ARRAS, France—One serves in the Air Force, another recently served in Afghanistan in the National Guard, another is studying physical therapy in California — and all 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 on Saturday 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. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about a case in progress and asked not to be identified by name.
A French citizen, who stumbled on the gunman, a Kalashnikov strapped across his shoulder, also is being given kudos as the first to try to subdue him. And a British businessman jumped in to help subdue the gunman.
Air Force serviceman Spencer Stone, who suffered cuts during the attack on Friday, left a hospital on Saturday. 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, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
Stone, of Carmichael, California, was traveling 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. Sadler told The Associated Press 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,” 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, Sadler said, “The gunman never said a word.”
But with the weapons he carried, “he was there to do business. That’s for sure,” Skarlatos said in an interview shown on French television.
Cazeneuve, speaking to reporters in Paris on Saturday, said the suspect may be a 26-year-old Moroccan flagged by Spanish authorities last year for links to Islamic radical movements, but the identity has not been 100 percent confirmed.
The suspect had lived in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras, frequenting a mosque under surveillance there, French officials said.
The suspect was transferred Saturday morning 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 traveled 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, traveled to Syria, and then returned to France. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified by name. The information contradicted the French interior minister’s account, that the suspect lived in Spain in 2014, was signaled to the French in Feb. 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 on Saturday 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.
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.
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,'” 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 Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler to commend and congratulate them, the White House said.
Skarlatos, 22, had returned from a deployment in Afghanistan in July, and Stone is stationed in the Azores, according to Skarlatos’ step-mother Karen Skarlatos.
She spoke with her step-son 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 told the AP from Oregon.
The Arras mayor praised the “extraordinary reflexes” of the Americans and awarded them special medals overnight.
The attacker did not fire his automatic weapon but wounded one man with a handgun and the other with a blade, said Philippe Lorthiois, an official with the Alliance police union.
French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade injured his finger, cutting it to the bone while activating the train’s emergency alarm, he told Paris Match magazine. Anglade said he had felt certain he, his two children and family were doomed.
Europe’s major rail stations, such as Paris’ Gare du Nord and Brussels’ Gare du Midi, are patrolled by soldiers armed with rifles, but passengers can board most high-speed trains without passing through metal detectors or having their bags searched or showing their passports.