Suspect in 2015 Thalys train attack foiled by passengers goes on trial in Paris

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The trial of a suspected Islamist terrorist accused in the 2015 foiled attack of a high-speed train in France opens Monday in Paris.

Ayoub El Khazzani boarded the Amsterdam-Paris Thalys train on August 21, 2015, and launched his would-be attack moments after the train crossed the Belgian border into France.

The Moroccan national was heavily armed when he emerged from a lavatory on the train and opened fire inside a carriage, but the gunman was overpowered by passengers, a French national and three Americans on holiday. Some 150 passengers were onboard the carriage. All escaped alive.

Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood depicted the events on the train in a 2018 film, "The 15:17 to Paris". The movie featured the three American heroes – off-duty US servicemen Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos, and their friend Anthony Sadler – reprising their own roles in the aborted attack.

"I just remember being lucky that I was alive," Skarlatos told FRANCE 24 in 2016. "We could have died so easily if it wasn't for a lot of luck and just having the right reaction," he said, crediting the fact that the friends had known each other "since we were five years old" in their split-second decision to "charge the dude" together. The three men have since been naturalised as French citizens at their request. Skarlatos referenced the Thalys experience on the campaign trail in his ultimately unsuccessful 2020 Republican bid for Congress in Western Oregon.

Director Eastwood has been called as a witness "because his film involved accurate, the court believes, reenactments of what exactly took place that day," FRANCE 24's Catherine Norris-Trent reported from the courthouse on Monday morning. Owing in part to the coronavirus pandemic, the 90-year-old American filmmaker was expected to give evidence by video link with the Paris court early next week. However, Norris-Trent said late Monday it looked unlikely that the court would hear from him after the presiding judge said Mr Eastwood had not yet responded to a request from the defence to testify.

Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler are, for their part, due to appear in person. "The three men are travelling to Paris and we're told will be giving evidence before the court at the end of this week," Norris-Trent reported. "They've said they feel it's important to tell their story and they also want to look the would-be attacker in the eye and hear answers directly from him," she said.

300 rounds of ammunition

Among other charges, Khazzani is accused of attempted murder with the intent to commit terrorism and association with terrorist networks. He allegedly joined the Islamic State group in Syria in May 2015. If convicted, the 31-year-old faces life in prison.

The main suspect will be joined in the dock at the special anti-terror court in Paris by three other men accused of helping him in the foiled attack.

"One need only know that Ayoub El Khazzani was in possession of 300 rounds of ammunition and firearms to understand what we narrowly avoided, a tragedy, a massacre, " François Hollande, who was France's president at the time, said at a ceremony decorating the quick-thinking Americans with the Legion of Honour days after the incident.

When the events on the Thalys took place in August 2015, France was still reeling from the trauma of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist massacre in Paris months earlier, in January. By coincidence, the Charlie Hebdo attacks trial is also underway in Paris, with a verdict now expected on November 27.

Khazzani does not deny having boarded the train intending to carry out an attack. A judicial source said he confessed to investigators he had planned the attack but said he only intended to attack US soldiers on leave, not civilians. He told investigators he decided against the attack at the last second but that it was too late to avoid the confrontation with passengers, the source said.

Khazzani's lawyer Sarah Mauger-Poliak has said her client is a changed man who has rejected radical Islamist doctrine and regrets his actions.

Link to November 13 attacks

Jihadist terrorists would strike France again nearly four months after the dramatic incident on the Thalys, killing 130 people in coordinated attacks on the Bataclan concert hall and café terraces in Paris and at the Stade de France sports venue north of the capital on the evening of November 13, 2015.

At the Paris courthouse on Monday, Norris-Trent noted that one of the key questions the Thalys trial will address is the link the foiled train attack might have had with the other 2015 attacks in France. "The prosecutors are hoping to prove that the would-be attacker in this case travelled to Europe with the man who is said to be the mastermind of the November 2015 attacks," she reported.

>> Five years on, Parisians remember how the November 13 terror attacks unfolded

Belgian national Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who is believed to have been one of the masterminds behind both the Thalys and November 13 attacks, was killed by police in a Paris suburb in November 2015, shortly after he opened fire on a café.

The November 13 attacks trial is slated for early 2021.

The Thalys attack trial comes with France on heightened alert following a fresh spate of attacks blamed on jihadists, including the beheading murder of teacher Samuel Paty northwest of Paris on October 16 and the murder of three people at a Nice church on October 29.

The trial is due to wrap up on December 17.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)