Belgium has become the first country to tighten security on European trains after heroic passengers thwarted an attempted terrorist attack on a high speed train from Amsterdam to Paris at the weekend.
Three passengers (two Americans and an Englishman) managed to subdue a gunman who opened fire in the train. They stopped him before he could commit mass murder on the trainload of passengers. The gunman, identified as Ayoub el-Khazani, a 25-year-old Islamic extremist who fought in Syria last year, is thought to have boarded the train in Brussels. A Moroccan lately living in Spain, el-Khazani was armed with a fast-firing Kalashnikov AK-47 self-loading assault rifle, an automatic pistol, ammunition and knives.
Two of the Americans who stopped him were servicemen in the US Air Force and the National Guard respectively. They were off-duty and on holiday. An Englishman living in France helped them. Other passengers joined in on the high-speed Thalys train service near Arras.
Currently, tourists and travellers find high-speed train travel between many European cities faster than flying. There is very little hassle boarding trains, but that advantage may be eroded as investigators probe how an extremist carrying an arsenal of weapons managed to board a train. You can’t board an aircraft with an assault rifle in your carry-on baggage.
Shortly after the train emergency, Belgian authorities ordered spot checking of train passenger baggage. A spokeswoman for the National Railway Company of Belgium (SNCB) Nathalie Pierard, said Belgian Federal Police and railway security agents were examining passengers’ baggage at stations throughout the country, not just in Brussels.
Security measures on the Thalys trains between France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany were upgraded with increased patrols and baggage checks at international rail stations, the Guardian reported last night.
The attempted train attack follows the terrorist assault in January on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which killed 12 people including the editor and celebrated cartoonists. It also follows two attacks by fanatical Islamists in Tunisia, specifically aimed at killing tourists. In June, 38 people (30 of them British), were killed on a Tunisian beach outside a hotel by a lone gunman disguised as a tourist. He hid a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle in a beach umbrella. An attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunisia three months before killed 22 people.
The train gunman was almost certainly intent on carrying out a similar high-profile massacre. The train was carrying 554 passengers, who happened to include French movie star Jean-Hugues Anglade, the star of Betty Blue and Nikita.
The gunman loaded and prepared his weapons in the train toilet but when he stepped out, brave passengers confronted him. Passengers were unarmed but the two Americans had military training and knew how to immobilise the gunman fast. The gunman managed to cut and shoot a couple of people first, though not fatally. Passengers then beat up the gunman and one of the Americans knocked him out.
A friend of the two Americans, travelling with them on the train, told the BBC: “I came to see my friends on my first trip in Europe, and we stopped a terrorist. Kinda crazy.”
Europe is on alert for similar attacks. Train operators will be anxious to dispel any suspicion that terrorists may see trains as easier targets than planes.
Written by Peter Needham