France’s Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the country was going on emergency alert after three people were killed in the southern city of Nice on Thursday. This is not the first terrorist attack that has coincided with a major religious or national holiday in the French Riviera city.
Nice Mayor Christian Estrosi said on Twitter the knife attack had happened at the city’s Notre Dame church and that police had detained the attacker.
A police source said three people were confirmed to have died, including a woman who was decapitated in the attack. One of the people killed inside the church was believed to be the church warden, Estrosi said.
This latest attack happens at a key time in various religious calendars. The day of the attack itself, October 29, marks the official birthday of the Prophet Mohammed and, in the Catholic Church, November 1 is known as ‘Toussaint’ or All Saint’s Day.
The Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Muslim Council) condemned Thursday’s attack and called on Muslims to cancel their Mawlid celebrations –to mark the birth of the Prophet – as a “sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones”.
Thursday’s attack comes while France is still reeling from the beheading earlier this month of French middle school teacher Samuel Paty by a man of Chechen origin, who said he wanted to punish Paty for showing pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad in a civics lesson.
Since Paty’s killing, French officials – backed by many ordinary citizens – have re-asserted the right to display the cartoons, and the images have been widely displayed at marches in solidarity with the killed teacher.
This has prompted an outpouring of anger in parts of the Muslim world, including calls to boycott French products, with some governments accusing French President Emmanuel Macron of pursuing an anti-Islam agenda. Protesters have denounced France in street rallies in several Muslim-majority countries.
Bastille Day truck attack
France, with Europe’s largest Muslim community, has suffered a string of Islamist militant attacks in recent years and Nice has been the target of a number of them.
Nice is known as a holiday hub popular with both French and international tourists. On July 14, 2016, thousands of people had gathered to watch Nice’s firework display to celebrate Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, when a Tunisian national deliberately drove a truck through the crowd.
Some 86 people were killed and more than 400 were injured, while thousands more are still trying to deal with the trauma of what they experienced four years later.
Then French President François Hollande declared the attack was of “an undeniable terrorist nature”.
Breeding ground for would-be jihadists
The affluent city on the French Riviera has gradually gained an unhappy reputation as a breeding ground for would-be jihadists.
There is little information about terror attacks that have been foiled by French security and intelligence agencies, but one exception is a bomb plot targeting Nice’s carnival in 2014.
A document by the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI), France’s domestic intelligence agency, says Ibrahim Boudina, a young Frenchman born in Algeria, planned to detonate bombs during the event that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Nice once again made headlines in connection with radical Islam later in 2014, when it was reported that an entire family, 11 people in all, had left from there for Syria. The family’s oldest son had reportedly been on intelligence radars for two years due to his radical religious views.
Top jihadist recruiter
More recently, Nice has been linked to one of France’s most prominent jihadists, Omar Diaby, whose Senegalese family moved to Nice when he was five years old.
Diaby, better known as Oman Omsen, is known in counter-terrorism circles as one of the most prolific recruiters of foreign fighters in Syria, boasting of recruiting over 80 French citizens to the jihadist cause.
He was reportedly killed in August 2015, but in a widely viewed documentary aired on French television in June 2016 he revealed he had staged his own death to avert detection while getting medical attention outside Syria.
A member of the Al Nusra jihadist group, Diaby has expressed differences with the more prominent Islamic State (IS) group, but in the documentary he voiced approval for the January and November 2015 attacks in and around Paris.
Diaby was most recently arrested on August 31 in north-western Syria.
Nice’s high security
Nice has long struggled with racism. Estrosi himself has questioned the right of those born in France to receive automatic citizenship. He has called Muslims a “fifth column” and described some immigrants as French “only on paper”.
Estrosi built a reputation for being tough on crime and made the city one of the most advanced in France in terms of security. Nice has the highest proportion of surveillance cameras in all of France.
In terms of prevention, the city has established its own team of lawyers, psychologists and social workers who aim to dissuade young people from leaving the country to wage jihad abroad. Nice also has one of France’s few existing programmes for helping returning jihadists to re-integrate into society.