Sadly, it's clear that the forces of law and order have developed little or no understanding of what is happening within the vast community of extremists who now seem capable of holding one of Europe's leading, yet most vulnerable, nations in their thrall. And worse yet, France continues to lack the coordination so desperately needed if the next attack is to be thwarted before it can be unleashed.
Barely 12 hours before a large truck ripped through the throng strung along Nice's Promenade des Anglais to watch the fireworks marking Bastille Day, France's military might paraded in force down the Champs-Elysees in Paris, past the viewing stand where President Francois Hollande sat with his cabinet and guests, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. They watched as the French air force flew overhead. Troops of the army and navy, heavy artillery, missile launchers and drones, the foreign legion, gendarmerie and police rolled through the Place de la Concorde. It was meant to be a show of force, military power and accomplishment.
It was also an example of just how fractured France's defensive capabilities are -- a host of different and competing military, police and judicial groups that makes France such a tempting target. For years, the French intelligence and investigative services and the gendarmerie, grouped under the Ministry of the Interior, have coexisted tensely, competing for manpower and resources over their broad range of missions from maintaining law and order to investigating terrorist cells. And this tension has only intensified in the last 18 months.
But there is another reason France remains a target -- its sheer numbers. France, a nation with one-fifth the population of the United States, has some 11,000 names
on its terror watch lists, 2,000 with alleged direct links to ISIS. According to Paul Cruickshank, a CNN terror analyst, at least 1,000 French Muslims are believed to have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq, while at least 250 have returned.
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhel, the French-Tunisian who drove Thursday night's death truck, was on none of these lists.
Perhaps the most frightening reality is that ISIS has discovered, as coordinated attacks on their seized territory have thwarted their aim of establishing a caliphate across the Middle East, that they have no real need to hold territory to achieve their ends. The caliphate today is all around us. (ISIS has not claimed responsibility for the Nice attack.)
Twenty years ago, the Count Alexandre de Marenches, the longtime head of French intelligence, warned me as we worked on our book "The Fourth World War: Diplomacy and Espionage in the Age of Terrorism
" that the greatest single danger to France was the existence "within our nation of another nation we do not understand, whose language we do not speak, whose customs we do not know, whose hopes and aspirations we do not share."
French officials understand that -- to a certain extent. "We are at war,"
said French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, as he arrived in Nice during the night. But France, like much of Western Europe, still cannot identify who its enemies are, where they are planning their next attacks, or what motivation or means they may be using to carry out those attacks.
Two years ago, a seven-minute ISIS video laid out a blueprint for the attacks that followed, and those that may not yet have begun. French jihadist Abu Salman al-Faranci urged his fellow jihadists in France to "kill infidels and spit in their faces,
smash their heads with a rock, slaughter them with a knife, run them over with your cars. Even poison is available, so poison the water and food of at least one of the enemies of Allah."
In the same video, one of ISIS' top spokesmen, Abu Mohammed al Adnani, expanded the target, urging the group's admirers to "kill a disbelieving American or European -- especially the spiteful and filthy French -- or an Australian, or a Canadian."
So is this what we still have to anticipate? Jihadists targeting our water supplies, assembling car and truck bombs, deranged individuals forcing us to look behind us at every turn? Perhaps. But the real answer may have come Friday morning from French Prime Minister Manuel Valls who told a national television audience: "We will not yield to terrorists. The only response will be to remain loyal to the spirit of the 14th of July," France's equivalent of July 4th.
That spirit, though, must come with a greater understanding of the vast networks of disenfranchised and easily radicalized French men and women. To build this understanding requires a clear and present effort to bring them into society, employ them in meaningful jobs and educate them properly so that they feel a part of their adopted nation with a stake in its future. Only then will they cease to be a breeding ground for terrorists and cooperate in efforts to bring this cycle of violence to an end.