The 25-year-old gunman who reportedly opened fire on a high-speed train from the Netherlands to France — before being overpowered by several passengers, including Americans being hailed as heroes — was said Saturday to have been on security watch lists in Belgium, Spain and France because of links to extremist organizations.
Police identified the gunman as Ayoub El Khazani based on fingerprints taken by Spanish police as part of a drug trafficking investigation in 2013, French media reported Saturday. Police earlier said Khazani is a Moroccan national.
In February 2014, Spanish anti-terrorist police informed their French counterparts that there was a risk that Khazani, suspected of having links with radical Islamic groups, might cross the border into France.
Two U.S. servicemen who tackled the bare-chested gunman who opened fire on a Thalys train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday evening were lauded for preventing a potential bloodbath on the train. A third American, a Frenchman and a Briton also were reported to have helped in subduing the gunman.
The U.S. European Command, which oversees all American military operations on the continent, identified the Americans as U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, on leave from Lajes Air Base in Portugal; Spec. Aleksander Skarlatos, a member of the Oregon National Guard; and Anthony Sadler, a civilian friend.
Stone reportedly is from Carmichael, Calif., near Sacramento, Skarlatos is from Roseburg, Ore., and Sadler is a senior at Cal State Sacramento. Skarlatos was deployed to Afghanistan for nine months before getting back to the U.S. in June, according to the National Guard. He's currently assigned as a rifleman and reenlisted last month for two more years in the Guard.
The two servicemen leaped into action after a French passenger confronted the attacker as he came out of a bathroom in Coach 12 at the back of the train shortly after it had crossed the border from Belgium into France. The attacker was armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, an automatic pistol and a box cutter.
Sadler told the Associated Press that they saw a train employee sprint down the aisle followed by a gunman with the rifle.
"As he was cocking it to shoot it, Alek just yells, 'Spencer, go!' And Spencer runs down the aisle," Sadler said. "Spencer makes first contact, he tackles the guy, Alek wrestles the gun away from him and the gunman pulls out a box cutter and slices Spencer a few times. And the three of us beat him until he was unconscious."
British passenger Chris Norman told French television that he helped tie the gunman up. Stone then quickly turned to help another passenger who had been wounded in the throat, stopping his bleeding until paramedics arrived, Sadler said.
Throughout the brief but terrifying episode, Sadler said, "The gunman never said a word ... except to demand his gun back. 'Give me my gun, give me my gun,' he said."
A film taken by Sadler on his telephone showed the shirtless man, in white trousers and tennis shoes, lying face-down on the train floor. It also shows blood on a train window and table.
Skarlatos' stepmother, Karen Skarlatos, told the Associated Press from Oregon that the 22-year-old National Guardsman had returned from a deployment in Afghanistan in July. She spoke with her stepson immediately after the incident.
"He sounded fine, but he was intense," she said. "He sounded like he had just thwarted a terrorist attack.
"Alek and Spencer, they're big, brave, strong guys, and they decided they were going to tackle him. And they did," she told the AP. "Spencer got a couple good slices on him. But they were able to subdue him while the train was still moving."
Stone was being treated at a French hospital with injuries that were not life-threatening, the European Command reported. He and his two companions received a call from President Obama later Saturday, praising their courage and wishing Stone a speedy recovery, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said in a statement.
Earlier Saturday, anti-terrorist officials say the suspect is on an "S-list" — a security watch list — in France as well as in Spain, where he was living in 2014, and in Belgium, where he turned up in 2015. Suspects on the list are noted for their "links with terrorist organizations," but not all are under 24-hour surveillance.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said the man's name had been communicated to France's intelligence services last year. There were unconfirmed reports that the man had traveled to Syria, once again raising the fear of Islamic State jihadists returning to Europe to carry out terror attacks.
Intelligence sources told the newspaper Le Monde that the suspect, who was transferred from Arras in northern France to the anti-terrorist brigade headquarters at Levallois-Perret just outside Paris on Saturday morning, initially refused to answer questions except to give his name, age and nationality.
French television station BFMTV said the man since has claimed he found a cache of weapons — a Kalashnikov, nine magazines, an automatic pistol and a box cutter — in a bag in a park in Brussels and had intended to rob passengers on the train. He denied any links to terrorist groups.
France has been on edge since the massacre in January of staff members at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and of shoppers at a kosher market by radical Muslim terrorists. In June, an attacker also suspected of Islamic extremism beheaded his boss and assaulted a chemical factory near the city of Lyon.
Cazeneuve said the injured train passenger was in a hospital, but his life was not at risk.
Willsher is a special correspondent. Times staff writer William Hennigan in Washington contributed to this report.