At least three people were injured when a terrorist opened fire with an automatic weapon on a high-speed Thalys train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday. The shooting, which took place at approximately six pm local time, occurred in Belgian territory near the French town of Arras. Catastrophe was averted when several passengers led by off-duty US soldiers overpowered and disarmed the terrorist.
Christophe Piednoel, a spokesman for the French railway, said, “The man was armed with automatic weapons and knives. He was stopped by passengers. The situation is under control, the travelers are safe. The train stopped and the emergency services are on site.”
Several passengers led the take-down of the terrorist, including two US Marines, another US national, an off-duty British soldier, and a French actor. The heroic effort began when a US and British soldier heard the noise of a machine gun being loaded in the toilet. The assailant came out of the bathroom shooting the gun, injuring two passengers.
The 26-year-old terrorist of Moroccan origin, Ayoub El-Qahzzani, was known to intelligence services, French investigators said. He was armed with a Kalashnikov automatic rifle, a semi-automatic pistol, ammunition and a box cutter. Authorities reported that he had lived in Spain until 2014, then moved to France, traveled to Syria, and then returned to France. France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve cited Spanish intelligence services, saying the attacker could have ties with a radical Islamists who were killed in a shootout with Belgian authorities in January.
France’s anti-terrorist unit is investigating the incident due to the type of weapon used, though the assailant claimed his intention was to rob the train. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel has called the incident a “terrorist attack.”
US President Barack Obama has praised the off-duty US soldiers, expressing, “profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including US service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker.” French President Francois Hollande tweeted that he will meet the men to thank them.
US Air Force serviceman Spencer Stone from Sacramento, California was slashed in the neck and hand while struggling with the gunman, aided by his friend Alek Skarlatos, a specialist in the Oregon Nation Guard.
Skarlatos, who had recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan with the National Guard, said the gunman’s AK-47 had jammed and that he had did not know how to fix it.
“If that guy’s weapon had been functioning properly, I don’t even want to think about how it would have went,” he said. “We just did what we had to do. You either run away or fight. We chose to fight and got lucky and didn’t die.”
There were over 550 passengers on board the train at the time of the attack.