PARIS • French counter-terrorism officers were yesterday questioning a gunman who was overpowered by passengers on a packed train, as it emerged he had been flagged by intelligence services in at least four European countries.
The attacker, named as 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, opened fire with a Kalashnikov assault rifle last Friday, but was wrestled to the floor by three American passengers, aided by a British man.
According to an initial investigation, Khazzani has denied any intention of waging a terrorist attack, saying he had merely stumbled upon a stash of weapons and decided to use the weapons to rob passengers.
His lawyer said yesterday that Khazzani was dumbfounded that his act was being linked to terrorism and had denied firing a shot.
"He says that by chance he found a suitcase with a weapon, with a telephone, hidden away," said Ms Sophie David, a lawyer assigned to his case at the beginning of his detention but who is no longer representing him.
"He said he found it in the park which is just next to the Midi Station in Brussels, where he often sleeps with other homeless people."
She said that when she told him some people were injured, he was "flabbergasted".
"He says that the Kalashnikov didn't work and he was brought under control immediately without a single shot being fired."
Khazzani had, however, been flagged as a radical element by intelligence services in several countries, and French investigators are focusing on an extremist attack.
Armed with the weapons, Khazzani exited a toilet cubicle on the high-speed train just after it crossed from Belgium into northern France.
A French passenger tried to disarm Khazzani but he got away and fired at least one shot, wounding a Franco-American traveller.
The attack was quickly foiled when two off-duty US servicemen and their friend charged at the gunman and restrained him.
"I looked back and saw a guy enter with a Kalashnikov. My friends and I got down and then I said, 'Let's get him'," Mr Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old member of the National Guard in Oregon who recently returned from Afghanistan, told France's BFMTV.
Mr Spencer Stone, who serves in the US Air Force, was the first to rush to the gunman, who slashed him in the neck and almost sliced off his thumb with a box-cutter.
"At that point, I showed up and grabbed the gun from him and basically started beating him in the head until he fell unconscious," said Mr Skarlatos.
Khazzani was arrested when the train with 554 passengers aboard stopped at Arras station in northern France.
A Spanish counter-terrorism source said Khazzani had lived in Spain for seven years until last year when he came to the attention of the authorities for making hardline speeches, and was once detained for drug trafficking.
Spanish intelligence services say that Khazzani went to France, from where he travelled to Syria.
A source close to the French probe said Khazzani "lived in Belgium, got on the train in Belgium, with weapons likely acquired in Belgium". And "he had identity papers issued in Spain".
German security services, meanwhile, had flagged Khazzani when he boarded a flight from Berlin to Istanbul in May this year, and in Belgium, Justice Minister Koen Geens confirmed that Khazzani was "known" to the country's intelligence services.