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French train suspect denies ties to terrorism

AFP | Undated archival picture of Ayoub el Khazzani

The suspected gunman behind the foiled attack on a Paris-bound train last Friday has denied any terrorist dimensions to the incident, saying he was simply planning to rob passengers. French officials and others seem to think differently.

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A French lawyer initially appointed to defend Ayoub el Khazzani, 25, has described him as a malnourished, uneducated and dumbfounded young man, who denies he was on a terrorist mission when he was tackled and subdued by vacationing US servicemen. But Spanish police say he was a repeat drug offender, who attended a hardline mosque and travelled to Syria last year.

As French counterterrorism police continue to question Khazzani, his journey from his birth place in Morocco, to his career as a small-time criminal in Spain, and the high-speed train he boarded with a small arsenal of weapons in Belgium is beginning to take shape.

Khazzani was born to a poor family in the northern Moroccan city of Tetouan in 1989. His father Mohammed emigrated to Spain in the 1990s in search of work, and after establishing legal residency arranged for his children and wife to come meet him.

According to Spanish daily El Mundo, Khazzani has three sisters, while lawyer Sophie David told the AFP news agency he claimed to have two brothers and two sisters.

There is scant information about his childhood in Morocco, but he apparently left school when he was around the age of 15. The family was reunited in 2008 in the Spanish capital of Madrid. The young Khazzani’s legal troubles would begin shortly after that.

On police radars

Lawyer David said Khazzani dabbled in a few low-skilled jobs in Spain, painting buildings and dropping ads in people’s mailboxes. He was arrested twice in 2009 for selling marijuana in central Madrid, according to his police rap sheet. It was also around this time that the family moved to the southern Spanish city of Algeciras.

Khazzani was arrested again in a sting operation in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in 2012 as he was bringing in drugs from Morocco. By this time he had undergone something of a makeover. In 2009 he sported a short haircut and a clean shave but the photos in his 2012 police file show he had grown a full beard and kept a clean upper-lip, in the style of conservative Salafists, Spanish newspaper El Pais reported.

Khazzani’s father told 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. He described his son as “very religious”, shunning drugs and alcohol, and a “good kid” incapable of planning a massacre on a train.

After his third arrest, Spanish police appear to have taken a different view. When Khazzani was lured to France in 2014 with the promise of a six-month contract with a mobile telephone company, Spanish intelligence services informed their French counterparts of Khazzani’s arrival on their territory and continued to keep tabs on his whereabouts.

The alert prompted French intelligence officials to open a so-called “S-file” for Khazzani, a move that is supposed to include low-level surveillance. Toulouse gunman Mohammed Merah and Yassin Salhi, who decapitated his boss and tried unsuccessfully to blow up a gas warehouse in the French department of Isère in June, are two other young terrorists who had S-files.

Simple train robber?

Khazzani’s father said his son was fired by the telecom firm one month after his arrival in France, and had since been struggling to make ends meet, even to feed himself. He nevertheless managed to do quite a bit of travelling before his arrest on Friday.

The only entry in Khazzani’s S-file is a flight he took from Berlin to Istanbul in May 2015. There has been wide speculation in the French media that Istanbul could have been his gateway to Syria, but he denies he ever went to the war-torn country. Lawyer David said that during his police interview Khazzani claimed to have gone from France to Belgium, to Germany, to Austria, and then back to Belgium through the same route.

Khazzani boarded the Thalys train in Belgium, which is where he is believed to have acquired the weapons he was carrying, according to French police sources. The suspected gunman said he found the assault rifle he unsuccessfully tried to shoot in the crowded train car “in a suitcase” in a public park near the railway station in Brussels. He claims he was sleeping in the park “with other homeless people” at the time.

President François Hollande on Monday called Khazzani a “terrorist” who was ready “to carry out a real massacre” as he bestowed the Légion d’Honneur on the three Americans and a Briton who overcame the suspect before he could kill anyone.

Khazzani’s lawyer said he is clean-shaven and that nothing he told her reflected an extremist ideology. The suspect, who has spoken to police through an Arab interpreter, insists he boarded the train only to rob passengers. It’s a story that French police and train passengers find difficult to believe. “It doesn't take eight magazines [of ammunition] to rob a train,” Anthony Sadler, one of the three Americans said during a press conference on Sunday.

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