Authorities zero in on train attack suspect’s radical ties

Suspect in potential train massacre was on law enforcement's radar in three countries; Americans who foiled attack hailed as heroes

Credit: CBS News

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 had 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.

Credit: CBS News
Credit: CBS News

El-Khazzani was being questioned 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 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 BFM that he had told her he only intended to rob the train and is “dumbfounded” that 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 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 also shared the same house.

Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo both reported that he had lived in the relatively poor neighborhood of El Saladillo, which has around 6,000 inhabitants and an unemployment rate close to 40 percent.

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- U.S. 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.

Credit: CBS News
Credit: CBS News

“I saw a guy entering the train with an AK and a handgun, and I just looked over at Spencer and said, ‘Let’s go. Go,'” Skarlatos said. “And he jumped up, and I followed behind him by about three seconds.”

Stone tackled the gunman, and Skarlatos knocked him unconscious with the butt of his rifle.

Sadler and Norman pinned the attacker down and stripped him of his weapons.

CBS News caught up with Norman outside the police station in Arras to ask why he chose to move forward rather than hide.

“What else is there to do? Either you sit down and you die, or you get up and you die,” Norman said.

Stone was released from a French hospital Saturday afternoon. The gunman sliced into him with a box cutter, almost cutting off his thumb. But even wounded, friends say Stone treated others.

“A man’s throat had been slit,” Sadler said. “And he was bleeding profusely, and Spencer, who has some paramedic training, just clogged up his neck so he wouldn’t die.”

Skarlatos’ parents, Karen and Emanuel from Roseburg, Oregon, said they never doubted the young men’s courage.

“The fact that they saved all those lives and had that instinct and the guts to just do what they did …,” Emanuel Skarlatos said.

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. 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 didn’t go off because it had a bad primer.

Sadler said the gunman remained silent throughout the brief incident. But with the weapons he carried, “he was there to do business,” 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, in Belgium, was rerouted to Arras in northern France, the nearest station, where El-Khazzani was arrested.

Stone was treated in a hospital in nearby Lille with a hand injury and an unidentified dual French-American citizen with a bullet wound was helicoptered to another hospital in Lille.

That victim, wounded in the chest, remained hospitalized in intensive care 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,” Goldstein said on French television BFM, adding that the victim “is an exceptional person with great calm.”

Stone, of Carmichael, California, was released from the hospital later Saturday. A heavily guarded caravan was seen arriving Saturday night at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Paris, apparently escorting Stone and Sadler, both 23, and Skarlatos, 22. The three friends had been traveling together in Europe. President Barack Obama telephoned them Saturday to commend and congratulate them, the White House said. They and the Frenchman who first confronted the gunman are to meet Monday with French President Francois Hollande.

French authorities are on heightened alert after Islamic extremist attacks in January left 20 people dead, including the three gunmen. In June, a lone attacker claiming allegiance to Islamic radicals beheaded his employer and set off an explosion at an American-owned factory in France, raising concerns about other scattered, hard-to-predict attacks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s