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2015 Thalys train attack

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2015 Thalys train attack
Part of Islamic terrorism in Europe (2014–present)
Coupling THA 9364 B M-Z, June 2014 (2).JPG
A Thalys train operating the same route, leaving Brussels-South in June 2014
Location On board Thalys train n°9364 in Oignies, Pas-de-Calais, France.
Coordinates 50°27′57″N 2°58′26″E / 50.46583°N 2.97389°E / 50.46583; 2.97389Coordinates: 50°27′57″N 2°58′26″E / 50.46583°N 2.97389°E / 50.46583; 2.97389
Date 21 August 2015 (2015-08-21)
17:45 (CEST)
Attack type
Attempted mass shooting
Weapons
Deaths 0
Non-fatal injuries
4 (3 directly, including the perpetrator)[Note 1]
Suspected perpetrators
Ayoub El Khazzani[5][6]
Defenders Damien A., Mark Moogalian, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Chris Norman

On 21 August 2015, a man on a Thalys train on its way from Amsterdam to Paris[7][8] opened fire in a train carriage before his assault rifle jammed,[9] and he was subsequently subdued by passengers. Including the assailant, four people were injured.[10] French police believe the incident to be an Islamist terrorist attack, although the attorney for the accused said robbery was his only intent.[11][12] French, American and British passengers confronted the attacker; they received France's highest decoration, the Legion of Honour, and some received other honours as well.

Attack[edit]

Map of main Thalys routes and connections.
Diagram from Thalys internal report.[13]

At approximately 17:45 CEST on 21 August 2015, Thalys train 9364,[14] traveling from Amsterdam to Paris, had just crossed the border from Belgium into France[15] when a 25-year-old Moroccan man, Ayoub El Khazzani,[16][17][18][19][20] exited the toilets on car No. 12.[21] He was shirtless[22] and armed with an AKM assault rifle,[2] for which he had nine magazines and a total of 270 rounds of ammunition. He was also carrying a pistol, a utility knife and a bottle of petrol.[4][20][23]

A 28-year-old Frenchman identified only as "Damien A.", who was heading to the toilet as El Khazzani was exiting,[17] attempted to restrain El Khazzani but fell to the floor in the struggle. An American-born Frenchman, 51-year-old Mark Moogalian,[17] intervened and successfully wrestled the rifle from El Khazzani,[24] but as he turned to move his nearby wife out of harm's way he was shot through the back with a semi-automatic 9mm Luger pistol the gunman had been concealing; Moogalian then played dead and the gunman retrieved the rifle.[24][1][2][25][17][19][26][27][28]

Moving into the passenger area El Khazzani tried to fire his rifle, but it jammed[19] and he was unable to clear it—his attempt looking, fortuitously in light of the amount of assault rifle ammo he carried said guardsman Alek Skarlatos, as though "he clearly had no firearms training whatsoever".[29] He was then tackled and subdued by three American friends, two of them off-duty members of the U.S. Armed Forces:[26][30][31] 23-year-old Airman First Class Spencer Stone [32] and 22-year-old Specialist Alek Skarlatos,[25][33][34][35] along with 23-year-old Anthony Sadler.[36][37] Sadler later said that Skarlatos yelled "Get him!"[14]

Stone put El Khazzani in a chokehold as El Khazzani cut him with a box cutter in the hand, head, and neck; Stone's thumb was nearly severed.[3] Skarlatos seized El Khazzani's rifle[38][unreliable source?] and beat him in the head with its muzzle until El Khazzani was unconscious.[39] A British passenger, 62-year-old Chris Norman,[40] and a French train driver[40] helped hold El Khazzani down. They used Norman's T-shirt to tie his arms behind his back.[18]

After subduing the gunman, Skarlatos with the assault rifle and pistol in hand swept the other cars for more gunmen. He noted that the gunman's assault rifle was jammed, and the pistol was missing a magazine and had no rounds in the chamber, thus neither gun that the gunman had was fire-ready.[41]

Stone, a medic,[40] then tried to stop the severe bleeding from Moogalian's neck[40][27] by wrapping his shirt around the wound. Finding that ineffective, he stuck two fingers into Moogalian's wound and pushed down on an artery, which stopped the bleeding.[42][43]

The train, which was carrying 554 passengers,[10] was passing Oignies in the Pas-de-Calais department when the attack took place.[44] It was rerouted to the station of nearby Arras. Moogalian was airlifted to the University Hospital in Lille, while Stone was later treated for thumb and eye injuries and other, minor wounds.[2] The remaining passengers were taken to Arras, where they were searched and identified before being allowed to proceed to Paris.[1]

Assailant[edit]

Ayoub El Khazzani[5] (born 3 September 1989,[45] also spelled El-Khazzani and el-Qazzani),[46] a 25-year-old man from Morocco, was identified as the assailant by French and Spanish authorities; he had boarded the train in Brussels.[47] He carried no identification but was identified by his fingerprints. Prior to the attempted attack, he had resided in Aubervilliers, Seine-Saint-Denis, France, since 2014.[48] El Khazzani was originally from Tétouan in northern Morocco,[49] and moved to Spain in 2007, two years after his father had legalized his status there.[50] He was an employee at the mobile phone operator firm Lycamobile for two months in early 2014 before leaving due to not having the right work papers.[51]

El Khazzani was apparently known to French authorities and had been tagged with a fiche "S" (S file or security file), the highest "warning" level for French state security. He had been similarly profiled by Belgian, Spanish, and German[52] authorities. El Khazzani had reportedly lived in the Spanish cities of Madrid and Algeciras[53] from 2007 to March 2014.[54] During his time in Spain, he attracted the attention of authorities after making speeches defending jihad, attending a known radical mosque, and being involved in drug trafficking.[51][52] He then moved to France, at which time the Spanish authorities informed the French of their suspicions.[54] However, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve claimed that he moved to Belgium first in 2015.[49] He had reportedly spent time between May and July in Syria before moving to France.[16][54][55]

Possible motives[edit]

According to prosecutor François Molins, El Khazzani listened to a "YouTube audio file in which the individual exhorted his followers to raise arms and fight in the name of the prophet" and that his Internet browsing history showed "clear evidence of terrorist intent."[56] Prosecutors discovered the files on his phone, which they say he listened to immediately prior to the attack.[4]

Sophie David, a lawyer initially assigned to his case but no longer representing him, said that El Khazzani says he was homeless because his ID was stolen, that he slept in a Brussels park where he found a suitcase containing the rifle and the pistol, and that he had no intention to massacre the passengers but planned to rob them so he could get food. He denies firing a single shot and was said to not have any firearms training.[12][26][57][58] However, authorities said El Khazzani's explanations became less plausible with each questioning and he had eventually stopped talking to investigators.[4][59] On 23 August, Belgian authorities began investigating whether El Khazzani had an accomplice.[60]

Possible source of weapons[edit]

French newspaper La Voix du Nord said that the gunman in the Thalys attack may have had connections to groups targeted by the Belgian counter-terror operation, and authorities are currently investigating the link.[54] One of the gunmen in the 2015 Île-de-France attacks had purchased automatic weapons and a rocket launcher from Belgian gangs,[61] allegedly in a black market near Gare du Midi, the station that the gunman in the Thalys attack boarded from.[62][63]

Legal proceedings[edit]

Preliminary charges were filed against El Khazzani on 25 August by the Paris prosecutor's office for attempted murder in connection with terrorism, possession of weapons in connection with terrorism, and participation in a terrorism conspiracy. He was remanded into custody.[2][4][64]

One year after the attack, on 21 August 2016, El Khazzani was still in jail, awaiting his trial. He remained the only person charged in the case.[65]

Involved passengers[edit]

Chris Norman, Anthony Sadler, President Hollande, Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos after their Legion of Honour ceremony at the Élysée Palace on 24 August 2015

Among the train's passengers, the following were noted by the press for their involvement in the incident:

On 24 August, Norman, Sadler, Skarlatos, and Stone were made Knights of the Legion of Honour (Chevaliers de la Légion d'honneur) by French president François Hollande.[76][77] Moogalian was also made a Knight of the Legion of Honour on 13 September 2015,[78] with Damian A. expected to be similarly honored at a later date.[76] Norman, Sadler, and Skarlatos – who were uninjured – were also awarded the medal of the city of Arras.[79][80]

In the United States, Sadler was also awarded the Secretary of Defense Medal for Valor.[81] Skarlatos was awarded the Soldier's Medal, the highest medal awarded to Army personnel for actions not taken in combat,[72] while Stone was awarded the Airman's Medal, as well as the Purple Heart. Stone was also meritoriously promoted two grades on 1 November to Staff Sergeant.[82] Stone and Sadler also received the Civic Medal 1st class from the Prime Minister of Belgium.[83]

Reactions[edit]

Government reactions[edit]

  • France: The three Americans and Norman were hailed as "true heroes" by the mayor of Arras, Frédéric Leturque.[26][79] French president François Hollande and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve praised them for their bravery.[10]
  • United Kingdom: British Prime Minister David Cameron praised the "extraordinary courage" of those involved in taking down the attacker, including Briton Chris Norman.[10]
  • United States: The White House stated that "the President expressed his profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including U.S. service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker ... It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy."[14][84] U.S. President Barack Obama called the three Americans on 22 August to personally thank them for their bravery.[85] General Philip M. Breedlove of the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, said the three Americans' actions, "clearly illustrate the courage and commitment our young men and women have all the time, whether they are on duty or on leave."[86]

EU collaboration[edit]

Koen Geens, the Belgian Minister of Justice called for increased collaboration within the EU on arms trafficking.[87] Geens said "I do not believe that these weapons are of Belgian origin" and "there are far too many illegal Kalashnikovs and [military surplus] arriving in Belgium from Eastern Europe."[88] He called for more effective arms control outside the Schengen zone, and flagged increased police powers against weapons traffickers.[89] On 29 August, ministers from France, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland met in Paris to discuss train security, including the possibility of using metal detectors for some international train passengers.[90]

Security improvements[edit]

In response to the attack, the Belgian government decided to increase patrols of Belgian police at international train stations and to increase baggage checks.[91] Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called for urgent talks with France, Germany and the Netherlands on increasing security on cross-border trains.[92] The European Commission said that the Schengen treaty is non-negotiable, and that increased security checks cannot include border checks.[93] European Union officials are now considering introducing metal detectors and body scans at all train stations, along with an increase in CCTV cameras inside trains.[94]

Investigations[edit]

Three different official investigations have been launched by governmental authorities, one in France, another in Spain, and the third in Belgium.[95][96] In addition, Thalys International has launched their own internal investigation.[97]

French and Spanish investigations[edit]

On 21 August, the anti-terrorist section of the French public prosecutor's office in Paris took over the investigation based on "the arms used, the events that unfolded, and the context."[98]

In view of the gravity of the acts he was accused of, the suspect was placed in custody for a period which could be extended to 96 hours. According to the police, based on the modus operandi the attack resembled a terrorist attack.[99]

A Spanish police spokesman said that the suspect's parents' house in Algeciras had been searched.[96]

In the aftermath of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, it was reported that Abdelhamid Abaaoud was under investigation by French police as a possible link to the Thalys attack.[100][101]

On 14 February 2018, French police arrested a Moroccan citizen in Paris who was suspected of involvement in the attack. The man was travelling from his home in Spain to Belgium at the time of his arrest.[102]

Belgian investigation[edit]

A spokesman for the Belgian Federal Prosecutor's Office announced on 22 August that they had launched an investigation into the attempted attack. They consider that Belgium is involved due to the heavily armed perpetrator having boarded the train at Brussels-South railway station.[95]

Thalys investigation[edit]

At the initiative of the French National Railway's President, Guillaume Pepy, an internal investigation was launched by Thalys in order to shed light on the sequence of events during the attack.[97]

On 18 September, Thalys published an internal report about the assault.[103][104]

Controversies[edit]

Actions of train crew[edit]

French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who was traveling in the last car before the rear engine, alleged that the train crew locked themselves in the engine car and did not come to the aid of passengers. He said they heard gunshots and screaming in the next car, after which several crew members rushed past them to the engine car, opened it with a key and locked themselves inside. He said the dozen passengers in his car banged on it and begged the crew to open it. He also said that when Sadler came into their car searching for blankets and a first aid kit for the wounded, Sadler also banged on the door of the engine car to no avail.[105]

Anglade's claims were denied by the Thalys corporation[38][97] and he later acknowledged that the two crew members who locked themselves in the engine car with a handful of passengers were not Thalys employees but contractors from a catering company. He added, "The French conductor and the other Thalys employee present in the coach where the assault took place showed ... heroic behavior."[106]

Agnès Ogier, director-general of Thalys, defended the train employees, who she said "have fulfilled their duty" and were unaware the terrorist had been subdued.[107] She also reported that a male employee took five or six passengers with him while seeking shelter.[106]

Treatment of suspect[edit]

On 26 August, El Khazzani's lawyer, Me Mani Ayadi, criticised the treatment of his client during the latter's transfer to the courthouse, where a handcuffed El Khazzani was walked into the building blindfolded and barefoot. In response, a French official familiar with the case stated that the authorities followed standard security precautions, which dictate that suspects charged with terrorism and organized crime be blindfolded so they cannot later identify the officials escorting them. The official also said the accused refused to wear the shoes offered to him.[108][109][110]

On 1 September, the French public prosecutor's office issued a warning to television network i-Télé after its 25 August broadcast showing suspect El Khazzani arriving at the courthouse in handcuffs. It is illegal in France to publish images of people in handcuffs (prior to their conviction) without their consent, due to the presumption of innocence. i-Télé digitally blurred out El Khazzani's hands, but the prosecutor's office warned the network that this was insufficient, and criminal charges would be brought against it if this reoccurred.[111]

Film[edit]

In 2018, the event was dramatised as the film The 15:17 to Paris, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos playing themselves.[112]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The injured were Moogalian, Stone, El Khazzani, and Anglade (whose injury was indirectly related to the incident). Some early reports claimed others were injured, including Norman and a train conductor, but these were not confirmed subsequently.

References[edit]

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