Terrorist scare aboard the Thalys
BEIRUT - Ayoub el-Khazzani, the 25-year-old Moroccan gunman overpowered aboard one of France’s high-speed trains on August 21st managed to evade the security services of three European states despite heightened alerts following a spate of terrorist attacks in France in recent months.
The thwarted attack on the Amsterdam-Paris express carrying 554 passengers was the first known strike against a high-speed train. The split-second response of three young Americans in stopping the heavily armed gunman clearly averted a major catastrophe.
It is not yet entirely clear that this was a terrorist attack, although the evidence that is available points to a lone-wolf operation designed to inflict the highest number of casualties as possible in a part of the world that has been plagued by terrorism.
“The aggression that took place on Friday … which could have degenerated into a monstrous carnage … is fresh proof that we must prepare for other attacks and therefore protect ourselves,” French President François Hollande warned on August 25th.
Khazzani fit the profile of a potential terrorist: a petty criminal with several arrests for drugs and radical leanings.
The French say they were alerted by German security services who identified Khazzani boarding a flight from Berlin to Istanbul on May 10, 2014. Turkey is the main route for Islamists going to Syria to join the Islamic State (ISIS), al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing, al-Nusra Front, or other jihadist groups. Khazzani returned to Europe from southern Turkey through Albania in June.
An estimated 5,000 Europeans are fighting in the ranks of ISIS and al-Nusra Front.
The intelligence services of France, Belgium and Spain all had Khazzani on their watch lists. The French even included him on their S-list of suspects flagged for “links with terrorism”, but he still was able to move across the European Union’s open borders, acquire an AK- 47 assault rifle and a Luger pistol and board the express in Brussels without any checks.
Police said Khazzani carried his short-stock AK-47 and the Luger, along with seven AK ammunition magazines and two more for the handgun, totalling 270 rounds, as well as a box-cutter in a backpack.
It is clear that he was not under surveillance when he boarded the train to embark on what was apparently intended to be the slaughter of dozens, maybe hundreds, of men, women and children trapped on the high-speed train as it hurtled towards Paris.
The shooting started after the train crossed into France from Belgium. According to passenger accounts, a man was wounded, but the assailant’s rifle jammed. The suspect was then jumped by three young Americans, childhood friends from California, on holiday, aided by a British businessman. They wrestled him to the floor and tied him up.
One of the Americans, Spencer Stone, was jolted from a snooze in his first-class car by the shooting. His friend Alek Skarlatos was beside him.
“I saw the gunman had an AK-47 and it looked like it was jammed,” Stone said. ”Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said ‘Let’s go!’ And I ran down, tackled him. Alek grabbed the gun out of his hand while I put him in a chokehold.”
The gunman stabbed Stone with the box-cutter, almost severing his thumb. “We started punching him … just hit him unconscious,” Stone said. “Alek was hitting him on the head with a pistol or a rifle.”
The four were awarded the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour.
Khazzani’s links to Islamic radicals and his trip to Syria indicate possible links to ISIS, or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen, which have been involved to one degree or another in several attacks by individuals or small groups in France this year.
These include the Charlie Hebdo strike in Paris on January 7th in which brothers of Algerian descent, Said and Cherif Kouachi, killed 11 staff members of the satirical magazine for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad along with a French policeman before they were killed by police. The brothers had trained in Yemen with AQAP.
Khazzani’s French lawyer, Sophie David, said Khazzani has denied extremist links and was “dumbfounded” that police considered him an Islamist militant. He told interrogators he was homeless and found the weapons in a park near the Brussels rail terminus where he frequently slept, then took them onto the train with the intention of robbing the passengers, David said.
Paris prosecutor François Molins dismissed Khazzani’s account as “barely credible”. Molins questioned how the Moroccan was able to pay $171 in cash for a first-class ticket if he had to sleep rough, as he claimed.