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French investigators explore possible terror links in Nice attack that killed 84

Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a Tunisian-born émigré was behind the wheel of a truck that barreled into Bastille Day revelers and claimed at least 84 lives. (Video: Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)

A petty thief and brawler who plowed a mile-long path of horror through Bastille Day celebrations on Nice's seafront had no known connections to terrorist groups, a French prosecutor said Friday as investigators scrambled to piece together whether the attack that claimed 84 lives was directed by Islamist militant networks.

The scale of the carnage wrought by a man authorities identified as 31-year-old Tunisian immigrant Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel came into grim focus Friday, with 10 children among the dead and 202 people injured. Among the wounded, 50 were "between life and death," according to French President François Hollande.

The attack with a 19-ton rented Renault truck — the third mass- casualty assault to hit to France in 18 months — shocked the nation and sparked questions about whether authorities had done enough to safeguard a country that is an obvious target of terrorist groups. Many witnesses said Friday that the packed corniche had been only lightly guarded by police during fireworks on the gently warm night. Bouhlel, a truck driver, was easily able to drive around police fences blocking Nice’s famous Promenade des Anglais before jamming on the accelerator and zigzagging his way through the crowds in a method that seemed calculated to generate maximum bloodshed.

The identities of the victims testified to France’s diverse society and to the international appeal of the tony French Riviera. A vacationing father and his 11-year-old son from Lakeway, Tex. A headscarf-wearing Muslim woman who came to celebrate Bastille Day with her nieces and nephews. A French high school teacher, his wife, daughter and grandson. Others from Russia, Switzerland, Germany, Australia.

There were so many victims early Friday that survivors grabbed tablecloths from seaside cafes to cover the bodies strewn across the asphalt. The dead were marked by rectangular orange and white traffic-control barriers that stood like rows of tombstones.

The Washington Post's Michael Birnbaum reports from Nice, France a day after at least 84 people were killed when Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, 31, drove a truck into a crowd celebrating Bastille Day. (Video: Michael Birnbaum, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

Texas father and son among the dead

‘A war waged on us’

Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Friday drew a strong link to terrorism, despite the fact that no militant group had claimed responsibility for the attack and Bouhlel had no known ties to such organizations.

“The threat of terrorism, as we have now been saying for a long time, is weighing heavily on France, and it will continue to do so for a long time yet,” Valls said after an emergency meeting in Paris. “We are facing a war waged on us by terrorism.”

French citizens are clearly reaching their limit. Valls and Hollande — whose popularity is scraping record lows — were booed when they visited the seaside scene of the attack Friday, in an apparent sign of anger over security lapses.

France was shaken by a terrorist attack in January 2015, when militant Islamist attackers took aim at the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher grocery store in Paris. Attackers struck again in November in a popular nightclub district of the capital, setting off bombs and raking the area with gunfire.

This time, the French population had just relaxed after living for weeks on heightened alert during European soccer championships that concluded Sunday. Hours before the violence in Nice, Hollande had announced that he planned to allow a state of emergency to expire at the end of the month. On Friday, Hollande said it would be extended for three months instead, and he said he would boost France’s role in the Islamic State strongholds of Syria and Iraq.

How the Nice truck attack managed to kill so many so quickly

Georgetown University faculty member Rollie Flynn spent 30 years working with the CIA and identifies the traits of a lone wolf terrorist attack and why they are difficult to police. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor/The Washington Post)

The attack was a “barbaric act,” Hollande said after meeting with top officials in Nice. “An individual who took a truck and murdered people with it.”

Belgium, Germany and Italy stepped up security along their borders on Friday, in a measure of fears that the violence in France could spill into neighboring countries. Belgium — which was struck by a bomb attack at the Brussels airport and a subway station in March — is particularly nervous ahead of its own national day Thursday.

As investigators struggled to understand whether Bouhlel had acted alone, they offered a first account of his path toward the murderous drive that concluded in a hail of bullets from police officers who forced the truck to a stop outside the grand Palais de la Mediterranee, a hotel.

Bouhlel was a Tunisian citizen who had lived in Nice since at least 2010, when he first ran afoul of authorities by engaging in petty theft, according to Paris Prosecutor François Molins. Most recently, he had been given a suspended six-month prison sentence related to a January assault, Molins said.

Bouhlel is divorced and has three children, neighbors said. The prosecutor said the suspect’s ex-wife was taken in for questioning.

Truck’s deadly path

As fireworks lit up the sky Thursday in celebration of Bastille Day, Bouhlel drove the rented truck toward its fatal destination, Molins said. In the cab he carried an automatic pistol, two fake assault rifles, a non-working hand grenade and a phony pistol. He swerved around a police barrier blocking the Promenade des Anglais just next to a children’s hospital, then sped through the crowds, leaving carnage in his path. More than a mile later, three police officers traded fire with him, Molins said. Authorities think the truck kept going 300 yards after he had been shot. Police found him dead in the passenger seat.

Bouhlel was “entirely unknown” to anti-terrorist units, the prosecutor said. “Yesterday’s attack has not yet been claimed, but I must stay that this kind of attack is in line with the type advocated by the terrorist organizations in various videos,” he said.

Shouts, a desperate dash and then ‘bodies, limbs and blood’

Witnesses described confusion and chaos Thursday night as hundreds of panicked bystanders ran to try to escape the deadly truck.

After the fireworks, Adrien Dobrescu, 54, who was visiting from Romania, heard more sharp bangs. “Someone was screaming, and I saw gunfire,” he said. He ran with a crowd as fast as he could off the promenade. “I had waited two, four minutes, I would be dead, too.”

Survivors were left to deal with the wounded and dead.

“There were so many injured, and dead bodies,” said Fiona Le Goff, 27, a concierge at an apartment building facing the Promenade des Anglais. “The worst was a woman whose body was just stuck to the street.”

Later, she surveyed the area as forensic teams moved in. “There were people just covered with white cloths,” she said. “It was horrible.”

After the bodies of victims had been hauled away Friday, the macabre truck remained for hours. More than 25 bullet holes riddled its front, and its doors stood open while investigators searched it. Barely 100 yards away, mourners piled flowers and remembrances at the base of a palm tree, some of them crying while they sang “La Marseillaise,” France’s anthem.

France declared three days of mourning beginning Saturday, and flags will fly at half-staff.

At a White House meeting with foreign diplomats Friday, President Obama lamented that “so many children” were killed or hurt in the “sickening attack” in Nice. He said he spoke to Hollande earlier in the day and pledged that the United States would stand with France “as we defend our nations against this scourge of terrorism and violence.”

“These terrorists are targeting and killing innocent people of all backgrounds and faiths, including Muslims,” Obama said. He vowed to “keep taking out” Islamic State leaders on the battlefield.

Among the dead were two Americans: Sean Copeland, 51, and his 11-year-old son, Brodie, from Lakeway, about 20 miles west of Austin, who were vacationing in Europe, the family said in a statement.

A U.S. student, Nicolas Leslie, 20, was missing, the University of California at Berkeley said in a statement.

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to an interview given to the local Nice-Matin newspaper by a Nice-based lawyer who claimed to have been the court-appointed lawyer of the Nice attacker. It did not refer to the lawyer, Corentin Delobel, by name. Delobel, who was widely interviewed by local and international press after the attack, has acknowledged that he had never represented Bouhlel, and misrepresented himself when media contacted him, the head of the Nice lawyers’ association said. The story has been corrected to remove the reference to the interview.

Rick Noack and Annabell Van den Burghe in Nice; Souad Mekhennet in Frankfurt, Germany; Brian Murphy and William Branigin in Washington; Carol Morello in Moscow; and Griff Witte in London contributed to this report.

Read more:

Two Americans among the dead in Nice attack

What we know about the November Paris attacks and the hunt for the attackers

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