French police arrested two more suspects Sunday in connection with a truck attack that killed 84 people in this southern French resort, amid new reports that the 31-year-old assailant sent a mysterious text message asking for “more weapons” just before the rampage.
French prosecutors in Paris said the arrests of a man and woman in Nice raised to seven the number of people detained and questioned after Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove a 19-ton truck at high speed through a crowd along the city’s packed seaside promenade.
After zigzagging along the road and sidewalk in an apparent effort to run over as many people as possible, he eventually was shot to death by police.
Authorities at first believed Bouhlel, a deliveryman and father of three who was not on any terrorist watch lists, probably was acting alone.
But French Prime Minister Manuel Valls suggested Sunday that the driver might have had accomplices. He said investigators piecing together the events leading up to the attack think Bouhlel recently may have become radicalized with jihadist ideology.
Those who knew him have said he was not particularly religious. Ignoring Muslim codes of conduct, he was known to drink and smoke marijuana, did not attend mosque and often wore shorts.
“We now know that the killer was radicalized very quickly,” Valls told the newspaper Journal du Dimanche on Sunday. Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Bouhlel began attending a mosque in April.
Islamic State issued an indirect claim of responsibility for the attack two days later, on Saturday, saying Bouhlel was a “soldier,” though French officials have not established any direct connection between him and the militant group.
Investigators examining the records of Bouhlel’s cellphone, which was found in the cabin of the truck he was driving, have found evidence that he may have had contact with known Islamic radicals in his neighborhood in Nice. According to French TV station BMF, they also found a cryptic text message — sent just minutes before he plowed the truck into the crowd — that read, “Bring more weapons, bring five of them to C.”
The attack in the French Riviera, in France’s fifth largest city, came on the country’s Bastille Day national holiday at the height of tourist season. It was the third major act of terrorism in France in the last 18 months, after an assault on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in January 2015 that killed 20 and a series of attacks in Paris in November that killed 130.
Police studying closed-circuit TV images in Nice also have spotted Bouhlel at the seafront Promenade des Anglais twice in the two days before Thursday’s attack, according to a report by Europe1 radio. He was seen driving through the area, the radio station said, presumably to case the broad palm tree-lined boulevard.
Cazeneuve has rejected criticism that police were poorly prepared for such an attack, though only 60 officers were on duty to protect the crowd of 30,000 on the night of the killings. He said the attacker had evaded police patrol cars blocking access to the boulevard by driving the truck onto the sidewalk.
Videos of the attack show people joyously celebrating the national holiday on the closed-off boulevard and the adjoining promenade, oblivious to the imminent danger before the white truck begins barreling through the crowd at a relatively high speed, swerving back and forth as it runs over groups of revelers.
The promenade and adjoining beaches were reopened Saturday, creating an incongruous atmosphere with beachgoers frolicking in the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean and mourners paying silent tribute to the victims on the nearby promenade. Thousands, many in tears, gathered around dozens of piles of flowers, cards and candles marking the spots along the roadway where many of the victims were killed.
Cazeneuve made an extraordinary appeal Sunday for “patriotic citizens” to volunteer to join the country’s security services and help provide relief for the security forces and reinforce security. The reserve force is made up of 12,000 volunteers ages 17 to 30.
“I want to call on all French patriots who wish to do so to join this operational reserve,” he said.
Valls said he feared terrorism would continue to beset France for a long time. “The terrorism threat will be a fundamental and enduring problem, and other lives will be wrecked,” he said.
Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.