Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 26 November 2020

'I was honestly trying my best to kill him' says ISIS train attack victim

Alek Skarlatos tells Paris court at the gunman’s trial that he yanked a pistol from the attacker’s hand

US former serviceman Alek Skarlatos initially didn't tell French authorities he had tried to kill the assailant. AFP
US former serviceman Alek Skarlatos initially didn't tell French authorities he had tried to kill the assailant. AFP

One of three Americans acclaimed as heroes for tackling an alleged Islamic State gunman on board a Paris-bound train has testified that he tried to kill the man who stormed into their passenger car with an arsenal of weapons.

Alek Skarlatos, 28, told a Paris court at the gunman’s trial that he yanked a pistol from the attacker’s hand, turned it on him and pulled the trigger but the gun did not fire.

“I was honestly trying my best to kill or restrain him,” Mr Skarlatos said, recounting the chaotic August 21 2015 scene aboard the highspeed Amsterdam to Paris train.

The attack suspect, Ayoub El Khazzani, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if he is convicted of attempted terrorist murder. The 31-year-old Moroccan, who had spent time in Syria, is being tried in a heavily guarded courtroom with three suspected accomplices.

A courtroom sketch shows defendant Ayoub El Khazzani sitting in the dock of the Paris Courthouse. He denies he was attempting mass murder. AFP
A courtroom sketch shows defendant Ayoub El Khazzani sitting in the dock of the Paris Courthouse. He denies he was attempting mass murder. AFP

The month-long trial that opened this week could help to expose the Islamic State terrorist network and to uncover plots targeting Europe.

El Khazzani travelled from Syria to Europe with the man widely believed to have masterminded the 2015 Paris terror attacks, according to investigators. And one of El Khazzani’s co-defendants, Mohamed Bakkali, is also a suspected accomplice in the attacks that left 130 people dead.

El Khazzani’s defence appears to be trying to show that he did not intend to commit mass slaughter on the train a few months earlier.

He boarded in Brussels, carrying a cache of arms in a suitcase, including a Kalashnikov automatic rife, nine clips with 30 rounds each, a pistol and a cutter.

Attack the best form of self-defence

Mr Skarlatos said that after the foiled attack he did not immediately tell police about his intention to kill the gunman because he was uncertain about self-defence laws in France. He changed his story after seeking information from the FBI, he said later at a news conference.

Mr Skarlatos’ lawyer stressed that El Khazzani was still a potential danger when his client tried to shoot him.

“We have to add that he did so during the fight and not after the fight, and that Mr Khazzani was still resisting against the three Americans,” lawyer Thibault de Montbrial said.

The recollections in court this week from passengers who disarmed the attacker on the fast train from Amsterdam have highlighted the split-second decisions that prevented what witnesses contend could have become a mass slaughter.

A French-American passenger, Mark Moogalian, was badly wounded by a gunshot to the back that exited his neck.

He was one of two people who initially confronted the gunman as he emerged from a toilet bare-chested and holding the Kalashnikov with a backpack strapped to his front.

The heroics of a handful of passengers inspired Clint Eastwood to direct a Hollywood movie re-enacting the dramatic events: “The 15:17 to Paris.”

Praise has been focused on Mr Skarlatos, Spencer Stone and Anthony Sadler, who grew up together in California and were vacationing.

Mr Moogalian, whose neck was spurting blood, saw the Americans move into action with Mr Stone diving on the gunman when he entered their train car.

“I was happy because the cavalry had arrived,” he said in testimony given on Thursday. He said he is alive today because of Stone, who came to his aid after the gunman was laid low by his choke hold and Mr Skarlatos’ blows to his head with the Kalashnikov.

He “was surprisingly difficult to control,” Mr Skarlatos testified.

'Supposed to die' that day

When he first saw the gunman appear in their train car, “it felt like time stopped,” Mr Skarlatos said. But he and Mr Stone, both military men, worked in lockstep. He said he tapped Mr Stone’s shoulder and said “Let’s go.”

Spencer Stone fell ill upon his arrival in France this week and his testimony was delayed until Monday.

Asked if the situation was more intense than during his duty in Afghanistan, Mr Skarlatos, who at the time of the train attack was a member of the US National Guard, said “much greater.”

“In my mind, we were supposed to die that day,” he told the court.

El Khazzani pulled out weapons one after another, Sadler and Skarlatos both said in their testimony. When he lost the Kalashnikov, he pulled out a pistol; when he lost that, he had a box cutter in his hand. He dropped the cutter in the struggle but not before injuring Stone on his neck and hand.

With El Khazzani unconscious on the ground a British businessman, Chris Norman, said he helped tie him up with zip-ties used as makeshift handcuffs and bound his ankles with what he thinks was a pink tie. Then, he said, “I sat on him.”

In this video Chris Norman recalls how he helped to avert what could have been a catastrophic loss of life.

The train rerouted to Arras, in northern France, where El Khazzani was arrested.

The trial continues.

Updated: November 21, 2020 05:35 AM

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