The gunman responsible for murdering up to 84 people by ramming into and shooting them at a Bastille Day celebration in France was identified in local Nice media as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a delivery driver and petty criminal whom the French interior minister said was “radicalized very rapidly.”
The 31-year-old French-Tunisian attacker told police he was delivering ice cream in order to get on the promenade, which was closed to traffic for the celebration, The Daily Mail reports.
On July 21, French authorities announced that they had arrested 5 other people – four men and a woman – for helping Bouhlel plan the attack. CNN said one of the suspects, who will now face terrorism-related charges, “allegedly sent Bouhlel a Facebook message saying, ‘Load the truck with tons of iron and cut the brakes. I’ll look brother.'”
Bouhlel’s identification papers were found at the scene, French prosecutor Francois Molins said. Molins said the truck driver had a history of crime, but had never been the subject of a terror investigation. However, cross-referencing has now turned up his phone number in connection with the circles of a known jihadi who once faked his own death, Omar Diaby, CNN said. However, authorities were still studying whether that was a coincidence simply due to the neighborhood where he lived, UK Telegraph said.
Bouhlel was chased down by police and shot dead at the scene, Molins said. A police source said it’s possible that Bouhlel just wanted to commit suicide, and the motive is still being scrutinized, UK Telegraph said. However, UK Mirror says police found a “haunting” last text message on Bouhlel’s phone that remains unexplained. It said: “I have the material.”
“France has been struck on the day of her national holiday,” Bastille Day, a celebration of “liberty,” said French President Francois Hollande. “France as a whole is under the threat of Islamist terrorism, and so under these circumstances we have to demonstrate absolute vigilance and show determination that is unfailing.”
The victims included several children, among them an 11-year-old American, Brodie Copeland, and his father, Sean Copeland, of the Austin, Texas area. Along with the 84 dead, 202 were injured, including 52 people who are in critical condition, Molins, the French prosecutor, said.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Bouhlel Was a Delivery Driver & Father Who Shouted ‘Allahu Akbar,’ Reports Say
The UK Independent reported Bouhlel was a delivery driver and father who “might have hired the truck on Wednesday in a town near Nice…picking up the vehicle in the hills outside the city.” The news site said Bouhlel was “not suspected to have been radicalized and did not have a file with the anti-terrorism police.” The Independent reported a phone was also found in the truck. The Daily Mail reported that Bouhlel was “previously known to police for violence and theft.” However, French officials now say that Bouhlel might have been “radicalized,” however only “very rapidly,” CNN says.
USA Today, quoting Nice-Matin, a French-language news outlet, reported, “The outlet also reported that Bouhlel, who was killed by police as he attempted to flee the scene, worked as a delivery driver and was known to them in connection with petty theft and minor violence.” UK Telegraph quoted French media in saying that Bouhlel was born in Tunisia but had a French residency permit.
The 25-ton box truck drove into the crowd at the Promenade des Anglais in the resort town of Nice, witnesses said. Nice’s past mayor, Christian Estrosi, who is now a regional official, initially said there “appeared to be dozens of deaths,” said NBC News.
Estrosi tweeted in French, according to NBC, “Dear Nice, the driver of a truck appears to have made dozens of deaths. Stay for the moment to your home. More info to come.” The death toll grew throughout the evening, though. A San Diego woman who witnessed the attack described it as a “pathway of bodies.”
The UK Telegraph, citing Nice-Matin newspaper, reported, “The truck driver was said to have shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ — God is greatest — before being shot dead by police.” The Daily Mail also reported that detail.
UK Telegraph quoted a police source as saying Bouhlel could be “a suicide case who decided to make his suicide look like an Islamist attack. Investigators are being cautious about definitively ascribing a motive for the time being.”
The deadly attack — which started with a truck ramming a crowd of revelers and escalated when the gunman jumped out and started shooting, culminating when police shot him in or near a restaurant — killed up to 84 people and may have injured as many as 50, according to CNN and multiple other media accounts, citing French television. BBC reported that, in addition to the dead, “About 50 people were injured, 20 of them critically.”
The carnage — which included bodies scattered throughout the roadway, and a stuffed animal next to a body covered in plastic — was captured on eyewitness video and photographs and posted widely on social media (warning: graphic):
Among the dead: The Copelands, father and son from Austin, Texas. Sean Copeland worked for a software company, and Brody starred as Michael Darling in the play Peter Pan and played youth baseball. His family had sent a local baseball club a photo of the 11-year-old in the French Riviera the day of the attack.
Bouhlel drove “over a mile” through the crowd and accelerated as he did so, reported CNN. Sebastien Humbert, a police official, told ITV.com, “A truck rammed into the crowd over a long distance, which explains this extremely heavy toll.”
2. He Was Shot Dead by Police During a Terrifying Gunfight Caught on Video
The UK Express, quoting French television iTele, said the gunman “holed up in a nice restaurant downtown” and was then “neutralized” by police. CNN reported that people in the restaurant rushed outside to cover the dead with white tablecloths and tend to the wounded. People jumped into the sea to escape the gunman.
“I saw people go down,” bystander Franck Sidoli, who was visibly shocked, told Reuters, according to The Independent. “Then the truck stopped, we were just five meters away. A woman was there, she lost her son. Her son was on the ground, bleeding.”
The truck’s windshield was riddled with bullet holes, and its radiator grille was destroyed, reported The Independent. French President Francois Hollande said shortly after the attack that one terrorist was dead and authorities were still investigating whether he had accomplices. Hours after the attack, “most of the bodies of 80 victims” still lay on the pavement of the Promenade des Anglais, reported Nice-Matin, the local newspaper.
Bouhlel’s brother, Jaber Bouhlel, told the Daily Mail that Bouhlel had sent the family more than $110,000 to his family right before the attack, which surprised them because of the large sum but insisted his brother was not a terrorist; Bouhlel’s father told French TV that his son was mentally ill and had suffered a nervous breakdown in the past, said Daily Mail.
3. Bouhlel Was Not Known as a Religious Person & Was Arrested in May After Throwing a Pallet at a Motorist During a Road Rage Incident as His Life Spiraled Due to Depression
Bouhlel was arrested in May 2016 after he threw a wooden pallet at a motorist during an apparent road rage incident, reports France24.
At sentencing, he was spared jail time but had to check in with a parole officer once a week, something he did so. His probation ended after two months.
Bouhlel lost his job as a delivery truck driver after falling asleep at the wheel, causing an accident, The Telegraph reports.
He also had previous convictions for armed theft and domestic violence, but had no known ties to terrorism and was not under surveillance, the newspaper reports. A psychologist who saw Bouhlel at age 19 told UK Telegraph Bouhlel was already exhibiting the beginning signs of psychosis and his father worried he had stopped engaging in school and become violent.
Neighbors told The Telegraph that Bouhlel was “depressed and unstable, even aggressive,” because of his “marital and financial problems.” UK Telegraph says he was a divorced father of three who lived alone.
Bouhlel was not known to be a religious person, neighbors and family said.
His cousin told The Daily Mail that Bouhlel broke the rules of Islam.
The cousin said Bouhlel hit his wife, never prayed or attended a mosque. He also said Bouhlel drank alcohol, ate pork and did drugs.
Sébastien, a neighbor, told The Telegraph that Bouhlel, “didn’t have the appearance of a religious person and was often in shorts.”
Another neighbor said he was more into women than religion, saying he “didn’t pray” and liked “girls and Salsa” dancing.
4. Police Raided Bouhlel’s Home & Took His Ex-Wife & Other Family Members Into Custody
Police raided the suspect’s home early Friday.
Local media reports his ex-wife and other family members have been taken into custody for questioning. On July 16, authorities were questioning five people – his ex-wife and four other men, CNN said.
The Associated Press said Bouhlel was “aloof” and “menacing” to neighbors and his family members. Interviewed in Tunisia, his father said Bouhlel would have violent outbursts where “he broke everything he found around him,” The AP said. The father said Bouhlel was given medication and added that he didn’t pray, fast or go to mosque; a court-appointed lawyer who handled one of the Bouhlel’s petty cases in the past also said he saw no signs of radicalization.
Witnesses said the death toll rose because the gunman then got out of the vehicle and started shooting at people. Some early reports indicated there could be two gunmen, but that evaporated as the chaos of the evening led to clearer information. Hollande said the truck’s driver, now identified as Bouhlel, was killed, but authorities are investigating whether he had accomplices.
AFP reported that the “driver of Nice truck fired pistol before being shot dead.” People took to social media desperately seeking information on loved ones. By some estimates, the truck was traveling at 20-25 mph.
Videos captured the aftermath of the attack (warning: VERY graphic):
An eyewitness, Andrew Botros of Edinburgh, Scotland, told NBC, “White truck literally racing through crowds of all ages. People either caught in path or forced to jump onto rocks over beach barrier. Some dead. Horrific.”
The New York Times reported that the truck was “full of weapons and grenades,” quoting a French official. The Times said one of the first victims killed was a Muslim woman crushed by the truck. The full list of victims’ names has not yet been released.
Another eyewitness, Ryan Hubbs, told CNN that he saw people on the street who had “lost multiple family members. They weren’t sure what to do but waited for authorities, though that was very difficult for them.”
Meanwhile, smoke billowed from the Eiffel Tower in Paris:
However, French authorities assured people that the Eiffel Tower smoke was merely from an accident related to Bastille Day fireworks there. The people killed in Nice had also been watching fireworks.
Bastille Day is France’s national holiday and celebrates the storming of the Bastille prison during the 1789 French Revolution. NBC News reported that light arms and explosives were discovered in the truck. Hours later, though, the Telegraph reported that an inactive grenade and fake rifles were in the truck.
5. ISIS Supporters Applauded the Attack & French Officials Said Bouhlel Was ‘Radicalized Very Rapidly’ But They Found His Phone Number in an Investigation Into a Prominent Jihadi
ISIS supporters online immediately applauded the attack and even created a congratulatory hashtag they urged people to use, and ISIS issued a statement saying a “soldier” of the Islamic State carried out the Nice attack, CNN said. The French foreign interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve told CNN: “It seems that the attacker got radicalized very rapidly.”
CNN reported that authorities found a phone number for Bouhlel in an investigation into an associate of Sengalese jihadi Omar Diaby (also known as Omar Omsen), “who lived in Nice before traveling to Syria.” Diaby recorded YouTube videos that motivated some jihadists, CNN said, and it was possible that Bouhlel was motivated by ISIS but not directly trained by the terrorist state.
Unconfirmed reports said ISIS supporters were “celebrating” the terrorist attack in Nice as “retaliation for the death of Abu Omar al-Shishani—the terror group’s so-called ‘minister of war.'” He was reportedly killed a few days before the Nice Attack in Iraq by Coalition forces.
Intel Site Group, which monitors terrorist activity online, said that ISIS had posted a pro-ISIS graphic of the Eiffel Tower with flames that “shows #ISIS commander, Shishani — reported killed yesterday” and says: “Blood of our leaders is light & fire.”
Al-Jazeera said of al-Shihani’s reported death: “The loss of the commander is a significant blow to the group, which has suffered a string of setbacks in Iraq this year.” It’s not yet known if Bouhlel has ISIS ties.
In a sign of how fast the news of tragedy moves in a social media and smartphone world, people in Nice immediately posted graphic videos and photos on Twitter and other social media, including some showing dead bodies strewn throughout the roadway. Some captured the moment of attack (warning: graphic):
Others captured different elements of it with photos and video:
Others just provided eyewitness accounts. AFP correspondent Robert Holloway was celebrating on the Promenade des Anglais when the terrorist arrived. “He had to shield his face from flying debris as the truck plunged two kilometres (1.3 miles) along the palm-fringed beachfront, mowing people down in its wake,” reported AFP, quoting Holloway as describing the scene as “absolute chaos.”