identify with the terrorist organization that calls itself the Islamic State, or perhaps with some affiliate of al Qaeda. “Being unbalanced never kept anyone from being a jihadist,” David Thomson, author of a book on French jihadists, told the local daily newspaper Nice-Matin.
At a press conference in Nice on Monday, Paris prosecutor François Molins, who oversees terrorism investigations, said that despite a vague claim by the Islamic State that Bouhlel was inspired by its propaganda, there was still no clear link. There is no black flag, there is no letter, there is no video testament from the “martyr.”
On the other hand, Bouhlel planned the attack at least several days in advance. He had arranged to rent the refrigerator truck on July 4, picked it up on July 11, drove it around the Promenade des Anglais, the scene of the crime to come, on the 12th and 14th, the day of the attack, and even took selfies of himself there.
He had started to let his beard grow before the massacre and had been searching the internet for the pornography of violence: “horrible deadly accidents” or “shocking videos, sensitive souls refrain.” He had watched ISIS decapitation videos.
Bouhlel appears to be, indeed, part of a new genre of terrorist, the instant jihadist who decides more or less suddenly to turn his shitty little life into a world-famous spectacle of death. There are many people like that to be exploited. As the French daily Le Monde noted in its profile of Bouhlel, “triggering from a distance the morbid impulses of fragile individuals is an integral part of the strategy of [ISIS].”
Mostly they are forgotten, like the deranged man shouting “Allah Akbar” who drove into a crowd at a bus stop in the provincial French city of Dijon in 2014, or the man who beheaded his boss outside Lyon last year. The 17-year-old Afghan boy who took an axe to passengers on a train Monday night, injuring four people before police shot and killed him, would doubtless fit into the same category. A homemade version of the ISIS black banner reportedly was found among his effects, and the ISIS news service (yes, there is one) claimed him as one of its “soldiers” answering “the call” of the self-declared caliphate to kill people in the West wherever and whenever they can.
ISIS made a similar after-the-fact claim with Bouhlel. Never mind his sordid past, his violent marriage, his evident hunger for personal revenge. It is quite conceivable he thought his estranged wife and children would be among the spectators for the Bastille Day fireworks display on the Promenade des Anglais as he started his drive of death along the broad sidewalk. Her lawyer told reporters she had planned on going to see the show, and only decided not to “for personal reasons” late in the day. As it was, more than a third of the victims of this “soldier” of the so-called Islamic State were Muslims, according to the Catholic daily La Croix. Twenty were Tunisians, like the killer.
What sets Bouhlel’s violence apart is the scale of the carnage, and also the political and social environment of the moment. Bouhlel’s action has resonance outside his own sordid life, says influential French criminologist Alain Bauer, because it feeds many different kinds of anger in contemporary society: “It is pure rage wrapped in the times.”
Potentially the most frightening part of Bouhlel’s grotesque checkout from the land of the living is that his attack came at a moment when France and Europe are so divided and the political atmosphere so fraught that even the insane act of a low-life trying to purge his personal demons with the blood of innocents could have cataclysmic consequences.
Two months ago, the head of France’s General Directorate of Internal Security (DGSI), Patrick Calvar, warned a commission at the National Assembly that after the January 2015 massacres at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket, and then the Nov. 13 carnage at Paris cafés and the Bataclan concert hall, followed by the related attacks in March in Brussels, society is at a tipping point. And the problem is not just with Muslim extremists, but with anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant extremists on the “ultra-right.”
“Europe is in great danger,” Calvar said in testimony on May 10. “Extremism is rising all over and we are—we, the internal security services—are in the process of redeploying resources to focus on the ultra-right that is waiting for nothing but a confrontation.”
“You will recall that I always try to use direct language,” said the veteran intelligence officer, whose position is akin to the head of the FBI or MI5, “Well, so, I believe this confrontation is going to take place. If there are one or two more attacks, it’s going to happen.”
According to a report earlier this month in the conservative daily Le Figaro, Calvar’s closed-door session with the parliamentary committee painted an even bleaker picture: “We are on the verge of a civil war,” he said.
As French scholar Gilles Kepel and others have pointed out, this is exactly what the zealots of global jihad are hoping for, part of their clearly articlulated strategy to sow division and exploit contradictions in Western societies with large Muslim populations. "Civil war," they say? "Bring it on." Fortunately, we’re not there yet, and maybe not nearly as close as Calvar suggested. But the public mood is growing uglier by the day.
In January of last year, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there was a massive outpouring of support for the government and for the idea that French society should be and could be free from terror. The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie, “I am Charlie,” was the universal symbol of the moment. Today, it’s #JeSuisÉpuisé, “I am exhausted.”
When Socialist President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls visited Nice after the massacre, hoping to reassure the population in the first case, and to attend a memorial service in the second, each was booed by the crowd.
Nice itself is badly divided between a strong right-wing political movement and pockets of Muslim immigrants who have adopted fundamentalist versions of Islam that tend to isolate them further from the wary and hostile society that surrounds them.
And there have been hints that some individuals or tiny groups have been plotting to provoke open war with the Muslim community in France, rather like those lunatics in the U.S.—the Timothy McVeighs or the Dylann Roofs—who hope their acts of terror can ignite an apocalypse.
In May, authorities in Ukraine arrested a young Frenchman trying to smuggle a significant arsenal of guns and explosives out of the country, and reported that he intended to use them to start a sectarian war in France. There are some doubts about his real intent—he may have been just a third-rate arms smuggler—but it’s clear from Calvar’s remarks that the French security services are worried that other more effective agents of chaos are out there.
As the French presidential elections approach next spring, far-right-wing leader Marine Le Pen is riding high and incendiary rhetoric already is the order of the day. Le Pen’s niece Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a young member of the National Assembly, a popular figure in the Cote d’Azur region, and a rising star in the National Front, released a YouTube video blasting the government and its “multicultural” proclivities.
“If we do not kill Islamism, Islamism will kill us again and again,” said Maréchal-Le Pen. “If we don’t react now, these scenes of horror will become daily events, a terrible thing to get used to, and one that will cost us our freedoms. When an enemy declares war on us, there is no neutrality possible. You are either with us against Islamism, or you are against us with Islamism.”
Ironically—and this is little consolation to those worried about the country’s spiral toward violence—it may be that the prospect of Marine Le Pen’s success as a presidential candidate that’s keeping the most dangerous elements of the far right in check for the moment.
For months, polls have shown Le Pen will win the first round by a large margin (about 30 percent total) but go down in defeat in the second round when her opponents unite against her.
That is what happened with her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002. But that is no longer such a sure prediction for 2017, and the fears provoked by the terrorism and the immigrant crisis of the last 18 months have helped build her following.
“We have extreme-right groups that are active,” says Bauer, “but they are waiting for Le Pen to win the elections.”
If jihadist terrorism continues, as it certainly will, and Marine Le Pen loses her bid for the presidency, as she probably will, then all bets are off.
Editor’s note: This article was updated July 19, at 5:30 a.m. ET.