A driver shouted "Allahu Akbar!" — Arabic for "God is great" — and plowed into pedestrians in the eastern French town of Dijon on Sunday night, injuring 11 people, two seriously.
Speaking Monday at a press conference in Dijon, French prosecutor Marie-Christine Tarare said the incident "was absolutely not a terrorist act." She said the driver had "a long-standing and serious psychiatric condition." The man, who has been in and out of psychiatric institutions 157 times, first claimed he had acted for the children of Palestine, then changed his story and said he acted on behalf of the children of Chechnya.
The attack came one day after another alleged "Allahu Akbar!" attack involving a man who assaulted police officers with a knife in Joué-lès-Tours, a town in central France.
On Monday, another French driver deliberately crashed a vehicle into a crowd of pedestrians at a busy market in the western French town of Nantes. According to early reports, five people were seriously injured in the attack, including the driver, who stabbed himself several times. One local paper reported that he too shouted "Allahu Akbar!" but several witnesses told Reuters that he did not use the expression.
Police shot and killed the knife attacker, Burundi-born French national Bertrand Nzohabonayo, who was in his twenties and had recently converted to Islam. He had flaunted his radicalization on Facebook, sharing messages from the Islamic State. French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve described Nzohabonayo as "very mysterious and very unstable," and hinted that he had a troubled family background.
The assailant's brother — Brice Nzohabonayo — had recently abandoned a plan to join the Islamic State in Syria. Authorities in Burundi said Monday they arrested Brice Nzohabonayo at his uncle's house. According to the intelligence service of the African nation, the two brothers had been monitored since 2013 over concerns about their radicalization.
French authorities knew the Dijon driver for a string of petty offenses he committed in the '90s. Local police commissioner Éric Delzant described the assailant as having a "heavy psychiatric profile."
French politicians, who have been bracing for so-called "lone wolf" attacks since the recent Sydney hostage crisis and the May 2013 stabbing of a French army officer by a 22-year-old Muslim convert, were quick to draw parallels between the two attacks over the weekend.
Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and a member of the conservative UMP party, expressed concern about "the severe damaging effects" of militant Islam in France, and called for the government to take action.
Après joué les tours, c— Christian Estrosi (@cestrosi) December 21, 2014
Jean Pierre Raffarin, chairman of the French senate's foreign affairs committee, implied that the government had more information than it was willing to let on about the Dijon attacker, and demanded that authorities "tell the whole truth."
French parliamentarian and right-wing rabble-rouser Bernard Debré said the attacks were not carried out by terrorists, but by "insane" individuals.
Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed "solidarity" with the victims and their families Sunday.
Solidarité à l— Manuel Valls (@manuelvalls) December 21, 2014
The attack in Dijon unfolded just as Cazeneuve addressed the nation on French news channel TF1 about the stabbing in Joué-lès-Tours. During his address, the solemn interior minister pledged "a general mobilization against jihad."
Cazeneuve's comments came just a week after he revealed a staggering increase in the number of French nationals that joined or planned to join the Islamic State in 2014.
Speaking Monday in Dijon, Cazeneuve urged the French not to play into the hands of terrorists by succumbing to panic — advice echoed by French President François Hollande.
In a propaganda video released December 19 by the Islamic State, a French jihadist armed with an AK-47 called for French Muslims to "bring France to its knees" to protest — among other things — the country's ban on the niqab, a veil worn by some Muslim women. The militant also urged French Muslims to follow in the footsteps of Mohamed Merah, the man who killed seven people in a March 2012 attack on French soldiers and Jewish civilians in southwest France.
Since the start of the international intervention in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State militants have released numerous videos calling for violence in countries involved in the US-led coalition. Several videos uploaded since October have urged French Muslims to join the Islamic State army and carry out strikes on French soil.
It's unclear whether the propaganda messages directly influenced the men involved in the recent attacks in France. While the men have varying backgrounds, French court psychiatrist Gérard Lopez told VICE News they do share one common thread. The assailants, he said, carried out "showy" attacks, perhaps as a way to "boost their self-esteem — in particular, through the media exposure afforded to them."
"These are isolated actions, that do not appear to have been premeditated, or even well thought out," Lopez said, noting that the type of individual who carries out such assaults often suffers from a psychiatric disorder and a very fragile sense of self. "This type of person is extremely attuned to extremist propaganda, which is built around a simplistic idea and comes across as an easy solution."
According to French psychiatrist Roland Coutanceau, the delusions experienced by individuals suffering from mental disorders can be "permeated by culture." In short, elements from their environment — in this case, Islamist ideology — are filtered into their delusion and processed by it. Coutanceau told VICE News the Dijon driver fits the profile of an individual that has "chronic delusions."
Coutanceau said the Tours knife attacker seems to fit the classic profile of a "psychopath," calling him an individual who has "previous convictions and is wide open to an ideological obsession."
Jean-Louis Senon, a psychiatry professor at the Poitiers University in western France, warned against lumping both incidents in together. While the Dijon attacker had a known mental disorder, Senon told VICE News that Nzohabonayo was self-radicalized, and had "distanced himself from family values and found his bearings within a particular ideology."
Criminologist Michèle Agripart-Delmas noted that both attackers were repeat offenders, and blamed an inefficient French judicial system for the violence.
"The previous proceedings, which downplayed the offenses, encouraged these attacks," Agripart-Delmas said.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @p_a_l_
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