PARIS — Three Americans who foiled a suspected terrorist attack on a packed high-speed train running from Amsterdam to Paris were being lauded as heroes Saturday, as officials continued their investigation and called for tighter security.
Friday’s dramatic incident — in which a heavily armed man emerged from a train bathroom with an automatic rifle and started shooting — is being investigated by French counterterrorism authorities. Officials have not released the identity of the attacker, but have said he is a 26-year-old Moroccan who had been flagged by European counterterrorism authorities.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who described the incident as a terrorist attack, has called for multinational meeting of top security officials.
French President François Hollande plans to meet three Americans who foiled the attack. They are friends from middle school, and two of them were members of the armed services, according to their family members.
One of the Americans, Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, was stabbed and remained in the hospital Saturday, said the parents of his two friends. The Pentagon said his wounds were not life threatening.
Two of the three Americans and a Briton who subdued an attacker on a high-speed train traveling between Amsterdam and Paris on Saturday recount their ordeal to reporters. (AP)
Stone, who is stationed at Lajes Air Base in the Azores, was traveling with Spc. Alek Skarlatos, an Oregon National Guardsman, and a civilian friend, according to the Pentagon. Anthony Sadler, a student at Sacramento State University, is their civilian companion, according to their families.
The three Americans were on a weeks-long tour through Europe, enjoying time together after Skarlatos, 22, had been deployed to Afghanistan.
In Arras, where the train stopped after the attack, the men’s heroics became clear.
Chris Norman, a British businessman who helped tie up the shooter once he was subdued, told TV reporters in Arras that the incident unfolded quickly and began when the sound of a gunshot rang out and passengers saw a train employee run past. When Norman looked up, he saw a man carrying a machine gun, prompting him to duck down in his seat. At that point, he said, three Americans sitting near him also took notice of the gunman and immediately took action.
“Alek said to Spencer, ‘Go get him,’ ” Norman said. “Spencer jumped up and tackled him and actually started getting the terrorist under control.”
Skarlatos told reporters that despite the danger, his friend sprung to his feet.
“Spencer ran a good 10 meters to get to the guy and we didn’t know that his gun wasn’t working or anything like that. Spencer just ran anyway, and if anyone would’ve gotten shot it would’ve been Spencer, for sure.”
Passengers subdue gunman on train in France
Norman said his first reaction was to hide, but after he saw the Americans fighting the attacker, he said he went to help them.
“Spencer caught the terrorist by the neck, and I grabbed his right arm,” Norman said. “We managed to get him under control. I am not a hero. What I did was normal. It’s a miracle the attack failed. I think his gun was jammed.”
Sadler said even though Stone was injured in the scuffle, he went to aid an injured passenger.
“Without his help he would’ve died. That man was bleeding from his neck profusely,” Sadler said.
Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, the commanding officer of the U.S. European Command, called the men heroes.
“Actions like this clearly illustrate the courage and commitment our young men and women have all the time, whether they are on duty or on leave,” Breedlove said in a statement released by the Pentagon. “We are extremely proud of their efforts and now are praying for our injured airman to have a speedy recovery.”
On Saturday afternoon, President Obama called Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler to commend and congratulate them for their courage and quick action, said White House deputy press secretary Eric Schultz. “The President expressed his gratitude to these three individuals for their heroic actions forestalling an even greater tragedy . . . and expressed how proud all Americans are of their extraordinary bravery,” Schultz said in a statement, adding that Obama wished Stone a full and speedy recovery.
Calls for Tighter Security
In a tacit acknowledgment that security lapses may have led to the attack, Michel, the Belgian prime minister, on Saturday called for a multinational meeting of top security officials to tighten identity and baggage checks on the trains.
Belgian and French police forces had already significantly stepped patrols on their high-speed trains, Michel’s office said. But on one Saturday high-speed train trip between Brussels and Paris – the same route on which the attack took place – there were no special bag screenings, identity checks or uniformed security officers visible on the train.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Saturday that the suspect’s identity was still being established but that the man had identified himself as a 26-year-old of Moroccan origin. Cazeneuve said that the man’s name corresponded to someone whom Spanish authorities think has ties to radical Islamist movements. He said that the suspect lived in Spain until last year.
Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens told reporters in Brussels that though French authorities are still checking the suspect’s identity, a person under the name that he gave the authorities “is known by our services.”
He had been flagged by other European counterterrorism authorities as a potential jihadist, but “he was not known as someone dangerous,” Geens said.
“We get a lot of these names,” he said, saying that it was important to balance monitoring with privacy concerns.
French newspaper Le Voix du Nord cited security sources saying that the suspect had been seen on a plane to Turkey from Germany in May, and that he may also have visited Syria. The newspaper also said that he may have had connections to a foiled ring of Islamist attackers in Belgium in January.
Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, praised the quick work of the Americans, who he said had helped avert a far bloodier situation.
The Americans were “particularly courageous and showed great bravery in very difficult circumstances,” Cazeneuve said Friday in Arras, in northern France, where the train came to a halt after the late-afternoon attack. He praised them for their “sangfroid,” and said that without it, “we could have faced a terrible drama.”
A dual French-American citizen was wounded by a stray gunshot, Cazeneuve said.
French authorities have been on heightened alert for terrorism since the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newsweekly and a Paris kosher supermarket left 20 dead, including the three attackers. Those men claimed ties to the Islamic State.
In a sign of how concerned the French authorities were by the incident, the French president said in a statement late Friday that “everything is being done to shine light on this drama.”
Belgian authorities also opened an antiterrorism inquiry, saying that the suspect got on the train in Brussels. In January, Belgium also said that it had foiled a group of Islamist militants who had been planning attacks on Belgian soil.
Prepared for a Major Assault
The incident began when a French man trying to go into a bathroom on the train came face to face with the shooter, who was inside, laden with weapons and ammunition, Cazeneuve said without naming the man, whom he said tried to subdue the shooter. That first attempt was met with gunfire, Cazeneuve said, which is when the Americans intervened.
Cazeneuve said the shooter was prepared to carry out a major assault on the train, carrying a Kalashnikov rifle with nine additional clips of ammunition, a 9mm pistol with another clip and a box cutter.
“Alek said that they were about 30 feet away and ran for him, and Spencer, the friend, got him down, and Alek took the gun and knocked him a few times with the butt of the gun,” said Skarlatos’s stepmother, Karen Skarlatos, by telephone. “Then the shooter grabbed for a handgun, which they took away from him as well, and then he grabbed for a cutter, a box cutter or a knife or something.”
In the struggle, Stone was injured by the knife, Karen Skarlatos said. But the men managed to hogtie the assailant and subdue him, she said. A shaky cellphone video of the outcome showed the subdued man, shirtless and in white pants, lying with his front on the floor of the train car, his legs tied up in the air.
Skarlatos “just recently returned home from Afghanistan,” his stepmother said. “He got home in July. He spent the greater part of a year over there. He has a warrior’s heart. He’s just a strong brave guy.” She said he had been stationed outside of Bagram air base.
Skarlatos studies at a local community college and works part time at a Costco, his stepmother said.
Stone, the injured Air Force servicemen, treated another wounded passenger after suffering his own injuries, said Sadler’s father, who spoke to his son shortly after the attack.
“Spencer actually had some emergency medical training through the service,” said Sadler’s father, who is also named Anthony Sadler. “There was another passenger who had his throat sliced. Spencer didn’t worry about his own injuries and was able to minister to the wounds.”
Another witness told the French Liberation newspaper said that the shirtless attacker had been pursuing another person down the aisle of the train. The attacker tried to shoot. “I heard ‘click click,’ ” said the witness, who was identified only as Damien. “I thought it was a toy gun.”
Then “a man with a green T-shirt, shaved head, arrived,” he said. “They stood a few seconds face to face, and then the passenger jumped on him and wrestled him to the ground. The guy, he had” guts.
President Obama was briefed about the incident, the White House said in a statement.
“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. While the investigation into the attack is in its early stages, it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy,” the statement said.
Hollande’s office said that the French president spoke Saturday with the Americans to thank them for their efforts to foil the attack. He planned to meet them in coming days at the Elysée Palace in Paris.
The incident is sure to raise fresh questions about European train security. The Thalys high-speed train is packed with businesspeople, government officials and others who commute from one European capital to another, but there are no metal detectors, X-ray machines or other security checks before boarding. The Eurostar train that runs through the channel tunnel between Paris and London has stronger security measures.
The Washington Post’s Peter Holley contributed to this report, which was published originally in The Post on August 22, 2015.
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