French Officials Want to Destroy Footage of the Nice Attack. They’re a Little Too Late.
French officials want to destroy footage of the Nice attacks, but experts say they're too late.
French counterterrorism police want officials in Nice to destroy closed-circuit surveillance footage of last Thursday’s deadly attack in the southern French city, when Tunisian-born Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel drove an 19-ton truck into a crowd of people celebrating Bastille Day, then opened fire on them, leaving 84 dead.
News of the police request broke Friday, just one day after Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve admitted that there were only local police guarding the pedestrian entryway Bouhlel used to make his way to the crowd he attacked, rather than more intensely armed security forces. And the Paris prosecutor’s office has since said the request was intended to hamper the “uncontrolled dissemination” of the images and footage.
A note for French anti-terrorism officials: It’s too late for that.
Michael Smith, a terrorism analyst with Kronos Advisory, said the Islamic State’s media program is already so prolific and sophisticated that closed-circuit TV footage from Nice “would really do nothing to enhance the actual propaganda.” In other words, the terror group doesn’t need it.
Footage taken from social media or news coverage of the attack was already incorporated into propaganda videos used by Islamic State-linked accounts, and the sheer number of videos and photos taken by bystanders and journalists that have already been disseminated on the internet make the claim that destroying CCTV footage could somehow prevent future attacks completely moot.
“What’s next? People suing major broadcast organizations for airing footage of 9/11 attacks?” Smith said in a conversation with Foreign Policy on Friday. “If you want to talk about imagery that has stimulated wills to engage in terrorism, there isn’t anything more powerful.”
Officials in Nice are also concerned that destroying the images could make the case more complicated, because photos taken during the deadly attack could later be used as evidence.
“This is the first time we are asked to destroy evidence,” an anonymous city hall official told French newspaper Le Figaro. “The CCTV department and the city of Nice could be prosecuted for this, and also the officers in charge do not have jurisdiction to engage in such operations [to delete the footage].”
Smith told FP that he could not think of a viable reason to make such a request, saying that even suspicions it would help cover up missteps by French police are less important than what the footage would really demonstrate, which is the Islamic State’s ability not only to inspire but to direct attacks in cities far from their caliphate’s headquarters in Syria.
“They are doing a great job of distracting the public from paying attention to the fact that they’re not really doing anything to limit the Islamic State’s influence capacity in the west,” he said. “If you want to fundamentally undermine its influence capacity, deny it spaces on the internet where it’s pushing out all this propaganda.”
And that doesn’t mean destroying surveillance tapes days after other footage has already been floating around on the internet, he said, but targeting the social media sites, including Twitter, where Islamic State militants recruit outsiders to join their ranks.
“What’s important here is the fact that once again a terrorist has demonstrated that intelligence services in the West are not omniscient and it is the ease with which he could execute the attack combined with the body count generated that is what counterterrorism practitioners have to be concerned about,” he said.
Photo credit: VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images