France train attacker `went to Syria`, was known to police

A suspected jihadist gunman overpowered by passengers on a packed Amsterdam-Paris train had visited Syria and was known to intelligence services in several European countries, officials said Saturday.

AFP| Last Updated: Aug 23, 2015, 11:43 AM IST
France train attacker `went to Syria`, was known to police

Paris: A suspected jihadist gunman overpowered by passengers on a packed Amsterdam-Paris train had visited Syria and was known to intelligence services in several European countries, officials said Saturday.

The suspect, who has been named as 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, was wrestled to the floor by three American passengers after opening fire with an assault rifle on Friday evening, and is now being interrogated by counter-terrorist officials near Paris.

A Spanish counter-terrorism source said he had lived in Spain for seven years until last year and had travelled to Syria from France.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve confirmed that Spanish intelligence services had flagged the man to France "due to his membership of the radical Islamist movement."

Also Read: France train gunman identified as Islamist militant

Armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, nine cartridge clips and a box-cutter, the attacker opened fire on board the high-speed train just after it crossed from Belgium into northern France.

A 28-year-old French passenger spotted the gunman as he exited a toilet cubicle and tried to disarm him, but Khazzani slipped away and fired several shots. 

Then a Franco-American traveller in his 50s clashed with the man and was shot and wounded. But the attack was quickly stopped when two off-duty US servicemen and their friend charged the gunman and restrained him.

"I looked back and saw a guy enter with a Kalashnikov. My friends and I got down and then I said `Let`s get him`," Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old member of the National Guard in Oregon who recently returned from Afghanistan, told France`s BFMTV.

Spencer Stone, who serves in the US Air Force, was first to the gunman who slashed him in the neck and almost sliced off his thumb with a box-cutter.

"At that point I showed up and grabbed the gun from him and basically started beating him in the head until he fell unconscious," said Skarlatos.

His friend Anthony Sadler, a 23-year-old student at Sacramento State University, and a British business consultant, Chris Norman, then helped keep the man subdued.Norman, 62, said he thought the suspect`s gun may have jammed, preventing more bloodshed.

"My first reaction was to hide but... my thought was I`m probably going to die anyway, I`d rather die being active, trying to get him down than simply sit in the corner and be shot," he told reporters.

"I don`t feel like a hero. If it wasn`t for Spencer, I think we would all be dead." 

With the man floored, Skarlatos left to search for more gunmen, while Norman helped tie up the attacker with his tie.

Despite his own injuries, Stone then went to help the man who had been shot in the shoulder. Both were hospitalised but are said to be recovering well, and Stone was released later Saturday after surgery on his hand.

French President Francois Hollande is to thank the Americans and the Briton in person at the Elysee Palace on Monday.

US President Barack Obama on Saturday called the three Americans and congratulated them on their "extraordinary bravery", the White House said, while British premier David Cameron also praised the passengers` actions.

But French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who was slightly injured while pulling the train alarm, criticised the train`s staff for locking themselves in the locomotive leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.

"We were pounding on it (the door), we were screaming for the personnel to let us in," the actor, known for his role in cult film "Betty Blue", told Paris Match.

Train company managers denied the staff had fled, saying they had gone to the engine to alert the conductor in order to stop the train. Several passengers were allowed to take refuge with the workers, management claimed.Mobile phone footage from inside the train shows the suspect, a skinny bare-chested man wearing white trousers, flattened on the floor of the train with his hands and feet tied behind his back as the Americans surround him.

He was arrested when the train with 554 passengers aboard stopped at Arras station in northern France.

Security is now expected to be tightened on international train services in mainland Europe.

While passengers on Eurostar services between Paris and London must pass through airport-style security before boarding trains, passengers on services between the French capital, Brussels and Amsterdam face no such checks. 

France has been on high alert since Islamist gunmen went on the rampage in January, killing 17 people in Paris.

Around 850 French and 300 Belgians have left to fight in Syria and Iraq, and hundreds have already returned, say intelligence officials, overwhelming their ability to monitor them all.

But Khazzani appeared to have caught the attention of intelligence agencies in several countries recent years.

France`s Cazeneuve said Khazzani "lived in Spain in 2014 then in Belgium in 2015".

German security services also flagged Khazzani when he boarded a flight from Berlin to Istanbul in May this year, a French intelligence official told AFP.

In Belgium, Justice Minister Koen Geens confirmed Khazzani was "known" to the country`s intelligence services.

But Prime Minister Charles Michel said there was no "concrete evidence that allowed us to find him, to know exactly when he lived in Belgium. He seemed to be someone who travelled around within Europe."