For some tasked with thwarting the next jihadist strike, the only thing worse than learning that ISIS was responsible for an attack was figuring out that it wasn’t: that maybe some deranged lone attacker did it by himself.
When a lone attacker is involved, the myriad of tactics deployed by the U.S. military and intelligence services to stop mass casualty events suddenly seem less potent. The fact that ISIS has been weakened financially and territorially over the past two years though a barrage of U.S. airstrikes and special operations no longer seems as impressive. And the improved intelligence sharing between the United States and Europe no longer seems as informative.
Much like after the shootings in Orlando and Dallas, U.S. officials sifted through every bit of intelligence Friday following the attack in Nice, France—only to, so far, find no evidence that the perpetrator of the attack, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, had any extensive ties with ISIS, al Qaeda, or any other jihadist group. Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that Bouhlel had no clear communication with ISIS nor had not raised flags that he could be behind such an attack.
On Saturday, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack through its official channel, Amaq, but its statement suggested the terror group did not orchestrate the attack but rather felt it inspired it. ISIS called Bouhlel a “soldier” who responded to ISIS “calls to target citizens of coalition states which fight the Islamic State.” Immediately after the claim, the U.S. position that there was no clear ISIS connection remained unchanged.
Even before the statement, French President François Hollande said Thursday a terrorist had killed at least 84 people in Nice, France, including at least 10 children and two American citizens. And there was profound frustration Friday among those in the U.S. government charged with stopping terrorist attacks, that their ongoing wars and intelligence gathering had failed to stop yet another terrorist.
Residents in Nice purportedly shouted at President Hollande Friday as he came through their city, angry over the lack of protection. An ocean away, those Americans in charge of stopping terrorists were just as angry and frustrated, in their case at themselves and their inability to stop such attacks.
“Every week. I am not sure how much longer I can keep doing this,” one U.S. law enforcement official said Friday morning. “We can’t find anything, again.”
In the last month, 493 people have been killed by either ISIS, ISIS-inspired, or lone wolf attacks, noted Time correspondent Haley Edwards. That includes mass killings in places like “Orlando (49), Baghdad (291), Dhaka (24), Istanbul (45), [and now] Nice (84). All in 32 days.”
In the past, officials would have said that they must be right every day while the terrorists have to get lucky once for groups like ISIS to appear to be winning. They would have said that the military campaign alone could not defeat an ideology. But not on Friday. The three officials The Daily Beast spoke to Friday all sounded too dejected to repeat what they believe to be true about their war against jihadists.
That does not mean that groups like ISIS had no involvement, as they have urged supporters to use any means necessary to attack the West. And the ongoing rhetoric of the need for a caliphate and ISIS’s calls for war against the West is arguably enough to inspire mass attacks. ISIS or al Qaeda has been behind the two other major attacks to strike France in the past 18 months, against Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and against several sites in Paris the following November. Moreover, more Frenchmen have traveled to Iraq and Syria, as a proportion of the population, than persons from any other European country.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, told CNN Friday that the U.S. had advance notice of fighters returning to France but nothing to indicate the attack in Nice.
But even when the links to ISIS are not clear, after such attacks, there often is a rush to bolster the military campaign against the so-called Islamic State. Within hours, Hollande announced his nation would increase its involvement in the war in Iraq and Syria. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump said it was time for the United States to declare the war. And Hillary Clinton called for a smarter war.
Some military officials privately were frustrated at the rush for more war, especially since there were no obvious connections to ISIS. Tying ISIS to every major attack, they said, bolsters the ISIS name within the jihadist community. And it fails to address the other issues that appear to contribute to such attacks in addition to ISIS, like the segregation and discrimination of Muslims in France.
“That gives them credit for things they may not have had anything to do with,” a defense official explained.
But what precisely the relationship is between the Nice attacker and ISIS remains unclear. There were some indications early on that suggested ISIS may have been involved. In the hours after the attack, which spanned a mile, scores of Telegram and Twitter accounts affiliated with ISIS celebrated the attacks in Nice in particularly high numbers, the kind of activity one would expect before the terror group claimed responsibility for the attack.
But the attack did not bear the hallmarks of ISIS. It was a lone attacker, not multiple ones, using an out-of-control truck, not explosives.
Initial reports suggested that Bouhlel, 31, was a troubled, alcohol-consuming, secular Muslim, with a record of theft and wife-beating who was frustrated by a recent divorce and the separation from his three children. According to French prosecutor François Molins, Bouhlel, a truck driver, rented the truck the day before, and then plowed it through the crowds. Local authorities killed him inside that truck; the windshield had at least 18 bullet holes, according to photos.
France has extended its state of emergency and U.S. officials have vowed to help the French investigation. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter reached out to his French counterpart to talk about how to expand France’s war against ISIS. Already, officials at the Pentagon and within law enforcement know it will not be enough.
“Where will it happen next?” the first defense official asked.