After Nice, we all must learn to live with a certain amount of terrorism
Zhou Zunyou says the recent mass murder in Nice shows that even a state on high alert, as France was, cannot protect its citizens all the time from every kind of attack
Last Thursday, a large truck rammed through a crowd of revellers watching Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, France, killing more than 80 people and injuring more than 300, including two Chinese.
The perpetrator, shot dead on the spot by police, was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian with French residency. Although Islamic State has claimed responsibility, it does not seem that he operated in connection with the terrorist group.
The Nice attack is the latest among a spate of terrorist attacks in France since the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre. Compared with many other attacks in France and other parts of Europe, this assault is distinct owing to the use of a truck itself as a weapon.
The use of vehicle bombs has a long history. In April 1995, Timothy McVeigh launched the highest-profile attack of this kind. He detonated a truck packed with explosives in front of a federal building in Oklahoma City, killing 168. In general, security authorities are more worried about vehicles being used as bombs than about them running over people. It’s important to note, however, that turning a vehicle into a killing machine is a tactic often seen in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where such attacks have cost many lives.
Jihadists in Western countries have also tried employing vehicles themselves as weapons, but, except for the Nice carnage, the casualties of such attacks have not usually been extremely heavy. For example, in December 2014 there were two separate car-ramming attacks in the French cities of Dijon and Nantes, leaving around 20 pedestrians injured and one dead. In June 2007, two terrorists tried to drive a Jeep loaded with petrol and gas canisters into the arrivals area of Glasgow Airport in the UK, but killed no one.
In recent years, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State have urged their followers to use whatever is at hand to kill their enemies. Given this incitement and because of possible copycat effects after the Nice incident, deadly vehicular attacks are highly likely to increase in France and other countries.
In China, vehicles also have frequently been used by Uygur terrorists, presumably because guns are hardly accessible to them. In May 2014, two SUVs filled with explosives crashed into a busy street market in Urumqi (烏魯木齊), killing 43 people. In terms of public impact, however, the most prominent vehicular assault in China is the one in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October 2013, in which three suicide bombers ploughed a Jeep through a crowd of walking tourists, killing five people and injuring some 40 others.
Terrorist attacks carried out by “lone wolves” – individual terrorists who have no organisational relationship with any terrorist group – can be immensely lethal. If the Nice attacker turns out to be a lone wolf, the death toll, currently 84, will probably make it the worst such attack in a Western country.
Although vehicular attacks are highly unpredictable, there must be some countermeasures to take to reduce risks and losses. According to Professor Zhang Jinping, a well-known counterterrorism expert and vice-dean of the College for Counter-Terrorism at China’s Northwest University of Political Science and Law, both short- and long-term approaches are required to prevent such attacks: in the short term, efforts need to be made to monitor the flow of people, goods and information, whereas in the long term the focus should be on de-radicalisation, a key anti-terrorism policy pursued by top Chinese decision-makers.
France has been in a state of emergency, with a massive security presence in public places and official facilities, since the Paris attacks last November. In spite of this, the country was struck again, devastatingly. Following the Nice assault, the French government has been criticised for not having put enough security in place. But this criticism is not fair.
Terrorists need only be lucky once, but countries must be lucky every time. Even when a tiny number of people become extremist and violent, the blow they deal to the country is fatal. Today, the painful reality is that all of us have to learn to live with terrorism.
Dr Zhou Zunyou is head of the China section at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Foreign and International Criminal Law, and the author of Balancing Security and Liberty: Counter-Terrorism Legislation in Germany and China