France train gunman: Islamic extremist or homeless misfit?

25th August 2015, Comments 0 comments

Who exactly is Ayoub El Khazzani, the heavily-armed Moroccan man who was wrestled to the ground by passengers in a crowded high-speed train in France, potentially averting a bloodbath?

After four days of questioning, investigators now believe that the 25-year-old had carefully planned a jihadist attack on the high-speed Amsterdam-Paris train that would have ended in carnage had passengers not intervened.

His claims that he was just a homeless man who found a stash of weapons and decided to rob the train were slammed as "absurd" by Paris prosecutor Francois Molins on Tuesday, who said he was being probed for "attempted murder" as part of a terrorist plot.

Small and scrawny, Khazzani boarded the train in Brussels on Friday armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and 270 rounds of ammunition, a Luger automatic pistol, ammunition and a box-cutter.

Witnesses said he walked out of a toilet cubicle armed and topless before being wrestled to the floor and subdued by two young American off-duty servicemen, their student friend and a 62-year-old British consultant.

A Franco-American man was shot and injured in the attack, which Molins described as "targeted and premeditated".

- Attended radical mosque -

Khazzani had been flagged by intelligence services in Spain, France, Belgium and Germany as an Islamic extremist.

He moved to Spain from Morocco in 2007 when he was 18, and lived first in Madrid then in the southern port city of Algeciras.

"He was a very good boy, very hardworking," his father Mohamed El Khazzani told British newspaper The Telegraph.

"I have no idea what he was thinking and I have not spoken to him for over a year."

The suspected gunman "never talked politics; just football and fishing," his father told the Telegraph in between sobs.

But Spanish intelligence authorities paint a very different picture of a man who appeared to live off odd jobs and drug trafficking.

He spent time in jail -- sentenced twice in 2010 to 10 and six months for drug trafficking -- and he is still the target of several judicial probes in Spain, according to Molins.

Khazzani went to a radical mosque in Algeciras where his brother was the treasurer, and the red flag was raised when he made hardline, public comments defending jihad.

He left Spain in 2014 for France, where he worked for mobile phone operator Lycamobile for two months before being sacked because he did not have the right work papers.

His whereabouts after that remain a mystery, but in May this year he came onto the radars of intelligence services when he boarded a plane in Berlin for Turkey, seen as a possible sign that he travelled to war-torn Syria.

A month later, he flew to Albania from Antakya in southern Turkey, on the border with Syria.

Then on Friday, Khazzani boarded the train in Brussels, where he is thought to have lived for some time with his sister.

- Raft of evidence -

Khazzani has told investigators he is "dumbfounded" by accusations he was intending to carry out a terror attack.

"The only kind of terrorism that he is guilty of is committing terrorism for food, he doesn't have money to eat well enough," his father told El Mundo.

Alek Skarlatos, one of those who overpowered him and an off-duty member of the National Guard in Oregon, says he "clearly had no firearms training whatsoever".

But Molins said Tuesday a raft of evidence suggested he was anything but a poor misfit.

He watched a video "calling for violent acts in the name of radical Islam" on his phone prior to launching the attack, for instance.

His phone had only been activated on the day of the attack, and he paid in cash for a 149-euro ($171) first class train ticket.

And Molins said that Khazzani's Facebook page had mysteriously been disabled on Saturday -- the day after the foiled attack.

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© 2015 AFP

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