Extremist groups praise Nice attacker as French police investigate terrorist links

Brahim Aouissaoui travelled from Tunisia, which has struggled to contain the spread of terrorist groups

An identity picture of the Nice assailant Brahim Aouissaoui, who a day earlier killed three people and wounded several others in the southern French city of Nice, is pictured at his family home in the Tunisian city of Sfax, on October 30, 2020.  The knife attacker killed three people, cutting the throat of at least one woman, inside a church in Nice on the French Riviera. / AFP / AFPTV teams
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Supporters of Al Qaeda and ISIS praised the Tunisian extremists who used a well-known migrant route from North Africa to carry out a murderous attack at a church in Nice on Friday.

A pro-ISIS media group said that France was tasting from the “bitter cup” of revenge after extremist groups had called on followers to launch attacks following President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to counter-radicalisation moves.

No group has claimed responsibility for the Nice attack that left three dead and followed two-weeks of online abuse of France by extremists who called for attacks on its interests both inside and outside the country.

Al Qaeda had called for revenge attacks on churches in France because of the government’s backing for the public showing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Prominent supporters of the group also called for attacks on embassies, airports and military bases.

The family of Brahim Aouissaoui, who is accused of carrying out the attack before being shot and critically wounded by police, told reporters that they were unaware of any links between the 21-year-old and extremist groups. He was not listed by Tunisian authorities as a suspected extremist.

“My brother is a friendly person and never showed extremism,” his elder brother Yassin said. “He respected all other people and accepted their differences even since he was a child.” Tunisia’s weak government has failed to get to grips with a resurgent extremist movement after the 2011 Arab Uprising, which also swept away much of the country’s security apparatus.

Its failure to tackle poverty, unemployment and corruption has driven disaffected youngsters into the arms of extremists, according to experts.

“The Tunisian government’s existing [counter-terrorism] policy has often focused on heavy-handed law enforcement tactics,” wrote Geoffrey Macdonald, a researcher at the US-based International Republican Institute. “Focus group research in Tunisia suggests that these tactics have only enflamed radical sentiments.”

Tunisia had one of the largest contingents to join ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the war in neighbouring Libya provided a training ground for radicalised young Tunisians.

Some of the most senior figures in ISIS were from Tunisia. Anis Amri, a Tunisian terrorist, had contacts with ISIS before he killed 12 people in December 2016 by driving a lorry into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin.

The brutality of the attack in Nice and the brief period of time from Aouissaoui travelling to Nice before launching the attack raises questions that others might have been involved, said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

Aouissaoui reportedly landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa on September 20 before arriving at the Italian port of Bari in early October. He then made his way to Nice via Paris, according to French media reports.

The suspected triple killer went to the church soon after arriving in Nice on Thursday and spoke to his family on a video call just hours before the attack without giving any indication of what he was about to do.

Most of the terrorists behind the 2015 attacks in Paris are known to have researched and used migrant routes to enter France from Syria without detection.

“It raises an eyebrow since he appears to have travelled such a long distance and then almost immediately launched an attack,” said Mr Pantucci. The sheer brutality of the attack suggested that he was either “pretty hardened” or affected by mental health or intoxication, he said.

The failure of ISIS or Al Qaeda to claim responsibility would align with other recent attacks in Europe carried out by lone wolf attackers without direction from international terrorist networks.

“All of which reflects the grim reality of a chronic violent Islamist threat and its particular anger towards cultural insults,” Mr Pantucci said.