Terror sans terrorists? Lone-wolf attacks roil France

Authorities are treating two incidents as common criminality but haven't ruled out a political motivation in the third. France is on alert over returning fighters from Syria and Iraq. 

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
French soldiers patrol the Christmas market along Champs Elysees in Paris today. French security forces stepped up protection of public places on Tuesday after three acts of violence in three days left some 30 wounded and reignited fears about France's vulnerability to attacks by Islamic radicals.

Across Europe, security officials have been raising the alarm over the return of European jihadis from Syria and Iraq. But a spate of seemingly random rampages in France has drawn attention to attacks that don't amount to organized terrorism, yet still sow terror. 

On Monday evening, a driver rammed his van into a busy Christmas market in the western city of Nantes, injuring ten people before stabbing himself, though not fatally. The previous day, a man injured 13 people in the eastern city of Dijon by running into pedestrians at various points of the city while crying “God is great” in Arabic. Authorities say both attackers had a history of mental illness. 

And on Saturday the same cry was uttered, this time by a Muslim convert who stabbed two policemen in Joue-les-Tours. They were not killed but the attacker was shot dead by police. A terrorism case has been opened in that incident.

Authorities say the three attacks were unrelated. Prime Minister Manuel Valls today urged the French to stay calm. “The events are serious and worrying,” he said on Europe 1 radio. “Even if there’s no link between them I can understand the concern of citizens.”

However, the fact that lone-wolf attackers struck in three locations on three consecutive days is a stark reminder of Europe's jitters over homegrown terrorism threats.

French President François Hollande called an emergency cabinet meeting to address the threat. And the government has dispatched up to 300 additional soldiers to patrol public spaces over the holiday season, including Paris's most famed street, the Champs-Elysees, where the city's biggest Christmas market is underway. 

As it steps up its role in the US-led bombing campaign against Islamic State militants, France arguably faces the highest threat from returning jihadis: Officials estimate that around 1,000 French citizens have either traveled to Syria or made plans to go. Mr. Valls has called that threat “unprecedented.” 

France has Europe’s largest Muslim population. It is also actively been targeting Islamist strongholds in Africa. Algeria said Tuesday that it had killed the commander of a militant group that captured and killed a French hiker in September.  

France’s interior minister,  Bernard Cazeneuve, said that the latest attack in Nantes did not appear to be religious or political. The third case in Tours could have been inspired by radical fanaticism, in the name of religion, but the motives are still unclear, he said. 

But in any case, France is on edge, in part because a series of senseless attacks without clear motivations are just as alarming as revenge attacks by militant groups. 

“We’re reacting with determination and cool-headedness,” Valls said. “People need to go about their daily lives while remaining vigilant.”

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