French investigators to decide on train gunman charges

PARIS - French investigators had just hours left on Tuesday to decide whether to charge a Moroccan gunman who was overpowered by a group of Americans and a Briton when he opened fire on a crowded Paris-bound train.

Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old who boarded the high-speed train in Brussels on Friday armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, ammunition and a box-cutter, is being questioned by counter-terrorism investigators.

He insists he had only been seeking to rob passengers, but a source close to the case said Tuesday he had watched a video of jihadist songs on his mobile phone shortly before getting onto the Amsterdam-Paris train.

He was initially thought to be carrying two phones, but the source said he was actually only in possession of one mobile, which had been activated on the morning of the attack.

Under French law, authorities can question Khazzani, who does not speak French, for four days, a deadline that expires Tuesday evening, after which they must charge or release him.

Paris Prosecutor Francois Molins was due to hold a press conference at 5pm (1500 GMT).

Witnesses said Khazzani opened fire, wounding a man before being wrestled to the floor and subdued by three young Americans - off-duty servicemen Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone and their student friend Anthony Sadler - and a Briton, 62-year-old business consultant Chris Norman.

'Prepare' for other attack

France has been on high alert since three jihadist gunmen went on a killing spree in and near Paris in January, leaving 17 dead in their wake.

President Francois Hollande told a gathering of French diplomats on Tuesday that France must prepare for further attacks.

"The aggression that took place on Friday... which could have degenerated into a monstrous carnage... is fresh proof that we must prepare for other attacks and therefore protect ourselves," Hollande said.

Khazzani was on the radar of European intelligence agencies, but gaps remain in his backstory.

A Spanish counter-terrorism source said he lived in Spain for seven years until 2014, where he came to the attention of authorities for making hardline comments defending jihad, attending a radical mosque in Algeciras and being involved in drug trafficking.

His father said he left for France to work for mobile phone operator Lycamobile - a claim confirmed by the head of the firm who said Khazzani stayed for two months in early 2014 and left because he did not have the right work papers.

French intelligence sources, however, said Khazzani only came on to their radars in May this year, when German authorities warned he had boarded a plane for Turkey, seen as a possible sign that he travelled to war-torn Syria.

Khazzani is said to have told investigators he is "dumbfounded" by accusations he intended to carry out a terror attack.

He said he stumbled upon a weapons stash in a park in Belgium where he sometimes slept rough and decided to use it to rob passengers, according to Sophie David, a lawyer who was temporarily assigned to his case.

Khazzani's father has described his son - who according to David had moved around Belgium, Germany, Austria, France and Andorra in the last six months - as a "good boy" who preferred "football and fishing" to politics.

'Message of courage'

Hollande presented the men who subdued Khazzani with France's highest honour, the Legion d'Honneur, on Monday.

"You have shown us that, faced with terror, we have the power to resist. You have given a message of courage, solidarity and hope," he told them as he presented the medals.

Stone, who wore a sling to the ceremony due to the injuries he received to his hand, has also been nominated for the US Air Force's highest medal for non-combat bravery.

Speaking as he left the Elysee presidential palace after the ceremony, Norman said: "I think that one way or another, we are going to be facing this kind of problem quite a few times in the future, and I would invite you all to think about 'what would I do in that situation?'.

Sadler, 23, dismissed suggestions that Khazzani was not trying to kill anyone.

"It doesn't take eight magazines (of bullets) to rob a train," he told reporters on Sunday.

Skarlatos added that if the attacker had known how to handle guns, he could have killed many people.