The suspect in Friday’s thwarted attack of a high-speed train bound for Paris flew to Istanbul from Berlin on May 10, following a path that has been used hundreds of times by Islamist militants seeking to join the Islamic State.
French authorities said German intelligence alerted them to the trip by Ayoub El-Khazzani, the 25-year-old suspect in the train incident, which was prevented from becoming a tragedy by the actions of three Americans who subdued El-Khazzani before he could unjam the automatic rifle and pistol he was carrying.
Little is known about the trip, which authorities said lasted 16 days. But the fact that police in three countries were tracking El-Khazzani prior to Friday’s train attack makes the Turkey excursion even more suspicious.
A Moroccan national, El-Khazzani had lived in Spain, France and Belgium, according to reports.
Reports of the trip to Turkey surfaced Sunday as the Americans credited with thwarting the attack, U.S. Airman First Class Spencer Stone, of Sacramento, Oregon National Guard Spc. Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, a Sacramento State University student, held a new conference in Paris at the residence of the U.S. ambassador.
In comments, the three provided new details of their split-second decision to confront the gunman, who had just entered the high-speed rail car they were riding in, bound for Paris.
Stone said he had just awakened when he saw the gunmen with an AK-47. “He was trying to charge his weapon and Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said ‘Let’s go.’ ”
Stone knocked the gunman to the ground, but the struggle was not over. “It seemed like he just kept pulling out more weapons,” Stone said.
“He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end and so were we,” he said.
El-Khazzani’s attorney offered a different account of events, saying the 25-year-old meant only to rob passengers aboard the train.
“He doesn’t understand why this incident has taken on such great proportions,” the lawyer, Sophie Duval, told the French newspaper Le Parisien. “To me, he looks to be somebody who was very sick, somebody very weak, as if suffering from malnutrition, very, very thin and very haggard.”
She said El-Khazzani found the weapons he is accused of using on the train in a suitcase that he found in a park in Brussels. She said he had been sleeping in the park. The weapons he found, allegedly, included the AK-47 rifle, a pistol, nine ammunition clips and a box cutter.
She said he’d been homeless since “his identity documents were stolen in Brussels.” She said that after finding the weapons, he hatched a plan to rob the “many rich people” who would be on the train to Paris.
But European newspapers and police statements are full of accounts noting that Friday was not the first time El-Khazzani had popped up in regards to possible ties to terrorism.
Spanish anti-terror police believe that between May 2014 and May 2015 he traveled to Syria and they passed a file on him to French anti-terror police in 2014 when he left Spain for France. French police said in a statement that El-Khazzani was included on their “S” list of about 5,000 people believed to have terror connections. That list included Said and Cherif Kouachi, the two men believed to have killed 11 at the offices of the Parisian satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper reported Sunday, citing German and Spanish intelligence officials, that El-Khazzani had returned to Belgium May 26 after his flight to Istanbul.
The newspaper quoted Spanish officials saying he had lived in Madrid, and that he is believed at some point in the last 16 months to have traveled to Syria, where, the newspaper said, “he possibly participated in the activities of the Islamic State.”
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo reported that he had moved from Madrid and until 2014 had lived in Algeciras, Spain, and that his mother attends what is considered the most radical mosque in that city.
Algeciras has been in the news for radical Islam before. There was a thwarted attack on a shopping center, and small weapons cache was found in an abandoned farm house. That weapons cache included an AK-47 officials say matched the type used on the train Friday.
If he were homeless, it wouldn’t remove him from the possibility of terror ties. In Germany, social workers have become worried in recent months that the Islamic State has been targeting the homeless for recruiting, especially for suicide attacks.
Matthew Schofield: @mattschodcnews