Attacker in Nice ‘radicalized very quickly,’ French interior minister says

Updated 6:20 AM EDT, Sun July 17, 2016
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French soldiers patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower on January 8, 2015 in Paris as the capital was placed under the highest alert status a day after heavily armed gunmen shouting Islamist slogans stormed French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and shot dead at least 12 people in the deadliest attack in France in four decades. A  huge manhunt for two brothers suspected of massacring 12 people in an Islamist attack at a satirical French weekly zeroed in on a northern town Thursday after the discovery of one of the getaway cars. As thousands of police tightened their net, the country marked a rare national day of mourning for Wednesday's bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, the worst terrorist attack in France for half a century. AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY        (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)
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French soldiers patrol in front of the Eiffel Tower on January 8, 2015 in Paris as the capital was placed under the highest alert status a day after heavily armed gunmen shouting Islamist slogans stormed French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and shot dead at least 12 people in the deadliest attack in France in four decades. A huge manhunt for two brothers suspected of massacring 12 people in an Islamist attack at a satirical French weekly zeroed in on a northern town Thursday after the discovery of one of the getaway cars. As thousands of police tightened their net, the country marked a rare national day of mourning for Wednesday's bloodbath at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, the worst terrorist attack in France for half a century. AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY (Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images)
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An attack in Nice where a man rammed a truck into a crowd of people left 84 dead and another 18 in a "critical condition", interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said Friday. An unidentified gunman barrelled the truck two kilometres (1.3 miles) through a crowd that had been enjoying a fireworks display for France's national day before being shot dead by police.
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Policemen walk on the site where a truck drove into a crowd watching a fireworks display on the Promenade des Anglais seafront in the French Riviera town of Nice on July 15, 2016. An attack in Nice where a man rammed a truck into a crowd of people left 84 dead and another 18 in a "critical condition", interior ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet said Friday. An unidentified gunman barrelled the truck two kilometres (1.3 miles) through a crowd that had been enjoying a fireworks display for France's national day before being shot dead by police. / AFP / Valery HACHE (Photo credit should read VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
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Fire department ambulances and vehicles are parked near the scene of an attack after a truck drove on to the sidewalk and plowed through a crowd of revelers who'd gathered to watch the fireworks in the French resort city of Nice, southern France, Friday, July 15, 2016. A spokesman for France's Interior Ministry says there are likely to be "several dozen dead" after a truck drove into a crowd of revelers celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice. (AP Photo/Christian Alminana)
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Story highlights

ISIS says one of its "soldiers" carried out attack in France

"Mum, there are dead everywhere," one victim says in a frantic phone call

(CNN) —  

The man who used a 20-ton truck to plow down hundreds of people in Nice this week, killing 84, somehow became rapidly radicalized and hadn’t shown up on any anti-terrorist intelligence radar, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday.

The minister said Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, had had no record of making militant statements and was not known to the intelligence services.

It seems he became radicalized very quickly,” Cazeneuve said, without offering specifics.

“This is a new type of attack,” Cazeneuve said. “We are now confronted with individuals that are sensitive to the message of ISIS and are committed to extremely violent actions without necessarily being trained by them.”

Earlier Saturday, a statement from ISIS’ media group, Amaq Agency, said that an ISIS “soldier” carried out the attack in Nice.

People left flowers, candles and other tributes in Nice, France, on Saturday in memory of those killed in Thursday's terror attack in the coastal city.
Peter Wilkinson/CNN
People left flowers, candles and other tributes in Nice, France, on Saturday in memory of those killed in Thursday's terror attack in the coastal city.

The statement, which was posted by ISIS supporters, said a security source told the agency “the person who carried out the run-over in Nice, France, is one of the Islamic State soldiers and carried out the operation in response to calls to target nationals of the coalition which is fighting the Islamic State.”

Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel's ID Card
French Government
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel's ID Card

The wording of the statement – not claiming the attack as an outright act of ISIS, but noting that the attacker was responding to calls to act against the coalition – mirrors ISIS’ language in statements after the nightclub shooting in Orlando, when it claimed gunman Omar Mateen as a “soldier.” Forty-nine people died in the June 12 massacre.

French prosecutor François Molins said Friday the attack in Nice fits with calls that “terrorist organizations regularly give out on their videos and elsewhere.”

New developments in the investigation

As the investigation continued, French authorities were questioning five people Saturday. Among them was Bouhlel’s ex-wife, who was taken into custody Friday, the anti-terrorism prosecutor’s office said. The other four are men.

Bouhlel, a resident of Nice, was born in Tunisia but had a permit to live and work in France.

While Cazeneuve said no evidence had yet been found to tie Bouhlel to jihadism, a source close to the investigation told CNN that a phone number belonging to Bouhlel cropped up in a counterterrorism investigation into an associate of Omar Diaby, a 41-year-old Senegalese jihadi who lived in Nice before traveling to Syria.

Diaby, who calls himself Omar Omsen, commands a French jihadi battalion in Syria affiliated with Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s branch in Syria. The source said investigators made the link after cross-referencing case files after the attack in Nice. Investigators are looking into the nature of the links between Bouhlel and Diaby’s associate, but they cannot rule out that the two were possibly just part of the same social circle.

French counterterrorism officials have established that a series of YouTube videos Diaby recorded in Nice in 2012 before he departed for Syria helped motivate a significant number of French extremists to travel to fight in Syria. In May, Diaby revealed in a Skype interview with a French journalist that he had faked his own death in August 2015 to get medical treatment outside Syria.

LIVE: Follow rolling updates from Nice terror attack

Hollande warns of continued strikes

French President François Hollande, addressing his country after its third major terrorist attack in 18 months, described the assault as an “unspeakable act.”

“We have an enemy who is going to continue to strike all the people, all the countries who have freedom as a fundamental value,” Hollande said.

Bouhlel was shot to death by police after he barreled down the crowded Promenade des Anglais for almost a mile, crushing and hitting people who had gathered to watch the Bastille Day fireworks. More than 200 people were injured, and at least 55 of them were in critical condition Friday.

Bouhlel was identified by fingerprints after his identification card was found in the truck, authorities said.

He was known to police because of allegations of threats, violence and thefts over the past six years, and he was given a suspended six-month prison sentence this year after being convicted of violence with a weapon, authorities said.

Bouhlel’s father, who lives in Tunisia, said his son showed signs of mental health issues – having had multiple nervous breakdowns and volatile behavior, said CNN terrorism analyst Paul Cruickshank.

Despite his criminal record, Bouhlel was not on the radar for any kind of terror threat. The man was “entirely unknown by the intelligence services, whether nationally or locally,” Molins said.

“He had never been the subject of any kind of file or indication of radicalization.”

’There are dead everywhere’

As the seaside resort town tried to regain a semblance of normalcy Saturday, harrowing new details emerged about Thursday night’s tragedy. One young victim, Kimberley Torres, described how someone tried to throw her out of the way of the truck, but she was still hit by it.

“I tried to roll myself into a ball, so the people wouldn’t crush me, but I was still hit in the stomach and leg,” she said.

The 16-year-old, who lives in Nice and is studying for an international baccalaureate, is recovering from her injuries at the Fondation Lenval.