July 15, 2016
Nice is best known for its beaches, sun-drenched café terraces, and glamorous lifestyle.
But the French Riviera city, where an attacker plowed a truck through a crowd on Bastille Day and killed more than 80 people in what President Francois Hollande called a monstrous terrorist act, is also a longtime hotbed of Islamic militancy.
According to French government figures, Nice has the second highest number of radical Muslims after the volatile Paris suburb of Seine-Saint-Denis. If one takes into account its relatively small population, Nice, with barely more than 343,000 inhabitants, is proportionally the most radicalized area in France.
The Paris prosecutor said on July 15 that while no one has claimed responsibility, the attack on a Nice promenade “bears the hallmark of terrorist organization.” Authorities identified the dead attacker as Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old Frenchman of Tunisian descent, and media reports said he was from Nice.
Patrick Amoyel, a professor of psychology and a Nice-based expert on Islamic extremism, says the city has a long history of jihadist radicalization.
“It goes back to the implantation of armed Islamic groups and networks, of the Islamic Salvation Front, which arrived massively on the French Riviera after 1995-97,” he says. “So there has long been a strong presence of Islamic forces that are purportedly moderate but constitute a breeding ground.”
Nice has seen a string of arrests of suspected Islamic militants in recent years.
After authorities said a family of 11 people, including several children and an infant, left their home in Nice to join extremists fighting in Syria in the autumn of 2014, Mayor Christian Estrosi announced the launch of a 24-hour hotline to help families and individuals confronted with Islamist radicalization.
Several other government-backed initiatives have also been put in place over the past few years to combat radicalization in France.
Experts says radical Islam is on the rise nationwide and specifically in the Nice region, with recruiters operating in mosques, sports facilities, outside schools, and on social networking websites.
Amoyel heads Entr’Autres, a local association that seeks to combat the radicalization of young men and women in Nice.
He said recruiters tap in the mounting sense of exclusion felt by many French youths of Maghreb descent.
“Based on their belief that they are victims, that there are conspiracies, on their anti-Semitic views, these people enter a system of revenge against the West, against modernity,” he said.
One of France’s most prominent jihadist recruiters, Omar Diaby, hails from Nice. A former petty criminal of Senegalese descent, Diaby — who is in his early 40s — left for Syria two years ago.
He first recruited fighters for the Al-Nusra Front, a group based in Syria and affiliated with al-Qaeda. He has since created his own extremist group and is believed to have brought dozens of boys and men from his French hometown over to Syria.
“He had a snack bar to which he invited young people, he gave them video games for free,” says Amoyel. “He also ran a football club. The young men he recruited were usually between 16 and 25 years old.”
Entr’Autres works with psychologists, social workers, parents, and imams in an effort to reach out to radicalized youths.
Amoyel says the group has faced an uphill battle to help re-insert these youths into society.
“We are able to reverse the course for about half of those who are in the process of being radicalized,” he says. “Concerning those who are already deeply radicalized, we are happy if we are even able to reduce their terrorist temptations.”
His predictions are just as glum.
According to him, the radicalization of Muslim youths in France will “accelerate over the next 10 years.”