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American passengers lauded for disarming train gunman

Associated Press/AFP/Getty Images

Americans (from left) Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Anthony Sadler on Friday helped subdue a suspected gunman aboard a high-speed train in France.

By Adam Nossiter New York Times 

PARIS — Three Americans, including two military service members, aboard a high-speed train were being hailed Saturday as heroes for disarming a gunman who was known to intelligence services in three countries as an Islamic radical.

French authorities said the suspect was identified by fingerprints as Ayoub El Kahzani, a 26-year-old Moroccan man. He had lived for a time in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras, frequenting a mosque under surveillance there, and also traveled to Syria, officials said.

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Spanish authorities notified French intelligence of Kahzani in February 2014 because of his alleged ties to the radical Islamist movement, but French officials said he was not under surveillance in France.

Kahzani was transferred Saturday morning to the police antiterrorism headquarters outside Paris.

In addition to the three Americans, a French citizen who first spotted the gunman on the train, with an assault rifle strapped across his shoulder, is being credited with helping to foil a terrorist attack Friday. A British businessman also helped to subdue the gunman.

The two US service members tackled the gunman on the train as it traveled from Amsterdam to Paris. They rushed him even though he was fully armed, then grabbed him by the neck and beat him over the head with his own automatic rifle until he was unconscious, one of them said in television interviews Saturday.

The suspect entered the train car carrying a Kalashnikov rifle and a handgun, according to the Americans.

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“I looked over at Spencer and said, ‘Let’s go,’ ” said Alek Skarlatos, a National Guard specialist from Roseburg, Ore., who was returning from Afghanistan. With him was his friend, Airman First Class Spencer Stone of Carmichael, Calif. “And he jumped, I followed behind him by about three seconds. Spencer got the guy first, grabbed the guy by the neck. I grabbed the handgun,” Skarlatos said.

The suspect wounded at least one passenger before the two men subdued him, and their quick action averted what officials said could have been a bloody attack. On Saturday morning, the French news media, government, and social media praised their actions, and President Obama also hailed their bravery.

A third American, Anthony Sadler of Sacramento, Calif., a friend who was traveling with the two servicemen, also helped restrain the suspect.

All three Americans were decorated with an honor by the French city of Arras, where the train, an Amsterdam-Paris express, stopped after the episode. President Francois Hollande of France will meet with them in coming days, the Élysée Palace announced.

Stone was severely cut in the neck and hand by the suspect but was released from a hospital Saturday.

Amateur video taken in the immediate aftermath shows the suspect on the ground with his legs in the air and his hands tied behind his back, while another man, apparently Stone, kneels shirtless and evidently in pain.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Kahzani apparently had lived in Spain in 2014 and Belgium in 2015. An official involved in Spain’s antiterrorism efforts said the suspect lived for about one year in Algeciras but left in March 2014. He had been kept under surveillance by the Spanish police during his time in Algeciras because of past criminal activities linked to drug trafficking, the Spanish official said.

French news reports said the suspect denied having terrorist aims and merely intended to rob the passengers. But the arsenal described by the minister suggested otherwise: the Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, nine cartridges, and a sharp blade — a “cutter,” the interior minister said, which Kahzani used to cut Spencer.

The violent encounter was over in barely two minutes. But if not for the quick action by the Americans and the suspect’s malfunctioning automatic rifle, many lives might have been lost.

“It could have been a real carnage,” said Chris Norman, the British businessman who helped restrain the suspect.

Norman, interviewed on television, said: “The guy actually came up, he pulled out a cutter, started slashing Spencer. He cut Spencer behind the neck; he nearly cut his thumb off. We eventually got him under control.”

After they tackled the suspect, Skarlatos said he pulled the handgun away from the man and threw it to the side. He then grabbed the rifle, which was lying at the suspect’s feet, he told television interviewers.

Skarlatos began beating the man with his own rifle. Other passengers joined in, and Stone held him in a chokehold until he lost consciousness, Skarlatos said.

Despite bleeding heavily, Stone went to the aid of the gunshot victim, Sadler said. “Even though he was injured, he went to help the other man who was injured,” he said. “Without his help, he would have died.”