The gunman who opened fire on a packed train in France has denied that his motives were terrorism, saying suggestions that they were “almost made him laugh”. He claims to have found the weapons used in the attack in a park, and decided to use them in an armed robbery.
However, his story doesn’t quite add up: he claims to have become homeless when his identity papers were stolen, but a French source has told AFP that he was arrested in possession of his identity papers. And he denies having travelled to Turkey, but German counter terrorism officials say they tipped off France in May when he boarded a flight to Istanbul.
The gunman has been named as 25 year old Ayoub El-Khazzani, a Moroccan national who has been a legal resident of Spain for the past seven years, where he was convicted of a string of petty drug offences and placed on the terrorism watch list after attending a Salafist mosque, the Guardian has reported.
For the last six months he appears to have been a drifter, passing through Andorra, France, Austria, Germany and Belgium where he was sleeping rough in Brussels’ Gare du Midi rail station. His lawyer, Sophie Duval, told Le Parisien: “He has been homeless since his identity documents were stolen in Brussels. He has worked as a painter in Spain, where he was also convicted twice for drug trafficking in 2013.”
On Friday el-Khazzani opened fire on a high speed Thalys train travelling between Amsterdam and Paris, wounding three passengers before being wrestled to the ground and subdued by three American passengers, two of whom were Marines, and a British national. El-Khazzani was armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, nine magazines, a pistol and a box cutter.
According to his lawyer, he told police that he had found all of the weapons along with a mobile phone in an abandoned suitcase in a park near the Gare du Midi station. “A few days later he decided to get on a train that some other homeless people told him would be full of wealthy people travelling from Amsterdam to Paris and he hoped to feed himself by armed robbery,” she said.
“He doesn’t understand why this incident has taken on such great proportions,” she added, saying that only intended to rob the passengers and denied “any terrorism dimension to what he did”. The charges of terrorism “almost made him laugh”.
Upon his arrival in Spain in 2007, el-Khazzani lived with his family in Madrid. Three years later they moved to the El Saladillo neighbourhood of Algeciras in southern Spain, where his family made a living collecting and selling waste and el-Khazzani was arrested on three occaisions for drug offences, of which he was convicted.
He and his father both attended Taqwa, a Salafist mosque in Algeciras, landing him on the Spanish police database of suspected terrorists. The authorities were further concerned when he made hardline speeches defending terrorism; when he left Spain the security forces alerted their French counterparts, describing him as a “dangerous radical.”
On May 10 German security services identified him as he boarded a flight to Istanbul; he denies having travelled to either Turkey or Syria. When Spanish police were alerted to his movements, they advised that he no longer lived there but was in Belgium.
A French source told AFP that el-Khazzani “lived in Belgium, got on the train in Belgium with weapons likely acquired in Belgium. And he had identity papers issued in Spain.”
El-Khazzani is likely to remain in French police custody until at least Tuesday evening, as French law allows terrorism suspects to be held for 96 hours.