PARIS—Three attacks in three towns in three days have spread terror across France. But were they the acts of terrorists? French President François Hollande is telling the French people they should “not lump them together.” Prime Minister Manuel Valls says that two of the three incidents were the work of deranged copycats, but don’t fit into a “classic terrorist logic.” And an adviser to the French government, speaking privately, tells The Daily Beast, “These are not lone wolves, they are crazy wolves.”
But these are crazy times, and as we have seen repeatedly this year, to think in terms of “classic terrorist logic” is to lose sight of the growing threat posed by random, terrorist-inspired chaos created at the hands of, yes, thoroughly deranged killers.
In just the last few weeks we have witnessed the siege of a coffee shop taken over by a wacko astrologer-Shia-Sunni-jihadi-swindler; a hatchet attack by a nut job in New York City, and a lone shooter in the Canadian Parliament.
In France, the death toll has been lower: One young man killed in the city of Nantes. But almost 30 people have been injured, and the terror effect is such that 300 extra troops have been added to the already extensive military and police presence in the cities where the attacks took place; cabinet meetings have been convened; appeals for calm are more common than season’s greetings.
Prime Minister Valls has sought to focus attention on the most recent attack, in Nantes, which is the one with the least obvious connection to ISIS-inspired terrorism. But the chronology of carnage leaves little doubt that the so-called Islamic State’s propaganda played a role provoking the would-be killers.
On Saturday, a 20-year-old named Bertrand Nzohabonayo, whose family comes from Burundi, screamed “Allah akbar,” or God is Great, stabbing and slashing three police officers in the Loire Valley town of Joué-lès-Tours before, finally, the cops shot and killed him. According to Le Monde, anti-terrorist police already knew his younger brother Brice as a potential terrorist threat. In August 2013, his mother had warned police that Brice was being radicalized and influencing Bertrand. On Dec. 16, Brice posted the black banner of ISIS on his Facebook page. On Dec. 18, Bertrand did the same. And two days after that, Bertrand set out to kill and be killed.
On Sunday, in Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, ordinary pedestrians and shoppers found themselves targeted by a man thus far identified only as Nacer Ben K. He, too, shouted “Allah akbar” as he drove around the city running people down in an incident reminiscent of some recent attacks in Israel. After police captured him, he reportedly claimed he was carrying out jihad to avenge the death of children in the Palestinian territories. But Nacer’s bona fides as a madman are well established, and French officials focused on those: He reportedly had made 157 visits to psychiatric wards since 2001.
On Monday, in Nantes, a 37-year-old loner with a history of psychological problems ripped up his well-tended little garden in a village nearby, then drove into the city in the evening and rammed his little white truck into shoppers at the Christmas market near a little chalet serving mulled wine. The man, identified by the French press as Sebastien Sarron, fatally injured one of the bystanders and hospitalized several others before taking a knife and plunging it into his own body several times without managing to finish himself off. He and four of his victims remain hospitalized. He did not shout “God is great,” but his random act served the purposes of ISIS almost as well. It’s the sheer randomness of the terror that takes its toll.
The government continues to call for calm while warning people to be on their guard. Many will simply stay away from crowds and stay home this Christmas Eve, which could be a very silent night indeed.