PARIS — The man who boarded a high-speed train in Europe with an assault rifle before being subdued by three Americans was known to intelligence services in three countries and had ties to radical Islam, authorities said Sunday. But the man's lawyer said he told her that he was homeless and only wanted to rob passengers to be able to eat.
French authorities contend that Ayoub El-Khazzani, a 26-year-old Moroccan, was an Islamic extremist. Authorities in Spain said he had lived in the country until last year and had a police record for drug-dealing.
Despite being on the radar in France, Spain and Belgium, he boarded an Amsterdam-to-Paris train on Friday as it stopped in Brussels, carrying a small arsenal of weapons, including a Kalashnikov, an automatic Luger pistol and a box cutter.
Three American friends, two of them U.S. servicemen, tackled him, and with the help of a British businessman tied him up. They are being feted as heroes in France and the U.S. The three Americans will speak with the media later Sunday.
El-Khazzani's lawyer said he told her that he wasn't a terrorist.
"He is dumbfounded that his action is being characterized as terrorism," said Sophie David, a lawyer in Arras, where the train was rerouted to arrest El-Khazzani — now being questioned outside Paris by anti-terrorism police.
He described himself as homeless and David said she had "no doubt" this was true, saying he was "very, very thin" as if suffering from malnutrition and "with a very wild look in his eyes."
"He thought of a hold-up to be able to feed himself, to have money," she said on BFM-TV, then "shoot out a window and jump out to escape."
She said her client told her he had found the valise full of weapons, including the box cutter and rounds of ammunition, in a Brussels public park near the train station.
Officials didn't disclose a possible motive for the attack, but Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Spanish authorities had notified French intelligence about the suspect because he belongs to a "radical Islamist movement."
David said he told her that he received orders from no one.
Three people were injured, including U.S. Air Force serviceman Spencer Stone, who was the first to tackle El-Khazzani. Stone was hospitalized on Saturday for a hand wound from the box cutter.
Besides Stone, 23, of Carmichael, California, National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, 22, from Roseburg, Oregon, and their friend, Anthony Sadler, 23, a senior at Sacramento State University in California, moved to subdue the man.
The lawyer said El-Khazzani "told me that for him, nothing happened ... He said he didn't even hear any shot fired. The Kalashnikov didn't work."
One shot did ring out, injuring a French-American teacher in the chest. He was being treated in a Lille hospital. However, the Americans did say the Kalashnikov jammed.
El-Khazzani, identified via fingerprints, can be held for 96 hours and then must be charged or set free.
In an Aug. 21 image made from a video, a gunman lies on floor with arms tied behind his back after an incident on a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris.
Photo Credit: Anthony Sadler/Youtube via AP
El-Khazzani had been living in the southern Spanish city of Algeciras with his parents, and arrested there three times for drug-dealing, according to Spain's Interior Ministry. Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo both reported that he had lived in the relatively poor neighborhood of El Saladillo, which has around 6,000 inhabitants and an unemployment rate close to 40 percent.
It was unclear how long he was in Spain. However, Spain notified French intelligence in February 2014, and he was placed on a watch list of potentially dangerous individuals, Cazeneuve has said.
There were discrepancies between French and Spanish accounts of the gunman's travels.
An official linked to Spain's anti-terrorism unit said the suspect lived in Spain until 2014, then moved to France, traveled to Syria, and returned to France. That official spoke on condition anonymity because he wasn't authorized to be identified by name.
A French official close to the investigation said the watch list signal "sounded" on May 10 in Berlin, where El-Khazzani was flying to Turkey. The French transmitted this information to Spain, which advised on May 21 that he no longer lived there but in Belgium. The French then advised Belgium, according to the official close to the investigation, but it wasn't clear what, if any, action was taken after that.
El-Khazzani had the Kalashnikov strapped across his shoulder when a French citizen trying to use the toilet encountered him and tried to subdue him, Cazeneuve said. Gunfire sounded and the two American servicemen, with help from their friend and a Briton, tackled and disarmed him.
The Briton, businessman Chris Norman, the fourth to jump into the fray, said he was working on his computer when he heard a shot and glass breaking and saw a train worker running.
"I knew we had to do something or he was just going to kill people," Skarlatos told Oregon television station KEZI. "I mean he wasn't shooting at the time so I figured it was a good time to do it."
Sadler told The Associated Press that they saw a train employee sprint down the aisle followed by a man with an automatic 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."
Video showed a blood-spattered scene on the train, with the gunman prostrate and shirtless, his hands tied behind his back. Authorities said that in addition to the guns, he had nine loaded magazines for the Kalashnikov. Skarlatos, who served in Afghanistan, said that when he examined the assault rifle, he found that the gunman had tried to fire it but that it didn't go off because it had a bad primer.
Sadler said the gunman remained silent throughout the brief incident. But with the weapons he carried, "he was there to do business," Skarlatos said in an interview shown on French television.
French actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, who cut his finger to the bone while activating the train's emergency alarm, heaped praise on the Americans, recounting the high emotion of the episode to Paris Match.
"I thought it was the end, that we would die," he said. "Yes, we saw ourselves dying because we were prisoners in this train and it was impossible to escape the nightmare."
The Americans arrived Saturday night under heavy escort at the residence of the U.S. ambassador.
President Barack Obama telephoned them Saturday to commend and congratulate them, the White House said. They and the Frenchman who first confronted the gunman will meet Monday with French President Francois Hollande.
French authorities are on heightened alert after Islamic extremist attacks in January left 20 people dead, including the three gunmen. In June, a lone attacker claiming allegiance to Islamic radicals beheaded his employer and set off an explosion at an American-owned factory in France, raising concerns about other scattered, hard-to-predict attacks.
Greg Keller in Paris and Harold Heckle in Madrid contributed to this report.