Legal deadline looms for charging gunman in French train attack

Heavily armed Ayoub El-Khazzani was tackled by vacationing US servicemen on a Amsterdam-to-Paris train last Friday. His lawyer claims that he was trying to rob passengers on the train. 

Francois Walschaerts/AP
Security has become more visible at train stations across Europe, including in Brussels, after an attack on Friday of a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. French judges must decide today whether to charge the gunman with an attempted terrorist attack.

French judges must decide today whether to charge Ayoub El-Khazzani with an attempted terrorist attack over his foiled assault on a Paris-bound train Friday.

The deadline for charging Mr. Khazzani, who was subdued after he emerged from a bathroom carrying a Kalashnikov rifle, a pistol, and a boxcutter, comes Tuesday evening, after 96 hours of detention by French authorities. But while Khazzani is set to be charged for possession of weapons and for the injuries he inflicted upon the men who subdued him, the motives for his attempted attack – and whether it was terrorism-related – remain in debate.

CNN reports that Khazzani's lawyer, Sophie David, says that her client had been living on the streets in Brussels. She says he claims to have found the rifle, and had been attempting to rob the train.

"He says he only wanted to extort money from the Thalys passengers, and nothing else," she told France's Le Parisien newspaper. "He denies any terrorist dimension to his actions – the suggestion makes him almost laugh."

The lawyer said her client told her he found the firearms "in a suitcase abandoned in a park near Brussels railway station, where he used to sleep rough."

Khazzani grew up in Spain after migrating there with his family from Morocco in the 1990s. El Pais writes that Khazzani was twice arrested in 2009 for selling hashish, and was detained in 2012 on suspicion of smuggling drugs. El Pais also notes that while Khazzani was clean-shaven in 2009, by 2012 he had adopted a full beard and shaven upper lip. Such a style is generally associated with conservative Salafists.

France24 adds that Khazzani's father told Spanish newspaper El Mundo that he and his son attended the Tawaq mosque in Algeciras, "considered to be the most radical of the city’s six mosques." That connection, France24 writes, prompted Spanish authorities to warn their French counterparts when Khazzani took a job at a telecom company in France. The French authorities reportedly opened an "S file" on Khazzani, which denotes a person receiving special surveillance. Spain already had him under surveillance. 

France24 reports that "The only entry in Khazzani’s S-file is a flight he took from Berlin to Istanbul in May 2015," which many in the French media have taken to suggest that Khazzani traveled to Syria. Khazzani denies having been there.

CNN notes that "Whatever [Khazzani's] plans, it appears the gunman was not well-trained; witnesses said he didn't seem to know what to do when his rifle jammed during the attack."

"He clearly had no firearms training whatsoever," said Alek Skarlatos, one of the Americans who tackled the gunman. "If he knew what he was doing or even got lucky and did the right thing, he would have been able to operate through all eight of the magazines, and we probably wouldn't be here today."

There are indications that Khazzani had accomplices. French radio outlet Europe1 reports that his Facebook account was shut down soon after his assault on the train; Khazzani himself was in custody at the time. Europe1 adds that French authorities managed to copy all of his Facebook page's information before it was taken down, and are searching for the person who removed it.

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