When a truck driver plowed into the throngs of revelers out on the street for Bastille Day in the coastal town of Nice on Thursday night, killing at least 84 people and injuring dozens more, it was the latest in a series of devastating attacks in France. The Charlie Hebdo killings, the mayhem in Paris last November, the stabbing of a police officer in June: the list goes on. Among European countries, France has endured some of the worst assaults by jihadists in recent years, underscoring the country’s ongoing problem with homegrown militancy—and its status as a major target.
The roots of the problem are complex: France has a history of violence in its encounters with the Middle East and North Africa and a domestic Muslim community with long experiences of discrimination and feelings of exclusion from French society. France’s prisons have become a recruiting ground for extremists. And the French radical right is growing in influence, stoking tensions through rhetoric that is often anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim.
Add to that cocktail the recruiting apparatus of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Some 1,800 people left France to join ISIS and other militant groups in Iraq and Syria as of May 2015, according to the Soufan Group, a security firm based in New York, citing estimates from the French authorities. Another 470 came from another partially Francophone country: Belgium, which has the highest per-capita recruitment rate in Europe. Those are striking numbers, especially when put in context. By comparison, between 600 and 1,000 fighters are estimated to have come from Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world.