Three Americans praised as French train gunman named
Published 22/08/2015 | 01:33
Three Americans are being hailed as heroes for disarming a gunman on a high-speed train who was known to intelligence services in three countries.
Counter-terrorism investigators formally identified the man as 26-year-old Moroccan Ayoub El-Khazzani, the man investigators suspected early on was the gunman who targeted an Amsterdam to Paris train on Friday.
French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve said earlier that Spanish authorities had notified French intelligence of the man in February 2014 because he belonged to the radical Islamist movement.
An official close to the investigation said El-Khazzani was identified via his fingerprints.
A French citizen, who stumbled on the gunman, a Kalashnikov strapped across his shoulder, also is being praised as the first to try to subdue him. A British businessman also jumped in to help subdue the gunman.
Air Force serviceman Spencer Stone, who suffered cuts during the attack, has now left hospital. A dual French-American citizen was also wounded as he was hit by chance by a gunshot on the train, which eventually was rerouted to Arras, the nearest station in northern France, Mr Cazeneuve said.
Mr Stone, of Carmichael, California, was travelling with childhood friends Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State University, and Alek Skarlatos, a National Guardsman from Roseburg, Oregon, when they heard a gunshot and breaking glass.
Mr Sadler said that they saw a train employee sprint down the aisle followed by a gunman with an automatic rifle.
"As he was cocking it to shoot it, Alek just yells, 'Spencer, go!' And Spencer runs down the aisle," Mr Sadler said. "Spencer makes first contact, he tackles the guy, Alek wrestles the gun away from him, and the gunman pulls out a box cutter and slices Spencer a few times. And the three of us beat him until he was unconscious."
Throughout the brief but terrifying episode, Mr Sadler said, "The gunman never said a word."
But with the weapons he carried, "he was there to do business. That's for sure," Mr Skarlatos said in an interview shown on French television.
The suspect had lived in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras, frequenting a mosque under surveillance there, French officials said.
The suspect was transferred to anti-terror police headquarters outside Paris and can be held for up to 96 hours.
There was some confusion over where the suspect had lived and travelled before he seeded chaos on the high-speed train.
An official linked to Spain's anti-terrorism unit said the suspect lived in Spain until 2014, then moved to France, travelled to Syria, and then returned to France.
The information contradicted the French interior minister's account, that the suspect lived in Spain in 2014, was signalled to the French in February 2014 because of his links with the Islamist radical movement, then moved to Belgium in 2015.
French authorities were reported to be speaking with at least one of the Americans about what happened.
The Belgian federal prosecutor's office has also opened an investigation because the suspect had boarded the train in Brussels, said spokesman Eric Van der Sypt. He said Belgian authorities are assisting the investigation, which is led by France. Belgium also announced it was imposing stricter security on trains.
Mr Cazeneuve said the violence began when a French passenger ran into the heavily armed suspect while trying to enter a toilet and "courageously tried to subdue him" but the gunman fired several times.
Mr Cazeneuve said the Americans "were particularly courageous and showed great bravery in very difficult circumstances," and that "without their sangfroid we could have been confronted with a terrible drama."
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.
Chris Norman, the British businessman who helped the Americans subdue the gunman, said he was working on his computer when he heard a shot and glass breaking and saw a train worker running.
"Then I heard one guy, an American, say 'go get him,' and another American say 'Don't you do that buddy,'" Mr Norman said at a news conference in Arras. He was was the fourth to jump into the fray, grabbing the gunman's right arm and tying it with his tie.
"He had a Kalashnikov, he had a magazine full ... My thought was, OK, probably I'm going to die anyway. So, let's go. I'd rather die being active."
President Barack Obama telephoned the three Americans to commend and congratulate them, the White House said.
Mr Skarlatos, 22, had returned from a deployment in Afghanistan in July, and Mr Stone is stationed in the Azores, according to Mr Skarlatos' step-mother Karen Skarlatos.
She spoke with her stepson immediately after the incident. "He sounded fine, but he was intense - he sounded like he had just thwarted a terrorist attack."
"Alek and Spencer, they're big, brave, strong guys and they decided they were going to tackle him. And they did," she said.
The Arras mayor praised the "extraordinary reflexes" of the Americans and awarded them special medals overnight.