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Thalys train gunman 'did not intend to commit mass murder', lawyer says

Social Network / AFP | This undated file handout photo released by a social network shows the 25-year-old Moroccan suspect of the shooting of August 21, 2015, named as Ayoub El Khazzani.

Almost 18 months after the failed attack on a Thalys train in France, accused gunman Ayoub El Khazzani acknowledged for the first time Wednesday his involvement in the jihadist attack, although he denies he wanted to commit mass slaughter.


At a five-hour-long court hearing on Wednesday, El Khazzani, a 27-year-old Moroccan, told an anti-terrorist investigating judge that he opened fire on a Thalys train en route from Amsterdam to Paris as it entered France at Pas-de-Calais on August 21, 2015. He boarded the train equipped with a Kalashnikov and nine full loaders.

One passenger was seriously injured, though no one was killed. El Khazzani was tackled and disarmed by two American off-duty soldiers, their friend, a British man and two Frenchmen travelling on board.

The Thalys train attack came just seven months after jihadist gunmen in Paris targeted the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, and a Jewish supermarket.

“He has admitted that he boarded the Thalys train as a jihadist but that he 'did not intend to commit mass murder ... Not at all'," his lawyer, Sarah Mauger-Poliak, told the press after the hearing.

According to her, El Khazzani had "a precise, determined target".

"It's no coincidence that he came through via first class," she added without explaining further.

In his initial police statements, El Khazzani, who is charged with planning to launch a terrorist attack, gave a different version of the story. He said that he wanted to rob train travellers with weapons he found by chance in a park in Brussels where he used to sleep alongside the homeless.

Until Wednesday, El Khazzani had repeatedly denied the charges and chose to keep silent rather than cooperate with investigators. Mauger-Poliak said that her client now wanted to "revise" his initial version of events and requested that her client be re-heard.

In the footsteps of Abaaoud

El Khazzani claims he did not act alone. "He recounted the main lines of his journey from Syria, Turkey to Europe, together with Abdelhamid Abaaoud," one of the key coordinators of the Paris bombings of November 13, 2015, said Mauger-Poliak.

The accused terrorist, who lived in Spain for several years, was known to Spanish intelligence services for his jihadist beliefs and was flagged to French authorities in February 2014.

He had stayed in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, the notorious Brussels suburb known as a breeding ground for young radicalised Islamists. Several members of the cell responsible for the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, and the Brussels attacks of March 22 also lived in the dictrict.

Links to Islamic State group

A few weeks ago, the Hungarian Intelligence Service confirmed that the Thalys attacker had links to Abaaoud.

According to investigations by Hungary’s anti-terrorist agency TEK, Abaaoud, who was then on his way back from Syria, and El Khazzani both arrived in Budapest on August 1, 2015. They apparently mingled with migrants and stayed in the same hotel. Three days later, Abaaoud left for Austria by car and the next day El Khazzani went the same direction by train.

El Khazzani’s lawyer said that while her client "defines himself as a jihadist, he does so without pride”.

"His position is complex and ambivalent," she said, acknowledging the emotion and tears shed by El Khazzani during the hearing.

The court hearing will resume on December 20.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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