3 American friends tackle, hogtie gunman aboard European train

By Michael Birnbaum

Washington Post

August 22, 2015 07:24 AM

French police officers patrol at Gare du Nord train station in Paris on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. A gunman prepared to open fire with an automatic weapon on a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday, wounding several people before being subdued by passengers, officials said. Binta AP
French police officers patrol at Gare du Nord train station in Paris on Saturday, Aug. 22, 2015. A gunman prepared to open fire with an automatic weapon on a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday, wounding several people before being subdued by passengers, officials said. Binta AP
PARIS

French President François Hollande plans to meet three Americans who foiled a suspected terrorist attack on a packed high-speed train running from Amsterdam to Paris.

Friday’s dramatic incident – in which a heavily armed man emerged from a train bathroom with an automatic rifle and started shooting – was being investigated by French counterterrorism authorities. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel described the incident as a terrorist attack.

French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Saturday the suspect was a 26-year-old Moroccan man known to Spanish authorities as belonging to “the radical Islamist movement.” Cazeneuve said that the man’s name corresponded to someone whom Spanish authorities think has ties to radical Islamist movements. He said that the suspect lived in Spain until last year. Cazeneuve, however, cautioned that the French police had not fully confirmed his identity. French officials had identified the man, not named, as a security risk, but he was not under surveillance and had apparently spent little time in France.

The three men were friends from middle school, and two of them were members of the armed services, according to their family members.

One of the Americans, Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone, was stabbed and remained in the hospital on Saturday, said the parents of his two friends. The Pentagon said his wounds were not life-threatening.

Stone, who is stationed at Lajes Air Base in the Azores, was traveling with Army National Guard Specialist Aleksander Skarlatos, an Oregon National Guardsman, and a civilian friend, according to the Pentagon. Anthony Sadler, a student at Sacramento State University, is their civilian companion, according to their families.

The three Americans were on a weekslong tour through Europe, enjoying time together after Skarlatos, 22, had been deployed to Afghanistan.

President Barack Obama, briefed about the incident while vacationing, telephoned Stone, Skarlatos, and Sadler to commend and congratulate them for their courage and quick action aboard their Paris-bound train last night. Principal Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said Obama expressed gratitude to the trio for their heroic actions forestalling an even greater tragedy. Obama wished Stone a full and speedy recovery and expressed how proud all Americans are of their extraordinary bravery.

The suspect was identified by Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve of France on Saturday as a 26-year-old Moroccan man known to Spanish authorities as belonging to “the radical Islamist movement.” Cazeneuve, however, cautioned that the French police had not fully confirmed his identity. French officials had identified the man, not named, as a security risk, but he was not under surveillance and had apparently spent little time in France.

Cazeneuve said the man lived in Spain in 2014 and Belgium in 2015. According to an official involved in Spain’s antiterrorism efforts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, the suspect lived for about one year in Algeciras, in southern Spain, but left in March 2014. He had been kept under surveillance by the Spanish police during his time in Algeciras because of past criminal activities linked to drug trafficking, and the Spanish police shared that information with their French counterparts, according to the Spanish official.

After being arrested in Arras on Friday night, the suspect was taken early Saturday to the headquarters of the anti-terrorist police outside Paris, Cazeneuve said, and was being interrogated. French news reports said that he had denied having terrorist aims and that he had said he merely intended to rob the passengers.

But the arsenal described by the minister suggested otherwise: a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, nine cartridges and a sharp blade - a “cutter,” the interior minister said, which he used to wound Spencer.

The violent encounter was over in barely two minutes. But if not for the quick action by the two U.S. servicemen and the suspect’s malfunctioning automatic rifle, many lives could have been lost. “It could have been a real carnage,” said Chris Norman, a British businessman who also helped restrain the suspect after he had been subdued.

Norman, interviewed on television, said: “The guy actually came up, he pulled out a cutter, started cutting Spencer. He cut Spencer behind the neck, he nearly cut his thumb off. We eventually got him under control.”

In Arras, where the train stopped after the attack, the men’s heroics became clear.

Chris Norman, a British businessman who helped to tie up the shooter once he was subdued, told TV reporters in Arras that the incident unfolded quickly, and began when the sound of a gunshot rang out and passengers saw a train employee run past. When Norman looked up, he saw a man carrying a machine gun, prompting him to duck down in his seat. At that point, he said, three Americans sitting near him also took notice of the gunman and immediately took action.

“Alek said to Spencer, ‘go get him,’”Norman said. “Spencer jumped up and tackled him and actually started getting the terrorist under control.”

Norman was the fourth to join in subduing the gunman.

Norman told reporters: “He had a Kalashnikov, he had a magazine full, I don’t know how many magazines he had. My thought was, OK, probably I’m going to die anyway. So, let’s go. I’d rather die being active.”

Norman, who was returning from a business trip in the Netherlands to his home in southern France, said the gunman was small and not visibly strong, but “he put up quite a bit of a fight.”

Skarlatos told reporters that despite the danger, his friend sprung to his feet.

“Spencer ran a good 10 meters to get to the guy and we didn’t know that his gun wasn’t working or anything like that,”. “Spencer just ran anyway and if anyone would’ve gotten shot it would’ve been Spencer for sure.”

Sadler said even through Stone was injured in the scuffle, he went to aid an injured passenger.

“Without his help he would’ve died: That man was bleeding from his neck profusely,” Sadler said.

Gen. Philip Breedlove, the commanding officer of the U.S. European Command, called the men heroes.

“Actions like this clearly illustrate the courage and commitment our young men and women have all the time, whether they are on duty or on leave,” Breedlove said in a statement released by the Pentagon. “We are extremely proud of their efforts and now are praying for our injured airman to have a speedy recovery.”

Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, praised the quick work of the Americans, whom he said had helped avert a far bloodier situation.

The Americans were “particularly courageous and showed great bravery in very difficult circumstances,” Cazeneuve said on Friday in Arras, in northern France, where the train came to a halt after the late-afternoon attack. He praised them for their “sangfroid,”– cool-headed manner – and said that without it, “we could have faced a terrible drama.”

A dual French-American citizen was wounded by a stray gunshot, Cazeneuve said.

French authorities have been on heightened alert for terrorism since the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newsweekly and a Paris kosher supermarket left 20 dead, including the three attackers. Those men claimed ties to the Islamic State.

In a sign of how concerned the French authorities were by the incident, the French president said in a statement late Friday that “everything is being done to shine light on this drama.”

Belgian authorities also opened an anti-terrorism inquiry, saying that the suspect got on the train in Brussels. In January, Belgium also said that it had foiled a group of Islamist militants who had been planning attacks on Belgian soil.

The incident began when a French man trying to go into a bathroom on the train came face to face with the shooter, who was inside, laden with weapons and ammunition, Cazeneuve said, without naming the man, whom he said tried to subdue the shooter. That first attempt was met with gunfire, Cazeneuve said, which is when the Americans intervened.

Cazeneuve said the shooter was prepared to carry out a major assault on the train, carrying a Kalashnikov rifle with nine additional clips of ammunition, a 9mm pistol with another clip, and a box cutter.

“Alek said that they were about 30 feet away and ran for him, and Spencer, the friend, got him down, and Alek took the gun and knocked him a few times with the butt of the gun,” said Skarlatos’s stepmother, Karen Skarlatos, by telephone. “Then the shooter grabbed for a handgun, which they took away from him as well, and then he grabbed for a cutter, a box cutter or a knife or something.”

In the struggle, Stone was injured by the knife, Karen Skarlatos said. But the men managed to hogtie the assailant and subdue him, she said. A shaky cellphone video of the outcome showed the subdued man, shirtless and in white pants, lying with his front on the floor of the train car, his legs tied up in the air.

Skarlatos “just recently returned home from Afghanistan,” his stepmother said. “He got home in July. He spent the greater part of a year over there. He has a warrior’s heart. He’s just a strong brave guy.” She said he had been stationed outside of Bagram Air Force base.

Skarlatos studies at a local community college and works part time at a Costco, his stepmother said.

Stone, the injured Air Force servicemen, treated another wounded passenger after suffering his own injuries, said Sadler’s father, who spoke to his son shortly after the attack.

“Spencer actually had some emergency medical training through the service,” said Sadler’s father, who is also named Anthony Sadler. “There was another passenger who had his throat sliced. Spencer didn’t worry about his own injuries and was able to minister to the wounds.”

Another witness told the French Liberation newspaper said that the shirtless attacker had been pursuing another person down the aisle of the train. The attacker tried to shoot. “I heard ‘click click,’” said the witness, who was identified only as Damien. “I thought it was a toy gun.”

Then “a man with a green T-shirt, shaved head, arrived,” he said. “They stood a few seconds face to face, and then the passenger jumped on him and wrestled him to the ground. The guy, he had” guts.

Hollande’s office said that the French president spoke Saturday with the Americans to thank them for their efforts to foil the attack. He planned to meet them in coming days at the Elysée Palace in Paris.

French Twitter messages surged with praise for the Americans. “Enormous respect for the two American soldiers who prevented a terrorist attack,” posted one user, @Math2ieu. Others called for the pair to be awarded the Legion of Honor.

The Belgian prime minister, Charles Michel, said on Twitter, “I condemn the terrorist attack,” and expressed his sympathy for the victims.

A French actor, Jean-Hugues Anglade, who appeared in the 1986 film “Betty Blue,” was aboard the train. Cazeneuve confirmed French news media reports that the actor was slightly injured.

In an indication of how seriously the French were taking the assault, President François Hollande issued a statement Friday night saying that “everything is being done” to determine what had happened on the train, having handed the investigation over to the country’s top antiterrorism investigators.

Obama was briefed on the train assault and how it was foiled, administration officials said.

“Echoing the statements of French authorities, the president expressed his profound gratitude for the courage and quick thinking of several passengers, including U.S. service members, who selflessly subdued the attacker,” the White House Press Office said in a statement. “While the investigation into the attack is in its early stages, it is clear that their heroic actions may have prevented a far worse tragedy. We will remain in close contact with French authorities as the investigation proceeds.”

The high-speed train is popular for travel between France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It is used extensively by businesspeople, diplomats, European Union officials and tourists.

Unlike the Eurostar train between Paris and London, however, luggage does not pass through X-ray machines or other forms of screening.

Plainclothes security officers are said to be frequently aboard the trains. On the platforms of the Gare du Nord in Paris, where the trains arrive and depart, uniformed police officers are often visible. But safeguarding the international service is challenging because the trains leave almost every hour.

France’s sensitivities to terrorist assaults have been heightened since January, when Islamic militants killed 17 in attacks in and around Paris. In June, an extremist beheaded his boss in southern France and tried to blow up a gas plant.

French lawmakers have passed tough surveillance laws in the wake of these attacks, and the anti-immigrant, far right National Front party has seen its popularity surge.

The Post’s Peter Holley in Washington, The Associated Press and The New York Times contributed to this report.