A gunman overpowered by American hero passengers on a train in France is known to European authorities as a suspected Islamist militant if the identity he has given is correct, France’s interior minister said on Saturday.
Two people were wounded in the struggle to subdue the Kalashnikov-toting attacker aboard the high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday. Two U.S. servicemen, one of whom suffered knife wounds, were among the passengers who stopped the gunman.
Cazeneuve said the attacker’s identity was not confirmed, but if he was telling the truth “he is a 26-year-old man of Moroccan nationality identified by the Spanish authorities to French intelligence services in February 2014 because of his connections to the radical Islamist movement”.
The man Spanish authorities had under surveillance left Spain for France in 2014, travelled to Syria, and then back to France, a Spanish counter-terrorism source said on Saturday.
In Spain, he lived in the southern port of Algeciras and appeared to have stayed in the country for about a year, the source said.
Cazeneuve did not mention any visit to Syria or France, only naming Spain and Belgium as the suspected militant’s places of residence, this year and last. He said inquiries in collaboration with other European authorities “should establish precisely the activities and travels of this terrorist”.
French newspaper Le Voix du Nord said the suspect may have had connections to a group involved in a suspected Islamist shooting in Belgium in January. The Belgian government confirmed an inquiry but would not comment further.
French authorities have been on high alert since January, when 17 people were killed in shootings by Islamist militants in and around Paris.
KALASHNIKOV, PISTOL, AND BOX CUTTER
The attacker was armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle and an automatic pistol, both with accompanying ammunition clips. He also had a box cutter knife. Cazeneuve said the struggle started when a Frenchman on his way to the toilet tried to stop the man entering a carriage.
The wounded U.S. serviceman, airman Spencer Stone of Lajes Air Base, Azores, was being treated on Saturday at a specialist hospital for hand injuries in the northern French city of Lille. Lille hospital authorities said he was in a stable condition and should be able to leave hospital before the end of the day.
Among the other passengers who helped stop the attacker were Stone’s friends: National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos and another American, student Anthony Sadler. Skarlatos had returned last month from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and the three were on holiday together in Europe.
Cazeneuve said the other wounded person was of Franco-American nationality and hit by a bullet while seated. Hospital authorities said the person had a chest wound and was in a serious but stable condition.
French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade was also slightly hurt, and had stitches in his hand.
“We were stuck in the wrong place with the right people,” Anglade was quoted as saying on BFMTV. “It’s miraculous.”
President Barack Obama hailed the passengers as heroes: “It is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy.”
President Francois Hollande is due to thank them in person in the coming days.
The gunman was transferred on Saturday to the Paris region from Arras in northern France where the incident took place. Cazeneuve said under the terms of his arrest the man can be held for four days without being charged.
The shooting took place on a Thalys high-speed train. The Franco-Belgian state transport group runs international trains linking France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.
All four countries are part of the Schengen area through which people travel without the need for passports and security check-ins. Experts have long said the trains are a potential target for attacks.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls said in January there were more than 3,000 potentially dangerous Islamists under surveillance in France, home to Europe’s biggest Muslim community.
Most of the attacks and foiled attacks that have happened this year in France have been carried out by people who were on that list, but government officials say the surveillance cannot be constant.
“When there’s nothing to justify an arrest, there comes a time when you move on to other individuals,” said Sébastien Pietrasanta, the Socialist lawmaker and author of France’s latest anti-terror legislation.
“Given the number of individual linked to radical Islamism its becomes complicated,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“We take 100 percent precautions but that does not mean 0 percent risk.”