The attack in Nice, France, that killed at least 84 people and injured hundreds of others was brutally simple and very difficult to prevent. A truck, barreling into a crowd of Bastille Day revelers, mowed down bystanders celebrating Bastille Day before the driver opened fire.
In the United States, it is fair to see the carnage in France and ask if something similar could unfold here.
“That answer is undoubtedly yes,” said Gregory Shaffer, a former FBI agent who has worked extensively on national security issues and served on the bureau’s Hostage Rescue Team. “It could very easily happen here. You look at the low-tech aspect of this attack, nothing involved but a white truck.”
Authorities said they also found explosives inside the truck, and the attacker shot at survivors before he was killed by police.
But the nature of this attack added yet another element to the carnage that has unfolded in cities like Brussels, Paris, Baghdad and Orlando, as something as routine as a truck became a weapon of targeted destruction.
Extremists have called for using vehicles this way before, but experts say the Nice attack is the escalation of a trend, as some attackers are utilizing simple tools to kill increasingly large numbers of people. And while experts also caution that the United States is not France — as we are separated by an ocean from fighters traveling to and from Syria and have more experience with terrorist attacks — they also warn that the country could be vulnerable to such an attack.
Law enforcement officials in the United States, already on edge after a gunman killed five police officers in Dallas, said they were alert after the Nice attack, though authorities in major cities said Friday that they did not know of any credible threats.
In Chicago, police officers were already “in a heightened posture” given the rampage in Dallas and the mass shooting in Orlando weeks earlier, a spokesman said Friday. While there was “no current domestic threat or credible intelligence targeting Chicago,” he said additional officers were patrolling crowded areas and specific locations in the city.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who also said there were no specific or credible threats against that city, said that police would increase their presence in areas like Times Square.
“We absolutely are on alert,” de Blasio said in an interview on WNYC. “We’re on alert every day in New York City.”
He also said that based on what had happened around the world, police in New York had learned to put up “multiple barriers” around events like New Year’s Eve or Independence Day celebrations “to protect against these kinds of attacks.”
New York is a good example of a place that has tightened security around what were previously seen as softer targets to attack, said Don Borelli, an FBI agent for 25 years and the former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in New York.
“We are vulnerable to a degree, but I think the thing that we have that is the big challenge for the French … We’ve just been at this level longer,” he said. “We’ve been dealing with this longer. And we also we have the luxury of being a long way away from most of these guys that are in Iraq and Syria.”
Borelli said he did not think the Nice attacker would’ve been able to carry out such an assault in New York City, owing to the way authorities there prepare for areas with crowds and deal with counter-terrorism and the city’s experiences after being attacked.
“Other cities haven’t had these catastrophes,” he said. “It’s one of those lessons you learn the hard way. Look at Boston,” he said, pointing to changes after the marathon there was bombed in 2013. “You had two different kind of security postures, before and after. Some of these cities are still in before mode.”
Security and preparations will not be the same at all large gatherings in the United States. The New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square may be patrolled by the nation’s largest police department, with its own massive anti-terrorism operation, but that is not the case during a homecoming parade in Oklahoma or on a routine night on the sidewalk in Las Vegas. In both cases last year, drivers plowed into large crowds, killing or injuring numerous people.
For planned attacks, there is a difference between “hard targets,” which typically have beefed-up security, and “soft targets,” which are often public places that are harder to defend — or, in the case of Nice, are spread out over such a long stretch of road that it could be difficult to fully secure it.
“The RNC, the DNC, the inauguration, those are hard targets, and the terrorists know that. They’re not going to attack the hard targets anymore. They’re going to attack the soft targets,” Shaffer said.
Shaffer pointed as an example to the difference between a Major League Baseball game, which could be attended by 30,000 or 40,000 people who go through security to get inside, and minor league games, which could be attended by a few thousand people and “are virtually open to anybody can buy a ticket and walk in.”
People planning attacks see what else has happened and can pick at perceived weaknesses to try and exploit them, Shaffer said. The difficulty for law enforcement agencies in the U.S. is trying to figure out if every parade, protest and celebration may now require additional security in the form of trucks delivering jersey barriers, which would take more time and cost more money, he said.
In France, authorities said the Nice attacker was”entirely unknown” to anti-terrorism units. And while no international terror group immediately claimed responsibility, the Paris prosecutor, who opened a terrorism investigation, said the attack “fits very well in the context of the cause made by the terrorist organizations in various videos and messages.”
The Islamic State has previously called for attacks using vehicles, according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors extremist statements. Supporters of the radical Islamist organization, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were sharing the news of the Nice attack and “celebrating the massacre,” SITE said.
Pro-Islamic State forums posted old messages in which the group urged followers to carry out lone-wolf attacks in France, while SITE said that in 2010, the online magazine tied to al-Qaeda’s faction based in Yemen outlined using a vehicle to “mow down” victims.
“The idea of using a vehicle as a weapon of jihad is not new,” Borelli said. “This was certainly the most extravagant example and the most lethal … We’ve seen other versions of this.”
Even as the Islamic State is preparing for the eventual collapse of its self-declared “caliphate,” the group has called for bloody attacks elsewhere. Large-scale massacres on multiple places — including a string of recent attacks Istanbul; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Baghdad — have shown that even as the group’s foothold in Iraq and Syria has decreased, it has still been able to target locations around the globe.
“The successful attacks abroad are an indication of deep worry at home,” Will McCants, author of “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State,” recently told The Post.
After massacres like the Paris attacks in November and the coordinated bombings in Belgium in March — both of which were claimed by the Islamic State — experts cautioned that similar assaults were unlikely in the United States, because foreign fighters have been able to move between Europe and the battlefields of Iraq and Syria.
Still, even if foreign fighters are less likely to make their way here, authorities are still worried about lone wolf attacks. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said last year that it’s “harder to detect” people in the country “who are simply inspired by something they’ve seen open source, in the Internet, and they decide on their own to take action.”
That includes people who are inspired by radical groups — as authorities say the gunman in Orlando was — as well as those who may have other motivations and still seek the same result.
While the Nice attack struck a country that was just rocked by a devastating attack in November, the United States has been on edge due to other attacks — some declared terrorism, others not — that have unfolded on city streets, at holiday parties and inside churches and schools.
The motivations and machinations have varied, but the end result has been a series of violent onslaughts coming while Americans are increasingly worried about terrorist attacks here.
Just a week before the Nice bloodshed, a lone gunman in Dallas who said he was enraged by fatal police shootings of black people killed five police officers and wounded nine others during a peaceful protest in that city’s downtown. A month before the Dallas shooting, a gunman in Orlando who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State killed 49 people and injured more than 50 others in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
Six months before that, two attackers who pledged loyalty to the Islamic State killed 14 people in a shooting rampage in San Bernardino, Calif., which came just a month after a gunman in Oregon killed nine people during a mass shooting at a community college in Roseburg, Ore., which occurred less than four months after a gunman in Charleston, S.C., shot nine black parishioners inside a church there.
The only common thing linking these disparate events is that they have resulted in mass bloodshed in public places that seemed safe, much like a cafe in Bangladesh or the promenade in Nice. Adding to the horror in Nice — and reverberating outward — is that the weapon there was something that people across the world could pass on the street in the hours and days ahead.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time, and have the best training that the U.S. government has to offer, and to defend against somebody driving a truck and just mowing down people, it’s a low-tech, very effective weapon,” Shaffer said. “I just don’t see how that can be stopped.”