A MAN who boarded a high-speed train in Europe with an assault rifle before being subdued by passengers was known to intelligence services in three countries and had ties to radical Islam, authorities believe.
Ayoub El-Khazzani’s lawyer said he told her he was homeless and only wanted to rob passengers to be able to eat, but French police said yesterday that the 26-year-old Moroccan was an Islamic extremist.
Authorities in Spain said he had lived in the country until last year and had a police record for drug-dealing.
Despite being on the radar in France, Spain and Belgium, he boarded an Amsterdam-to-Paris train on Friday as it stopped in Brussels, carrying a small arsenal of weapons, including a Kalashnikov, an automatic Luger pistol and a box cutter.
Three American friends, two of them US servicemen, tackled him and with the help of British IT expert Chris Norman tied him up. Mr Norman, who lives in France, said he was working on his computer when he heard a shot and glass breaking and saw a train worker running.
Sophie David, a lawyer in Arras, where the train was rerouted to arrest El-Khazzani, said her client was not a terrorist.
She said: “He is dumbfounded that his action is being characterised as terrorism.”
He described himself as homeless and Ms David said she had “no doubt” this was true, saying he was “very, very thin” as if suffering from malnutrition and “with a wild look in his eyes”.
“He thought of a hold-up to be able to feed himself, to have money,” she said on BFM-TV, then “shoot out a window and jump out to escape”.
She said her client told her he had found the bag full of weapons, including the box cutter and rounds of ammunition, in a Brussels public park near the train station. Officials did not disclose a possible motive for the attack, but Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that Spanish authorities had notified French intelligence about the suspect because he belongs to a “radical Islamist movement”. Ms David said he told her that he received orders from no one.
Three people were injured, including US Air Force serviceman Spencer Stone, who was the first to tackle El-Khazzani. Mr Stone was in hospital on Saturday for a hand wound from the box cutter.
As well as Mr Stone, 23, of California, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, 22, from Roseburg, Oregon, and their friend, Anthony Sadler, 23, a senior at Sacramento State University in California, moved to subdue the man.
The lawyer said El-Khazzani “told me that for him, nothing happened ... He said he didn’t even hear any shot fired. The Kalashnikov didn’t work”.
One shot did ring out, injuring a French-American teacher in the chest. He was being treated in a Lille hospital. However, the Americans did say the Kalashnikov jammed.
El-Khazzani, identified via fingerprints, can be held for 96 hours and then must be charged or set free.
El-Khazzani had been living in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras with his parents, and arrested there three times for drug-dealing, according to Spain’s Interior Ministry.
He had lived in the relatively poor neighbourhood of El Saladillo, which has an unemployment rate close to 40 per cent.