European ministers to gather for security talks after France train attack

Friday 21/08/2015
Terrorism threat concerns Europe

PARIS - European ministers will gather in Paris for security talks at the weekend following last week's "targeted and premeditated" jihadist attack on a high-speed train that was foiled by passengers, it was announced Wednesday.

Prosecutors have charged 25-year-old Moroccan Ayoub El Khazzani over the attack.

After watching a jihadist video on his phone Khazzani entered a toilet in the train, removed his shirt and re-emerged armed with an assault rifle, 270 rounds of ammunition and a Luger pistol strapped to his chest.

But he was stopped in his tracks by several French passengers, two young American off-duty servicemen, their student friend and a 62-year-old British consultant who have since been awarded France's top honour, the Legion d'Honneur.

One of the French passengers was shot and seriously injured in the struggle to overpower the gunman, and he is recovering in hospital.

The thwarted shooting has raised fears of another large-scale attack in France, which was already on high alert after three jihadist gunmen went on a killing spree in and around Paris in January, leaving 17 people dead. Authorities have foiled several attacks since then.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that interior and transport ministers from eight neighbouring European countries -- including Britain, Germany and Belgium -- would gather in Paris Saturday to discuss security measures following the latest thwarted assault.

"We must examine whether we can implement a system that allows for more systematic checks in airports, in public transport, in a more coordinated way," he said Wednesday.

Khazzani was questioned for four days before being taken barefoot, handcuffed and with a mask over his eyes to a Paris courthouse to be charged on Tuesday.

His lawyer Mani Ayadi slammed his treatment as "outrageous and disgraceful", saying he should not have been left barefoot, but prosecutors said Khazzani himself refused to wear shoes.

The suspect had been on the radar of several European intelligence agencies after authorities in Spain, where he lived until 2014, flagged him as a radical Islamist.

But the 26 countries in Europe's Schengen Area have abolished border controls, which means people living in or visiting those nations can travel virtually undetected if they are not the subject of random checks.

Khazzani claims that he was homeless and had stumbled upon the weapons stash in a Brussels park, which he intended to use to rob first-class passengers in the Amsterdam-Paris train.

But Paris prosecutor Francois Molins said the claim was "barely credible", giving a raft of evidence for why Khazzani was being probed for "attempted murder" as part of a "targeted and premeditated" terrorist plot.

He bought his first-class ticket on the day of the attack at Midi train station in Brussels, paying 149 euros ($170) in cash -- discrediting Khazzani's claim that he was penniless.

The ticket seller asked if he wanted to travel earlier, on a less crowded train, but he refused.

Khazzani also travelled to Turkey and back in May and June this year, creating suspicion he may have spent in war-torn Syria where the Islamic State group controls swathes of territory.

And his Facebook page was mysteriously disabled on Saturday -- the day after the foiled attack.

Khazzani lived in Spain for seven years until 2014, where he came to the attention of authorities for defending jihad, attending a radical mosque in the southern port of Algeciras and being involved in drug trafficking.

Molins said he had also spent time in France in 2014 working for mobile phone operator Lycamobile.

In May, he came to the intelligence services' attention once more when he boarded a plane in Berlin for Turkey, a common crossing point to Syria for would-be jihadists.

In June, he landed back in Albania, and on Friday boarded the Paris-bound train in Brussels.

There is little information so far about whether Khazzani acted alone or had accomplices.

French President Francois Hollande said what was certain was that "a real carnage" was averted thanks to the courage of a few passengers.

On Monday, he awarded three Americans -- Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old National Guardsman, Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old US Air Force member, and Anthony Sadler, a student in Sacramento also aged 23 -- the Legion d'Honneur.

Chris Norman, a Briton, was also given a medal, and four other people who helped are also to be honoured.

Sacramento has announced it will hold a parade for the three Americans, and Skarlatos and Stone will both receive military non-combat honours.