France train attacker was known to police in three countries

Kalashnikov-wielding gunman identified by French official as Ayoub El-Khazzani (26)

An undated photo  of  Ayoub El-Khazzani, who was overpowered by two US servicemen and other passengers  during an attack aboard an Amsterdam-Paris Thalys train on August 21st, 2015. File photograph: EPA

An undated photo of Ayoub El-Khazzani, who was overpowered by two US servicemen and other passengers during an attack aboard an Amsterdam-Paris Thalys train on August 21st, 2015. File photograph: EPA

 

The man who boarded a high-speed Amsterdam-to-Paris train with a Kalashnikov rifle before being tackled by passengers was on the radar of authorities in three countries, had ties to radical Islam and had travelled to Syria, officials said.

The attacker was identified by a French official close to the investigation as Ayoub El-Khazzani (26), who was previously known to authorities in France, Belgium and Spain.

Officials did not disclose a possible motive for the Friday attack, but interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Spanish authorities had advised French intelligence about the suspect because he belongs to the “radical Islamist movement”.

Three people were injured but no one died during the incident, and authorities credited US, French and British passengers with stopping El-Khazzani, who they said was armed with the assault rifle, nine magazines, a pistol and a box cutter.

Counter-terrorism police

El-Khazzani was being questioned on Sunday by French counter-terrorism police who confirmed through fingerprints their suspicions that he was the same man who had been brought to their attention in February 2014, according to the French official.

French authorities said he had lived in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras, frequenting a mosque which is under surveillance there.

He was transferred on Saturday morning to anti-terror police headquarters outside Paris and can be held for up to 96 hours.

A lawyer for El-Khazzani told French television station BFM that he had told her he only intended to rob the train and is “dumbfounded” it is being treated as an act of terrorism.

“When I told him about the media attention, he didn’t understand,” said Sophie David, a lawyer in Arras who represented El-Khazzani during his initial questioning by police. “He says he planned to hold up the train, then shoot out of a window and jump out to escape.”

Spain’s interior ministry said El-Khazzani had lived with his parents in Algeciras and had been arrested three times for drug-dealing while living there.

A ministry spokesman said it was not immediately clear how long he had lived there, or if other members of his family had shared the same house.

Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo both reported that he had lived in the relatively poor neighbourhood of El Saladillo, which has about 6,000 inhabitants. It has an unemployment rate close to 40 per cent.

There were discrepancies between French and Spanish accounts of the gunman’s travels.

Travelled to Syria

An official linked to Spain’s anti-terrorism unit said the suspect lived in Spain until 2014, then moved to France, travelled to Syria, and returned to France.

The French official close to the investigation said the French signal “sounded” on May 10th in Berlin, where El-Khazzani was flying to Turkey.

The French transmitted this information to Spain, which advised on May 21st that he no longer lived there, but in Belgium.

The French then advised Belgium, according to the official close to the investigation, but it was not clear what, if any, action was taken after that.

El-Khazzani had the Kalashnikov strapped across his shoulder when a French citizen trying to use the toilet encountered him and tried to subdue him, Mr Cazeneuve said. Shots were fired and two US servicemen, with help from a friend and a Briton, tackled and disarmed him.

The Briton, businessman Chris Norman, said he was working on his computer when he heard a shot and glass breaking and saw a train worker running.

Three Americans - US Airman Spencer Stone and National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos from Roseburg, Oregon, and their friend, Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State University in California - heard glass breaking at the same time.

“I knew we had to do something or he was just going to kill people,” Mr Skarlatos told Oregon television station KEZI. “I mean he wasn’t shooting at the time so I figured it was a good time to do it.”

Mr Norman said he was the fourth to jump into the fray, grabbing the gunman’s right arm and tying it with his tie.

Nine loaded magazines

Video showed a blood-spattered scene on the train, with the gunman prostrate and shirtless, his hands tied behind his back. Authorities said that in addition to the guns, he had nine loaded magazines for the Kalashnikov.

Mr Skarlatos, who served in Afghanistan, said that when he examined the assault rifle, he found that the gunman had tried to fire it but that it did not go off because it had a bad primer.

Mr Sadler said the gunman remained silent throughout the brief incident. But with the weapons he was carrying, “he was there to do business”, Mr Skarlatos said in an interview shown on French television.

French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who cut his finger to the bone while activating the train’s emergency alarm, heaped praise on the Americans, recounting the high emotion of the episode to Paris Match.

“I thought it was the end, that we would die,” he said. “Yes, we saw ourselves dying because we were prisoners in this train and it was impossible to escape the nightmare.”

The train, which was in Belgium when the incident started, was rerouted to Arras in northern France, the nearest station, where El-Khazzani was arrested.

Mr Stone was taken to a hospital in nearby Lille with a hand injury, and an unidentified dual French-American citizen with a bullet wound was flown by helicopter to another hospital in Lille.

That victim, wounded in the chest, remained in hospital in intensive care on Sunday in “serious but stable” condition, and his life is not in danger, according to Patrick Goldstein, head of the emergency service at CHRU Lille hospital.

“There is strictly no change from yesterday. His condition is perfectly stable and there’s no surgical procedure planned,” Mr Goldstein said on BFM, adding that the victim “is an exceptional person with great calm”.

Mr Stone, of Carmichael, California, was released from the hospital later on Saturday.

A heavily guarded caravan was seen arriving on Saturday night at the US ambassador’s residence in Paris, apparently escorting Mr Stone and Mr Sadler (both 23), and Mr Skarlatos (22). The three friends had been travelling together in Europe.

US president Barack Obama telephoned them on Saturday to commend and congratulate them, the White House said.

They and the Frenchman who first confronted the gunman are to meet on Monday with French president Francois Hollande.

French authorities are on heightened alert after Islamic extremist attacks in January left 20 people dead, including three gunmen.

In June, a lone attacker claiming allegiance to Islamic radicals beheaded his employer and set off an explosion at a US-owned factory in France, raising concerns about other scattered, hard-to-predict attacks.

Press Association