A 31-year-old father of three obsessed with fitness and sex, Mohamed
Lahouaiej Bouhlel led multiple lives. His darkest side appears to have
been his best-kept secret: a calculated, committed jihadi ready to kill
scores of people in a French Riviera rampage.
emerging from authorities and people who knew the Nice Bastille Day
attacker suggests Bouhlel concealed his different worlds from each
other, and may have been following Islamic State guidance to blend in
and hide his radicalism while he plotted violence.
There was his
family life – three children under 6, including an 18-month-old born
just after his wife split with Bouhlel, accusing him of frequent abuse.
Nice, France, attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej
Bouhlel, left, after seeming to injure his opponent while competing in a
martial arts competition in 2010. Photo / AP
Then there was his erratic social life: smoking pot with
acquaintances in the Tunisian immigrant community; martial arts training
and possible steroid use to bulk up muscle; salsa dancing to pick up
women; and a reported male lover in his 70s.
And now, it appears that Bouhlel had an extremist life, too, built up over months as he prepared for the Bastille Day attack.
parallel worlds are complicating investigators’ efforts to figure out
who he was, who might have helped with the attack, whether other
violence was planned. They may never have a definitive answer: Bouhlel
was killed by police after ramming his truck through a family-filled
crowd enjoying fireworks.
Forensics officers and policemen look for
evidences, after Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel’ drove the truck into a crowd
watching a fireworks, in Nice. Photo / AFP
Authorities initially said Bouhlel had radicalized very
quickly. Family and neighbors described him as indifferent to religion,
volatile and prone to drinking sprees.
But on Thursday, Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins
said investigators found images in Bouhlel’s phone suggesting he was
premeditating an attack as far back as a year ago.
Bouhlel studied Captagon, a drug used by some jihadis before attacks. He
had a screenshot of a previous vehicle attack in a crowd. He obtained
weapons through a string of acquaintances. He expressed support for the
Islamic State group’s territorial claims. And an uncle in his Tunisian
hometown said Bouhlel had been radicalized by a Nice-based Algerian
Authorities say Bouhlel drew inspiration from IS
propaganda, though there is no sign the attack was commandeered by the
extremist group’s bases in Syria or Iraq.
Yet his turn to
extremism went unnoticed by relatives, neighbors and acquaintances. And
police and prosecutors investigating Bouhlel for a road rage incident in
early 2016 found no reason to flag him as a potential risk.
French security official said this may have been intentional, in
response to IS suggestions to some followers in the West that they hide
their radical faith to stay off police radar. Attackers who targeted
Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016 are believed to have done the same.
lawyer for one of five suspects given preliminary terrorism charges in
the Nice investigation says he believes Bouhlel radicalized alone, and
may have been attracted to IS ideas as an outlet for his violent
Lawyer Jean-Pascal Padovani said his client, Ramzi
A., and Bouhlel were from the world of “small-scale delinquence. …
They smoked pot together. It was that kind of relationship.”
The apartment of Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel in Nice, southern France. Photo / AP
Ramzi was on Nice’s seaside Promenade des Anglais the night
that Bouhlel’s truck careened down the cordoned-off boulevard. But his
lawyer insists he was there to have fun, and had no idea what Bouhlel
planned to do.
Vladis Selevanov, who works as a cook in Nice,
said he had gone to different gyms with Bouhlel for the past four years,
yet didn’t know he was married and a father. Selevanov and others who
worked out with Bouhlel described him as a loner — “He was strange, but
not at all aggressive.”
Guys at the gym nicknamed him “Arnold,”
as in Schwarzenegger, because he was so muscular, yet he had an
incongruously high-pitched voice. He seemed obsessed with his
appearance, always clean-shaven, hair gelled backward even during
workouts – and was always wearing flip-flops, Selevanov said.
used his two middle names — Salmane Lahouaiej — when he signed a
petition to get their gym to stay open until 11pm. When he discovered it
offered salsa lessons, he joined with gusto, Selevanov said, bragging
about how it was a good way to meet women. “He always hit on all girls,
old, young,” Selevanov said.
Bouhlel also performed at salsa
nights at the Restaurant de la Victorine near the Nice airport,
according to people who worked there, and trained in a smattering of
martial arts, leaving the impression of a strong but somewhat
His opponent in a 2010 karate tournament
described him as a novice, making mistakes because he was stressed and
not a seasoned fighter.
Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, right, while competing in a martial arts competition in 2010. Photo / AP
A video of the fight, obtained by The Associated Press,
shows Bouhlel sparring powerfully, and occasionally going overboard – at
one point head-butting and at another kneeing his opponent in the
crotch. Between each round, Bouhlel respectfully bowed.
trainer in Satori martial art described him as always polite and calm.
Yet around the same time, Bouhlel was fired from a delivery company for
The opponent and the trainer spoke on condition of anonymity out of concern for their families’ security.
media reports say Bouhlel’s cell phone indicated he had homosexual
flings. Selevanov said Bouhlel was known to have had a long-term
relationship with a male gym-goer in his 70s. The prosecutor said he had
an “unbridled sex life,” but security officials wouldn’t comment on
specific male relationships.
Selevanov described working out on a
treadmill with Bouhlel a few weeks ago in the Moving Express gym, in a
neighborhood near Nice’s renowned Marc Chagall Museum. Selevanov found
Bouhlel unusually friendly.
“He came up to say ‘hi, how’s it
going?”‘ Selevanov said. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard (what
happened July 14). We are shocked. Completely shocked.”