The attacker showed signs of verging psychosis and a hair-trigger propensity for violence, and has been described variously as a drinker, a wife beater, a drug-taker and a chronic womanizer.
MSAKEN, Tunisia — His own parents were so frightened by his violence that they kicked him out when he was 16. Desperate, by the time he was 19, they dragged him to a psychiatrist, who prescribed an antipsychotic drug, a tranquilizer and an antidepressant.
“There were the beginnings of a psychosis,” the doctor, Hamouda Chemceddine, recalled in the Tunisian city of Sousse, looking over his notes from that visit in August 2004. “He wasn’t someone who was living in the real world.”
In France, he even created a Facebook page with an alter ego, listing his profession as a “professor of salsa dancing” and displaying a mock image of Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, in drag.
That man — a 31-year-old delivery driver, Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel — trained his violent tendencies on a crowd watching fireworks along the French Riviera on July 14, running over hundreds of people and killing 84 in a rented cargo truck during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice.
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Since then, all of France has struggled to explain the single most murderous act yet committed by an individual since the country’s wave of terror began. Was Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s rampage terrorism or merely the outburst of a madman? Or both?
The Islamic State group quickly proclaimed him a “soldier.” Yet Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s life — pieced together in numerous interviews in France and Tunisia, where he was born and raised — showed few signs of real radicalization, and certainly no Islamic zeal.
Instead, it showed plenty of signs of verging psychosis and a hair-trigger propensity for violence by a man variously described as a drinker, a wife beater, a drug-taker and a chronic womanizer.
“He danced, he smoked, he ate pork. It was almost as though he wasn’t even Muslim,” Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s brother Jaber, 19, said outside the family home here in Msaken, Tunisia. “He didn’t even pray.”
Rather, Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s life appears to show the ways in which the unstable and aggrieved have latched on to Islamic State group propaganda to shape their violent fixations and find permission to act them out.
In turn, the Islamic State group has latched on to them, declaring as its foot soldiers even individuals with tenuous ties to the group but long histories of personal and psychological troubles who are far from models of Islamic rectitude.
It remains unclear what led Lahouaiej Bouhlel to his murderous rampage. But his killings have left the French authorities, like those elsewhere, struggling to define the intersection of political terrorism and personal psychoses.
In a media age saturated by violence, that intersection has spawned a new kind of killer, such as Lahouaiej Bouhlel or Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people last month in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla. Their troubled and obscured interior lives led to hyperviolence difficult to anticipate or prevent.
In Munich on Friday, a young man who had been bullied at school and had a fascination with mass violence, shot and killed nine people before committing suicide, an attack that does not appear to have had a terrorist link.
The Paris prosecutor, François Molins, said Lahouaiej Bouhlel had prepared his massacre for several months with the help of at least five accomplices, who were arrested.
Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s violent outburst was not that surprising to people in his old neighborhood in Msaken. He was raised here as one of three sons and six daughters born to a hardworking and fairly prosperous farmer and property owner.
Instead, the neighbors felt shame, and many were resisting having him buried here, a local official said. No one mentioned his having the slightest allegiance to extremist Islam.
But many had stories of abuse by him, and knew to avoid crossing the bulky young man who skipped classes, worked out obsessively, bulked up on protein and flew into a rage at the drop of a hat.
“He would hit me when I was young,” said a cousin, Zied Bouhlel, a lanky young man, wincing at the memory. “He did it as a joke, but it ended up hurting. Every time he saw me, as a joke.”
Many recalled an episode when Lahouaiej Bouhlel, driving a rental car past the local bathhouse, was rear-ended by another car. Both drivers got out, and Lahouaiej Bouhlel proceeded to beat the daylights out of the other man.
“This was totally normal for him,” said Hamila Hassen, who witnessed the confrontation.
A crisis was reached when Lahouaiej Bouhlel deliberately locked his parents out of the family home. It was then that they went to see the psychiatrist.
Around 2009, Lahouaiej Bouhlel moved to Nice, taking advantage of an arranged marriage to a cousin whose family lived there but was also originally from Msaken. The marriage was Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s ticket out of Tunisia, and he seized it.
By 2009, he had his French residency papers and a 10-year carte de séjour, or residency permit, which allowed him to work, according to a scan of the document. Soon he and his wife had a child.
After he got his documents, his treatment of his wife changed drastically, for the worse, according to neighbors.
“He married her to have the papers,” said one, who gave her name only as Deborah and lived several floors below the couple in a 13-story building. “He showed his real face afterwards.”
She said she was close to his wife, and like her wore a hijab and had three children.
Lahouaiej Bouhlel was interested only in women and drinking, Deborah added. “My husband never saw him at the mosque.”
By 2011 or 2012, he began to lead a double life, creating a false Facebook profile under the name Javin Bensucon. The most recent cover page was updated on Feb. 7, 2015.
He used the made-up identity to help him pick up women he often met salsa dancing, going to classes three times a week as well as going out for evening “soirees.”
He kept his salsa world completely separate from his family life, and he created a personality to go with it. In his Facebook profile, he was single, had gone to Cuba High and was from Bresilienne, a city in Haiti. He had 10 friends on the public part of his website, all of them glamorous-looking women.
He went out with multiple women, some of them 20 or more years older. He never told his partners that he was married or a father.
In the years after, his domestic life deteriorated. Although his wife had two more children with him, each time hoping that would rekindle the relationship, it did not.
Sometime after their first child was born, he began to hit her. Sometimes he also struck his mother-in-law, said Jean-Yves Garino, the wife’s lawyer.
“He was a narcissistic, perverted man, and he loved himself very much,” Garino said.
The neighbor Deborah said Lahouaiej Bouhlel sometimes drank too much, and that his wife was often afraid of him. He would intimidate and demean her, she said.
She recalled a party with all the neighbors one night, when he danced in a very seductive way with a 60-year-old woman in front of his wife.
Last year or the year before — Deborah was not sure — when his wife was observing the Muslim monthlong period of fasting and abstinence during Ramadan, “he poured alcohol on her head to humiliate her,” she said.
Around the same time, Lahouaiej Bouhlel stabbed one of his children’s toys with a knife, and his wife became fearful for her children and sought a divorce, Deborah said.
He moved out, and occasionally gave her some money to support the children, but not much and not often, said his wife’s lawyer, Garino.
In Nice, Lahouaiej Bouhlel appeared on the police radar for theft and violence, most recently in January, when he got into a fight with another motorist and threw a wooden pallet at him.
Lahouaiej Bouhlel received a six-month suspended sentence in March. By then, he may have already been fixated on carrying out violence on a grandiose scale, Molins, the Paris prosecutor, said.
But it was only in the two weeks before the Nice attack that Lahouaiej Bouhlel began to research rather mundane Islamic topics, including information about Eid al-Fitr, the celebration that ends the month of Ramadan, Molins said.
He searched the internet for information on the Orlando attack by Mateen, who had professed allegiance to the Islamic State group. But Lahouaiej Bouhlel also searched for information on the recent killing of five police officers in Dallas.
Molins said Lahouaiej Bouhlel’s photographs on his cellphone, going back nearly a year, included ones showing crowds on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais.
One set of images showed the crowd during the Bastille Day fireworks a year ago, another a crowd at a concert on the promenade, also last year.
Also included was an image of a January article from the local newspaper, Nice-Matin. It was about a man who purposely drove his car into a terrace cafe in the old port.