Two American passengers described as U.S. service members and a college student on vacation thwarted a terror attack Friday on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.
One of the two was apparently a member of the U.S. Air Force. He reportedly was cut with a knife or razor while disarming the suspect just as the attack was about to get underway.
U.S. military spokesmen said they could not confirm that the passengers were service members, but they did confirm that two Americans had confronted and scuffled with the attacker and that one U.S. service member was injured.
“Unarmed men took down an armed assailant. They saved lives today. It doesn’t matter who they were, that’s heroic action,” said Marine Capt. Richard Ulsh, the Stuttgart, Germany-based spokesman for Marines in Europe.
President Barack Obama, after being briefed on the attack, released a statement through the White House press office noting: “While the investigation into the attack is in its early stages, it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy.”
According to media and social media reports, one of the men was a member of the Oregon National Guard, who had only recently left a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
According to the French newspaper Le Monde, the Americans, in civilian clothes at the time, heard “the sound of a heavy weapon being loaded” while passing a bathroom. When a man carrying an AK-47 and a pistol emerged, they confronted and disabled him. During the scuffle, the suspect managed to fire three shots, according to reports. the attack apparently took place while the train was still in Belgian territory, though the suspect was subdued and arrested on French soil.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Twitter issued a “thank you to those who interfered” with the attack. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Twitter called the incident a terror attack and said his sympathies were with the victims. The British newspaper The Guardian reported the two men who foiled the attack were both injured, one by a knife and one by a gunshot. One of the injuries was said to be “serious.”
The French have been worried about the potential for terror attacks since the Jan. 7 assault on the offices of the satiric newspaper Charlie Hebdo that killed 12, among them some of France’s most famous comic artists.
Since then, there have been smaller scale terror attacks in Denmark and Belgium, and much of Europe has remained on high terror alert.
France anti-terror police force took charge of the investigation into Friday’s train incident and was quickly joined by investigators from the Netherlands and Belgium.
Other news reports said that three people, including one American, had been injured. Among the injured was the French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, 60, who was reportedly hurt while breaking a window trying to raise the alarm that an attack was underway.
The suspect was described as a 26-year-old Moroccan. French anti-terror police did not release his identity, but did note that they had a file on him, implying that he had been investigated before the attack.
The suspect is thought to have boarded the high-speed train when it stopped at Brussels, not far north of where the attack took place. Witnesses from the train told French media that the attack apparently began near the back of the train, raising the possibility that the intent was to move forward through the train, which was carrying 554 passengers aboard.
In addition to a Kalashnikov assault rifle, the assailant reportedly was carrying an automatic pistol, nine magazines and a knife.
After the attack, the train was taken to Arras, France, about 100 miles north of Paris. Passengers were taken to a nearby high school for the night while the investigation began.
Just after the attack, Le Monde quoted French Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet as saying that it was too early to know whether the incident was a terrorist attack.
“We do not know the motives of his actions,” Brandet was quoted as saying. “At this time, talking about a terrorism motive is premature.”
But officials were soon shedding such caution. Given the suspect’s background, the types of weapons and the nature of the attack, local police soon handed the case over to French, Dutch and Belgian anti-terrorism police.
French newspaper website reports indicated the men thought at first to be Marines just happened to be riding on the train.
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews