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Truck Attacker Kills 84 Celebrating France’s Bastille Day

An attacker plowed a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille Day on the French Riviera, killing at least 84 people in what President Francois Hollande called a terrorist act by an enemy determined to strike all nations that share France’s values.

The driver, identified by police sources as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Tunisian resident in France, also appeared to open fire before officers shot him dead. He was known to the police in connection with common crimes such as theft and violence but was not on the watch list of French intelligence services, the sources said.

The third mass killing in Western Europe in eight months caused more fear across an already anxious continent struggling with security challenges from mass immigration, open borders and pockets of Islamist radicalism.

The truck zigzagged along the seafront Promenade des Anglais in the city of Nice as a fireworks display marking the French national day ended on Thursday night. It careered into families and friends listening to an orchestra or strolling above the beach on the Mediterranean Sea toward the grand, century-old Hotel Negresco.

Bystander Franck Sidoli said he had seen people go down. “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,” he told Reuters at the scene.

Dawn broke on Friday with pavements smeared with dried blood. Smashed children’s strollers, an uneaten baguette and other debris strewn about the promenade. Small areas were screened off and what appeared to be bodies covered in blankets were visible through the gaps.

The truck was still where it had come to rest, its windscreen riddled with bullets.

“I saw this enormous white truck go past at top speed,” said Suzy Wargniez, a local woman aged 65 who had watched from a cafe on the promenade. “It was shooting, shooting.”

After visiting victims at Nice’s Pasteur hospital, Hollande said about 50 people were still in a critical condition. The dead included many children. At least two Americans and one Russian were among those killed.

At the hospital, medical staff were treating large numbers of injuries. Waiting for friends who were being operated on was 20-year-old Fanny.

“The truck pushed me to the side. When I opened my eyes I saw faces I didn’t know and started asking for help,” she told Reuters. “Some of my friends were not so lucky. They are having operations as we speak.”

Early indications were that the attack was the work of a lone assailant. Tunisian security sources told Reuters the suspect had last visited his hometown of Msaken, about 120 km (75 miles) south of Tunis, four years ago. He was married with three children, and was not known by the Tunisian authorities to hold radical or Islamist views.

“France is filled with sadness by this new tragedy,” Hollande said in a dawn address. “There’s no denying the terrorist nature of this attack.”

Only hours before the attack, he had announced plans to lift a state of emergency in place since November, when Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers struck Paris entertainment spot on a Friday evening, killing 130 people.

BODIES EVERY FIVE METERS

In his address he said the state of emergency would now be extended by a further three months. He would call up military and police reservists to relieve forces worn out by enforcing it.

Nice-Matin journalist Damien Allemand had been watching the firework display when the truck tore by. After taking cover in a cafe, he wrote on his paper’s website of what he saw: “Bodies every five meters, limbs … Blood. Groans.”

“The beach attendants were first on the scene. They brought water for the injured and towels, which they placed on those for whom there was no more hope.”

Major events in France have been guarded by troops and armed police since the Nov. 13 attacks. But those guarding the crowd on Thursday appeared unable to halt the Renault truck as it tore along pavements and a pedestrian zone. According to one city official, it had careered for up to 2 km (1.5 miles).

A local government official said weapons and grenades were later found inside the vehicle. Nice-Matin newspaper said on Twitter that police were searching the attacker’s home in the Nice neighborhood of Abattoirs.

After midday reporters were told by police to move away from a white Volvo delivery van near the home because they feared it might be holding explosives. Officers carried out a controlled explosion on the vehicle, blowing the doors open and leaving shattered glass all around, but it was not clear whether they found anything incriminating.

Nice airport was briefly evacuated as a precautionary measure after an unattended bag was found, an airport official said.

(GRAPHIC: Map of Nice truck attack http://tmsnrt.rs/29LqLWk)

ISLAMIC STATE TARGETS FRANCE

After the Paris attacks, Islamic State said France and all nations following its path would remain at the top of its list of targets as long as they continued “their crusader campaign”, referring to action against the group in Iraq and Syria.

France is a major part of a U.S.-led mission conducting air strikes and special forces operations against Islamic State, as well as training Iraqi government and Kurdish forces.

“We will further strengthen our actions in Syria and Iraq,” Hollande said, calling the tragedy – on the day France marks the 1789 revolutionary storming of the Bastille prison in Paris – an attack on liberty by fanatics who despised human rights.

“We are facing a battle that will be long because facing us is an enemy that wants to continue to strike all people and all countries that have values like ours,” he said.

France has also sent troops to west Africa to keep Islamist insurgents at bay.

The country is home to the European Union’s biggest Muslim population, mostly descended from immigrants from North African former colonies. It maintains a secular culture that allows no place for religion in schools and civic life, which supporters say encourages a common French identity but critics say contributes to alienation in some communities.

There had been no claim of responsibility on Friday morning.

The Paris attack in November was the bloodiest among a number in France and Belgium in the past two years. On Sunday, a weary nation had breathed a sigh of relief that the month-long Euro 2016 soccer tournament had ended without serious incident.

Four months ago, Belgian Islamists linked to the Paris attackers killed 32 people in Brussels. Recent weeks have also seen major attacks in Bangladesh, Turkey and Iraq.

Pop star Rihanna canceled a concert scheduled to be held in Nice on Friday. Riders on the Tour de France, the top event on the international cycling calendar, observed a minute’s silence before Thursday’s stage, held three hours’ drive northwest of Nice. Security has been tightened for the three-week race, which is watched by huge crowds lining the route around the country.

U.S. President Barack Obama condemned what he said “appears to be a horrific terrorist attack”. Others joining him included German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Pope Francis, Russian President Vladimir Putin, the European Union, NATO, the U.N. Security Council and Saudi Arabia’s top religious body.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said: “We understand what France and the French people are going through today.”

Nice, a city of 350,000, has a history as a flamboyant aristocratic resort but is also a gritty metropolis. It has seen dozens of its Muslim residents travel to Syria to fight.

On social media, Islamic State supporters celebrated the high death toll and posted a series of images, one showing a beach purporting to be that of Nice with white stones arranged to read “IS is here to stay” in Arabic.

 

(Additional reporting by Matthias Blamont, Maya Nikolaeva, Michel Rose, Bate Felix, Brian Love, Bate Felix and John Irish in Paris, Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Omar Fahmy in Cairo, Tarek Amara in Tunis and Andreas Rinke in Ulaanbaatar; Writing by Alastair Macdonald, Andrew Callus and David Stamp; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall, Pravin Char and Peter Graff)

Photo: A man reacts near bouquets of flowers near the scene where a truck ran into a crowd at high speed killing scores and injuring more who were celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday, in Nice, France, July 15, 2016.   REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Israel Worries About Threat From Islamic State

By Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Well before the latest threat from Islamic State, Israel’s military had stepped up intelligence and preparedness efforts with the militant group in mind.

In particular, Israeli forces are keeping an eye on Islamic State’s branch in Egypt’s lawless Sinai peninsula, possibly the organization’s most effective branch in the region, observers say. Sooner or later, Israel believes, Islamic State could attempt some kind of strike on the country.

Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, delivered a lengthy address Saturday in which he directly threatened Israel — and seemed to be answering critics in Islamist militant circles who have complained that the group, based in Syria and Iraq, has not taken up the Palestinian cause.

“No, O Jews, we did not forget Palestine for one moment,” Baghdadi said in his speech, monitored by the SITE Intelligence Group. “Soon, soon you will hear the crawl of the mujahedeen, and their vanguards will surround you on a day you believe is far but that we see is close.”

“Palestine will be your graveyard,” he said.

Some Islamist extremists who are critics of Islamic State have accused the group of deliberately ignoring Israel, focusing instead on weak governments and instability in places such as Iraq and Syria. Saturday’s remarks were not the first time the group has threatened Israel, but it has generally focused its attention on other enemies.

In his address Saturday, Baghdadi also denounced the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia and China, as well as Kurds and Shiite Muslims.

Another warning to Israel came Sunday from Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Lebanese-based Shiite organization Hezbollah, who threatened to retaliate for the killing of key operative Samir Quntar the week before in an airstrike in Syria believed to have been carried out by Israel’s military.

In remarks Sunday, Israel’s army chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkott, referred to threats from both groups, saying it doesn’t take broad knowledge of security issues to “understand the sensitivity of these times.”

In recent weeks, the Israel Defense Forces stepped up training of its southern command units and held a surprise drill on its border with the Gaza Strip. Aside from the standing threat from Hamas and other militants in Gaza, the exercise included scenarios for more complex and far-flung threats.

According to Israeli media, Israel’s military trained last month for the possibility of an abduction of its soldiers by Islamic State forces. The exercise simulated a scenario in which Islamic State fighters launched a missile attack on an Israeli tank along the border with Sinai, abducted several soldiers and pushed into Israel’s Negev desert.

The army medical corps has also been holding special drills, practicing setting up a field hospital in Eilat, Israel’s southernmost resort city at the tip of the Red Sea and the Sinai peninsula, as might be required in the case of a massive terrorist attack on the city.

(Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Nabih Bulos in Muscat, Oman, contributed to this report.)

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: A man purported to be the reclusive leader of the militant Islamic State Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has made what would be his first public appearance at a mosque in the centre of Iraq’s second city, Mosul, according to a video recording posted on the Internet on July 5, 2014, in this still image taken from video. REUTERS/Social Media Website via Reuters TV

 

A Freeway Terrorist Attack Is The ‘Nightmare We Worry About’

By Richard Winton, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

There are few places where Southern Californians feel more trapped than on a freeway in standstill traffic.

One of the San Bernardino shooters and his childhood friend talked about taking advantage of this vulnerability by launching a terrorist attack on a clogged freeway using guns and pipe bombs, according to court records released last week.

Syed Rizwan Farook and Enrique Marquez Jr. mapped out the plan to attack the 91 Freeway in detail and collected weapons and explosives in 2011 and 2012, only to abort the plot, the records say.

Still, their alleged scheme has counterterrorism experts alarmed and baffled. Experts say such an attack would be feasible, but some questioned the seriousness of the plot, given that there are so many easier ways for shooters to kill large numbers of people.

Officials said they had never uncovered an alleged terrorist plot involving freeways until now. But Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael Downing, who oversees the counterterrorism bureau, said it’s a scenario officials have discussed and tried to plan for.

It is “a nightmare that we worry about,” Downing said.

According to a criminal complaint filed against Marquez last week in federal court, he and Farook planned to target a location on the 91 Freeway during the afternoon rush hour.

The complaint does not specify the exact location but said the area lacked exits, which the two believed would increase the number of targets. Marquez admitted to authorities that he would set up a position in the hills south of the freeway as Farook would throw pipe bombs into the eastbound lanes to stop traffic, the court papers said.

Farook would then move among the stopped vehicles, shooting motorists. Marquez said his plan was to shoot at stopped vehicles from the hill and watch for approaching police and emergency workers, prosecutors alleged. His priority, he said, was to shoot at police before firing on medical personnel.

The document said Marquez stopped planning the attack in 2012 for several reasons, including the arrest of a group of men in Chino in an unrelated terrorism case.

Downing said that even staging an accident on a section of a freeway with few exits would give terrorists the ability to attack motorists stopped in traffic.

The key for law enforcement, he said, would be to send officers to the scene quickly to stop the attack.

Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, killed 14 people Dec. 2 at a holiday party in San Bernardino. They were later killed in a shootout with authorities. Both are said to have expressed support for Islamic radicalism. Marquez was charged last week with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists related to the 91 Freeway plan, and another aborted plot targeting Riverside City College. He was also charged with illegally providing some of the weapons used in the Dec. 2 shootings.

Both the San Bernardino shooting and the Islamic State attacks in Paris underscored the vulnerabilities of “soft targets.” Both attacks occurred away from landmarks that officials have often considered the most likely terrorist targets and instead hit suburban areas with much more limited security.

The alleged 91 Freeway plan is one of many plots uncovered in the United States that targeted transportation. According to the New York Police Department, plans included cutting the support cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, exploding bombs in the New York subway system and blowing up train tubes under the Hudson and East rivers.

There have been several aborted efforts to commit terrorism at transportation hubs, law enforcement authorities say:

2000: Plot uncovered to attack Los Angeles International Airport.

2003: Man plots to cut cable supports for the Brooklyn Bridge.

2006: Group talks of blowing up a train tunnel under the Hudson River, causing massive flooding.

2006: Men plot to blow up gas storage tanks and lines leading to JFK Airport.

2008: Man talked of using a suitcase bomb in river tunnel on Long Island Railroad.

2009: Men plot bombings in New York subway system.

2012: Men are accused of plot to blow up a bridge near Cleveland.

Source: Los Angeles Times reports; New York Police Department

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Raymond Shobe via Flickr

 

After The San Bernardino Tragedy, Elected Leaders Were Notably Absent

By Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

Perhaps it’s unfair that a politician’s response to crisis will forever be measured against that of New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani on Sept. 11, 2001, striding the streets of Manhattan with ash flying and face mask in hand, ordering New Yorkers to march north to safety and away from the cratered remains of the World Trade Center towers.

The overwhelming drama of Giuliani’s first televised statements — which segued into round-the-clock news conferences and a constant physical presence in the wounded city by Guiliani, then-Gov. George Pataki and, occasionally, President George W. Bush — contrasted with the underwhelming response to the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.

Local officials arrived promptly, aided by geography. California Gov. Jerry Brown showed up only briefly before heading to Paris for the international conference on climate change. President Barack Obama has yet to visit, though his spokesman would not rule out a trip before his Hawaii vacation begins at the end of this week. Obama did deliver Oval Office remarks on the shooting, which appeared to do little to calm nerves.

Part of the difference between 9/11 and the events of Dec. 2 was, of course, the sheer scale: As awful as the deaths of 14 people in San Bernardino were, thousands died in the collapse of the towers, the crashing of a third plane into the Pentagon and the loss of a fourth in Pennsylvania after passengers revolted against the hijackers.

In size, San Bernardino was more akin to the mass shootings that have become part of American life, and that have prompted officials to respond mostly with partisan fights over gun control.

Some of that took place after San Bernardino, with Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, among others, talking about the effect of guns. But for the most part, the role Giuliani played 14 years ago was performed by San Bernardino police Chief Jarrod Burguan.

The career cop merged straight talk, sympathy and a tough physical presence to serve as communal comforter in the hours after the shooting. (And, of course, he employed tools that didn’t exist in 2001 — social media platforms — to keep people in the know.)

Still, San Bernardino was the biggest explosion of international terrorism on American soil since 9/11, so the thin representation of elected officials was notable.

And it raised a few questions: In times of crisis, do people still want solace and information from politicians, or is that a vestige of the past? Is the show of public concern more or less important than the behind-the-scenes work done in San Bernardino by the county Office of Emergency Services and the California Highway Patrol?

Californians seem to prefer their politicians to be seen and not heard. Until they don’t. In the past, that has prompted a ubiquitous presence by state leaders when crisis strikes.

Pete Wilson raised crisis response to something of an art form when he was governor. A combination of arctic freezes, fires, drought, recession and riots led him to issue disaster declarations in 56 of the 58 counties even before the Northridge earthquake struck in 1994, at the beginning of his fourth year in office.

Wilson became as common on Southern California newscasts as the weather report. In a joint effort with federal officials for which the governor served as the public face, work crews were able to reopen the Santa Monica Freeway to motorists 84 days after it had shattered in the quake.

Clinton administration Democrats griped that their role was elbowed aside by Wilson, yet the demonstration of capability by government work crews helped cement his image as an able manager, and helped cement his re-election that year.

Brown delayed his trip to Paris by a day to visit with officials in San Bernardino and pledge that they “would spare nothing” in bringing the perpetrators to justice. Brown spokeswoman Deborah Hoffman said the governor considered canceling the trip, but went ahead after the shooters were killed by police in the hours after the attack.

The climate change event Brown was headed to served as something of a pinnacle for his time in office, focusing as it did on a subject that inspires more passion in Brown than any other. And that played into his decision to go, Hoffman said.

“I don’t believe the governor would have traveled to any other type of planned event,” she said.

State and federal officials have hewn to familiar roles in the wake of the tragedy. The state’s senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, has hammered Democrats and Republicans alike on their response to homegrown terror and Islamic State militants abroad.

For all the panning of his speech by Republicans and some Democrats, Obama has persisted in a daily overseas assault that has cut into the leadership of the terror group — although, as made evident in San Bernardino, not diminished its reach.

In the aftermath of floods or fires, politicians mostly provide comfort. A week and a half after the attack in San Bernardino, there was a sense that it would take more this time, that the nation has entered a long and unpredictable slog against terror that will not solve itself as swiftly as homes rebuild.

How to get through that might have been a topic for politicians to raise in San Bernardino. If, that is, they had stuck around, or showed up at all.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Attendees reflect on the tragedy of Wednesday’s attack during a candlelight vigil in San Bernardino, California December 3, 2015.  REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni