ARRAS (France) • A suspected militant gunman overpowered by three young Americans on a packed Amsterdam-Paris commuter train had visited Syria and was known to French and Spanish intelligence services, officials said yesterday.
The suspect, who was wrestled to the floor after opening fire with an assault rifle on the high-speed train on Friday evening, is believed to be a 26-year-old of Moroccan origin and is now being interrogated by counter-terrorist officials near Paris.
Belgian prosecutors said yesterday they had formally opened an anti-terrorism probe. The attack occurred in Belgium as the train was nearing the border with France. Belgian authorities said they would step up security measures across the national railway network.
The suspect is understood to have lived in both Spain and France, and a Spanish counter-terrorism source told Agence France-Presse he travelled to war-torn Syria last year.
"Once in France he went to Syria, then returned to France," the source said.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Spanish intelligence services had flagged the man to the French authorities "due to his membership of the radical Islamist movement".
Armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, an automatic pistol, nine cartridge clips and a box-cutter, the attacker opened fire on board the TGV train.
But the attack was quickly stopped when the three Americans - including two off-duty soldiers - charged the gunman and overpowered him.
Mr Spencer Stone, who is reportedly in the US Air Force, was the first to reach the gunman, who slashed Mr Stone in the neck and hand with a box-cutter.
Quickly afterwards, friends Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old member of the National Guard in Oregon, and American student Anthony Sadler reached the gunman and subdued him.
A 62-year-old British consultant, Mr Chris Norman, was also praised for helping to tackle the gunman, as was a Frenchman who had earlier tried to stop him as he came out of the toilet carrying a gun.
The train heroes are to be received by President Francois Hollande at the Elysee Palace "in the coming days", his office said.
They were also decorated with an honour by the French city of Arras, where the train pulled in after the incident.
Mr Stone was taken to hospital with another unnamed American passenger, who was hit in the shoulder with a bullet. Neither is in critical condition, Mr Cazeneuve said.
Mobile phone footage from inside the train played on several TV stations showed the suspect, a skinny man wearing white trousers and no shirt, flattened on the floor of the train with his hands and feet tied behind his back. He was arrested when the train with 554 passengers aboard stopped at Arras.
President Barack Obama praised the passengers, saying "it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy".
Analysts said it was not surprising someone could launch an attack even though he was on a watch-list.
"It is the perennial problem of how you prioritise between serious concerns," said Mr Raffaello Pantucci, counter-terrorism expert at Royal United Services Institute in London. "It is a very resource-intensive job to watch someone 24 hours a day. Intelligence agencies just aren't big enough to do that for everyone."
France has been on high alert since Islamist gunmen went on the rampage in January, killing 17 people in Paris.
Around 850 French and 300 Belgians have left to fight in Syria and Iraq, and hundreds have already returned, say intelligence officials.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES