French authorities have launched a preliminary investigation on Tuesday into the foiled attack on a Thalys train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday and have placed the suspected gunman in custody.
Facebook shut down the account of train attack suspect Ayoub El-Khazzani for “terrorist content” within hours of the shooting, a spokeswoman for the social media giant said Tuesday. But his explanation grew less and less lucid, the prosecutor said, and the suspect eventually stopped speaking to French investigators at all.
“They are saying Ayoub is a terrorist but I simply can’t believe it”, said Khazzani, 64, a scrap merchant who lives in the poor El Saladillo district of Algeciras with his wife and some of his six children.
El-Khazzani was found to have an AKM assault rifle with 270 rounds of ammunition, a 9mm handgun, a box-cutter and a bottle of gasoline, the prosecutor said.
Prosecutors also found a small explosive warhead hidden in the glass box containing the hammer used to break train windows in case of an emergency. They did not elaborate.
During questioning, El Khazzani said he found a bag of weapons in a Brussels park the night before his attack and planned to use them to rob passengers.
Meanwhile, the Californian capital Sacramento said it would hold a parade of honour for the three young Americans who tackled the gunman: Alek Skarlatos, a 22-year-old National Guardsman, Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old US Air Force member, and Anthony Sadler, also 23, a student at the state university. Another man who tried to stop him – a French American named Mark Moogalian – remains in hospital with a gunshot wound.
Molins outlined a raft of evidence indicating why Khazzani was being probed for “attempted murder” as part of a terrorist plot.
“However, Khazzani denies ever being in Turkey”, said Molins.
After five to seven months in 2014 in France, El-Khazzani lived successively in Brussels, Cologne, Vienna, and then again in Cologne and Brussels but the prosecutor gave no indication of dates.
Mr. Molins confirmed that Mr. El-Khazzani flew to Istanbul from Berlin in May 10, but added that he returned to Europe on June 4 on a flight from Antakya, a town near the border with Syria, to Tirana, the capital of Albania.
It also suspected El-Khazzani may have been planning to burn up the scene after unleashing hundreds of bullets he was accused of bringing on board. He may have tried to go to Syria.
The train incident has highlighted growing difficulties in protecting public spaces from individual attackers.
The trio were awarded the country’s Legion d’Honneur medal on Monday by French President Francois Hollande in a ceremony at the Elysee palace in the presence of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and the U.S. ambassador to Paris Jane Hartley.
Hollande did not elaborate on a specific threat, although France has been on high alert for attacks all year.
Molins said El Khazzani has invoked his right to remain silent after days of “evasive answers”.
In Brussels, investigators searched two buildings where the gunman may have stayed in the Molenbeek-Saint-Jean neighborhood, the Federal Prosecutor’s Office said in a statement Tuesday. No one was detained, although investigators said they seized “some objects” for further examination.