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Trial begins over French train attack foiled by 'brave intervention' of three American tourists

The incident inspired a Hollywood film; the first day of the trial was spent discussing whether its director Clint Eastwood needed to be present.
Nov 16th 2020, 7:42 AM 46,981 0

Updated Nov 16th 2020, 8:15 PM

AN OPERATIVE FOR the so-called Islamic State has gone on trial in Paris on terror charges for swaggering bare-chested through a train in 2015 with an arsenal of weapons and shooting one passenger.

Opening a month-long trial for Ayoub El-Khazzani, the judge said the 31-year-old Moroccan with ties to a notorious terror mastermind intended to “kill all the passengers” aboard the Amsterdam to Paris train in 2015 but “lost control of events”.

One of the Americans who tackled the bare-chested gunman, who was laden with an arsenal of weapons and shot another passenger, told investigators that he seemed high on drugs and “completely crazy”, the judge said.

A lawyer for the two US servicemen and their friend, whose electrifying capture of El Khazzani inspired a Clint Eastwood movie, said their “very brave intervention” on 21 August 2015 thwarted a “slaughter”.

2.56650271 French lawyer Thibault de Montbrial, who is representing US soldiers who foiled the attack, speaks to media today. Source: PA Images

“This terror attack could have killed up to 300 people based on the number of ammunition that was found on the terrorist and in his bag,” he said.

With El-Khazzani in court and watched by security officers, the trial opening today was largely taken up with procedural issues including whether Eastwood’s presence is needed.

That question was not immediately resolved. The actor-director has so far not responded to a summons.

Eastwood turned the 21 August 2015 drama in carriage No 12 into a film called ‘The 15:17 To Paris’.

El-Khazzani boarded the train in Brussels armed with a Kalashnikov, nine clips with 30 rounds each, an automatic pistol and a cutter, according to investigators.

He is charged with attempted terrorist murder for the foiled attack. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

His lawyer, Sarah Mauger-Poliak, said El Khazzani “regrets having allowed himself to become indoctrinated” by extremist propaganda and wants “to demonstrate his remorse”.

Three others charged

2.56649407 Passengers walk through a metal detector at the Gare du Nord train station in Paris in 2015, installed in response to the train attack. Source: PA Images

Three others, who were not on the train, are also being tried for their roles as alleged accomplices.

Bilal Chatra, aged 24, an Algerian member of IS, would have been the second man on the train but dropped out of the plot a week earlier, it is alleged.

He had left Syria for Europe a week before to set up the exit route, prosecutors said.

Mohamed Bakkali allegedly took in the Europe-bound attackers in Budapest, Hungary, which he denies.

The two were arrested in Germany in 2016.

A third man, Redouane El Amrani Ezzerrifi, allegedly piloted a boat to help in their return to Europe.

The trial serves as a bridge to the massacre of 130 people in Paris three months later, on 13 November 2015, at the Bataclan music hall and restaurants and cafés.

The man considered the likely mastermind of those attacks, Abdel Hamid Abaaoud, was the behind-the-scenes force of the train attack, planned in Syria, according to the prosecution.

Abaaoud travelled from Syria to Belgium with El Khazzani to organise attacks in Europe, and was holed up with him and Chatra in a Brussels apartment, according to the prosecution.

2.56650188 Ayoub El Khazzani’s lawyer Sarah Mauger-Poliak arrives on the opening day of the trial in Paris. Source: Thibault Camus/AP

Abaaoud was killed by French special forces days after the Bataclan attack.

But before his death, his macabre organisational skills were at work in a failed plan to attack a church south of Paris in April 2015 that left a young woman dead.

Sid Ahmed Ghlam was convicted earlier this month and sentenced to life in prison.

El Khazzani “knowingly followed Abaaoud, but it’s been years since he was in a jihadi mindset”, his lawyer Sarah Mauger-Poliak said in a phone interview.

“He is very affected and regrets having allowed himself to become indoctrinated in propaganda.”

The propaganda evolved into a plot to allegedly kill trapped passengers.

El Khazzani bought a train ticket at the Brussels station on 21 August 2015 for a 5.13pm departure.

He was armed with a Kalashnikov, nine clips with 30 rounds each, an automatic pistol and a cutter, according to investigators.

Once on the train, he lingered in a toilet between carriages and emerged bare-chested with a Kalashnikov, they said.

Three Americans, a French-American, and a Briton

2.56650451 French-American Mark Moogalian, right, on the opening day of the trial. Source: PA Images

One waiting passenger struggled with the attacker, then a French-American, Mark Magoolian, wrestled the Kalashnikov away – before being shot himself by a pistol as he headed to carriage No 12 to warn his wife.

Magoolian said in interviews later that the attacker recovered the Kalashnikov.

Spencer Stone, a then-23-year-old US airman, said days after the attack that he was coming out of a deep sleep when the gunman appeared.

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Alek Skarlatos, then a 22-year-old US National Guardsman recently back from Afghanistan, “just hit me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go’”.

The three men, all from California, snapped into action out of what Skarlatos said at a news conference days later was “gut instinct”.

Stone and Skarlatos moved in to tackle the gunman and take his gun. The third friend, Anthony Sadler, aged 23, then a student, helped subdue the assailant.

2.56649497 (1) Spencer Stone (in grey), Alek Skarlatos (in green), and Anthony Sadler (in red) meet then-French president Hollande in 2015. Source: Michel Euler/AP

Stone said he choked El Khazzani unconscious. 

A British businessman then joined in the fray.

Stone, whose hand was injured by the cutter, is also credited with saving the French-American teacher who was bleeding from the neck. 

Stone said he “just stuck two of my fingers in his hole and found what I thought to be the artery, pushed down and the bleeding stopped”.

El-Khazzani’s background

The train rerouted to Arras, in northern France, where El Khazzani was arrested.

El-Khazzani had left Morocco aged 18 to join his family in Spain.

In 2012, he established links with radicals.

He went to Brussels before heading to Turkey, a gateway to Syria.

A watch list signal “sounded” on 10 May 2015 in Berlin, where El-Khazzani was flying to Turkey, then-French interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve had said.

El-Khazzani told investigators that Abaaoud wanted him to kill only the American military men, a line he was likely to maintain during the trial.

The investigating judges consider it a dubious claim, in part because their presence on the train could not be known in advance and they were in civilian clothes.

That defence also fails to chime with Abaaoud’s goal of killing a maximum number of people during attacks.

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