A suspected terrorist was overpowered in a packed passenger train in France by three American passengers after opening fire with an assault rifle on Friday evening, and is now being interrogated by counter-terrorist officials near Paris.
The suspect, who has been named as 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani had visited Syria and was known to both French and Spanish intelligence services, officials said Saturday.
A Spanish counter-terrorism source said he had lived in Spain for seven years until last year before travelling to Syria from France.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve confirmed that Spanish intelligence services had flagged the man to France “due to his membership of the radical Islamist movement.”
Armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, nine cartridge clips and a box-cutter, the attacker opened fire on board the high-speed train just after it crossed from Belgium into northern France.
A 28-year-old French passenger spotted the gunman as he exited a toilet cubicle and tried to disarm him, but Khazzani slipped away and fired several shots.
Then a Franco-American traveller in his 50s clashed with the man and was shot. But the attack was quickly stopped when two off-duty US servicemen and their friend charged the gunman and overpowered him.
“I looked back and saw a guy enter with a Kalashnikov. My friends and I got down and then I said ‘Let’s get him’,” Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old member of the National Guard in Oregon who recently returned from Afghanistan, told France’s BFMTV.
Spencer Stone, who serves in the US Air Force, was first to the gunman who slashed him in the neck and almost sliced off his thumb with a box-cutter. He was released from hospital Saturday after successful surgery on his hand.
“At that point I showed up and grabbed the gun from him and basically started beating him in the head until he fell unconscious,” said Skarlatos.
A British business consultant, 62-year-old Chris Norman, also assisted in subduing the man, and said he thought his gun may have malfunctioned.
“I don’t know why he didn’t manage to fire but I think it’s because his weapon jammed,” he told reporters in Arras.
“My first reaction was to hide but… my thought was I’m probably going to die anyway, I’d rather die being active, trying to get him down than simply sit in the corner and be shot.
“I don’t feel like a hero. If it wasn’t for Spencer, I think we would all be dead.”
He said Stone had taken the gunman in a chokehold and Norman took his right arm to stop him reaching his gun.
With the man floored, Skarlatos left to search for more gunmen, while Norman helped tie up the attacker with his tie.
Despite his own injuries, Stone then went to help man who had been shot in the shoulder. Both were later hospitalised but are said to be recovering well, with Stone due to be released later Saturday.
French President Francois Hollande is to thank the Americans and the Briton in person at the Elysee Palace on Monday. Their bravery has also been praised by US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron.
But French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who was slightly injured while pulling the train alarm, criticised the train’s staff for locking themselves in the locomotive leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.
“We were pounding on it (the door), we were screaming for the personnel to let us in,” the actor, known for his role in cult film “Betty Blue”, told Paris Match. “It was in vain… Nobody responded.”
Train company managers denied the staff had fled, saying they had gone to the engine to alert the conductor in order to stop the train. Several passengers were allowed to take refuge with the workers, management claimed.
Mobile phone footage from inside the train shows the suspect, a skinny bare-chested man wearing white trousers, flattened on the floor of the train with his hands and feet tied behind his back as the Americans surround him.
He was arrested when the train with 554 passengers aboard stopped at Arras station in northern France.
The third American, Anthony Sadler, said it had been a “crazy” experience.
“I’m just a college student,” he told reporters. “I came to see my friends for my first trip to Europe and we stop a terrorist. It’s kind of crazy.”
Security is now expected to be tightened on international train services in mainland Europe.
While passengers on Eurostar services between Paris and London must pass through airport-style security before boarding trains, passengers on services between the French capital, Brussels and Amsterdam face no such checks.
France has been on high alert since Islamist gunmen went on the rampage in January, killing 17 people in Paris.
Around 850 French and 300 Belgians have left to fight in Syria and Iraq, and hundreds have already returned, say intelligence officials, overwhelming their ability to monitor them all.