French investigators had just hours left Tuesday to decide whether to charge a suspect in a high-speed train attack that was foiled by passengers, as it emerged he watched a jihadist video just before boarding.
Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old who got onto the train in Brussels on Friday armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, ammunition and a box-cutter, is being questioned by counter-terrorism investigators.
He insists he was only planning to rob passengers, but a source close to the case said Tuesday he had watched a video of jihadist songs on his mobile phone shortly before boarding the Amsterdam-Paris train.
His phone had only been activated on the morning of the attack, the source added.
French authorities have until Tuesday evening to charge or release Khazzani, who does not speak French.
Belgium has also opened a probe into the attack that saw Khazzani open fire, witnesses say, wounding a man before being wrestled to the floor and subdued by two young American off-duty servicemen, their friend and a 62-year-old British consultant.
Police carried out searches at the homes of Khazzani’s sister and one of his friends in Brussels, where he was believed to have spent several days, newspaper La Derniere Heure reported.
A prosecutor said nobody was arrested or questioned, but several items were removed for investigation.
– ‘Prepare’ for other attacks –
France has been on high alert since three jihadist gunmen went on a killing spree in and near Paris in January, leaving 17 people dead.
“We are still exposed,” French President Francois Hollande warned Tuesday.
“The aggression that took place on Friday… which could have degenerated into a monstrous carnage… is fresh proof that we must prepare for other attacks and therefore protect ourselves.”
Khazzani was on the radar of European intelligence agencies, but gaps remain in his backstory.
A Spanish counter-terrorism source said he lived in Spain for seven years until 2014, where he came to the attention of authorities for making hardline comments defending jihad, attending a radical mosque in the port of Algeciras and being involved in drug trafficking.
His father said he left for France to work for mobile phone operator Lycamobile — a claim confirmed by the head of the firm who said Khazzani stayed for two months in early 2014 and left because he did not have the right work papers.
French intelligence sources, however, said Khazzani only came on to their radar in May this year when German authorities warned he had boarded a plane for Turkey, seen as a possible sign that he travelled to war-torn Syria.
Khazzani is said to have told investigators he is “dumbfounded” by accusations he intended to carry out a terror attack.
He said he stumbled upon a weapons stash in a park in Belgium where he sometimes slept rough and decided to use it to rob passengers, according to Sophie David, a lawyer who was temporarily assigned to his case.
– ‘Message of courage’ –
Meanwhile, the US city of Sacramento is preparing a parade of honour for the three young Americans who tackled the gunman: Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old National Guardsman, Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old US Air Force member, and Anthony Sadler, also 23, a student at the state university.
They were awarded the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour, by Hollande on Monday, along with British consultant Chris Norman.
“You have shown us that, faced with terror, we have the power to resist. You have given a message of courage, solidarity and hope,” Hollande said.
Stone, who wore a sling to the ceremony due to the injuries he received to his hand, has also been nominated for the US Air Force’s highest medal for non-combat bravery.
Speaking after the ceremony, Norman said: “I think that one way or another, we are going to be facing this kind of problem quite a few times in the future, and I would invite you all to think about ‘what would I do in that situation?’.