Paris: 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 may have traveled to Syria, authorities said.
The attacker was identified by a French official close to the investigation as Ayoub El-Khazzani, 26, who was known to authorities in France, Belgium and Spain. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing.
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, and authorities credited brave American, 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.
El-Khazzani was being questioned Saturday 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 Saturday morning to anti-terror police headquarters outside Paris and can be held for up to 96 hours.
There were discrepancies between French and Spanish accounts of the gunman’s travels.
An official linked to Spain’s anti-terrorism unit said the suspect lived in Spain until 2014, then moved to France, traveled to Syria, and returned to France. That official spoke on condition anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified by name.
The French official close to the investigation said the French signal “sounded” on May 10 in Berlin, where El-Khazzani was flying to Turkey. The French transmitted this information to Spain, which advised on May 21 that he no longer lived there but in Belgium. The French then advised Belgium, according to the official close to the investigation, but it wasn’t 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, Cazeneuve said. Bullets started flying and two American 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,” 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.”