I was in the bookstore the other day and noticed a new book on the shelves of the Current Affairs section titled, “The 15:17 to Paris: The True Story of a Terrorist, a Train, and Three American Heroes” by Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, Spencer Stone, and Jeffrey E. Stern. I pulled it off with interest because I had recently been doing my own research on Ayoub El Khazzani, the perpetrator of the attack and hoped to pick up some new information. Sadly, there didn’t seem to be anything new in the book on that front, but it’s probably a good a time as any to lay out to you what I have found.
One of the reasons I wanted to look back at this story from August 2015 is that so little has come to light since it all happened. To recap the event, Moroccan-born Ayoub El Khazzani boarded the Thalys train at the Gare du Midi station in Brussels on its way to Paris from Amsterdam. Shortly after watching a Youtube video exhorting the faithful to violent jihad on a phone activated that day, he emerged shirtless at approximately 5:45pm from one of the toilets armed with an AKM assault rifle (and 270 rounds), a pistol, and a bottle of petrol. Two individuals unsuccessfully engaged El Khazzani, who shot one of them in the neck with his pistol. When he went to use the rifle, it jammed. At that point, two American servicemen and their friend tackled El Khazzani. El Khazzani slashed one of the men with a boxcutter, nearly severing his thumb. One of the other men grabbed the AKM and beat El Khazzani in the head with the stock until he was unconscious. A British passenger and a French train driver also came to the men’s aid, holding the attacker down.
The heroic actions of those who stood up to El Khazzani mask an uncomfortable truth of this story. To put it bluntly, if the rifle had functioned properly we would be discussing a catastrophe instead of a near miss. We often forget just how many of these “near misses” we’ve had—the shoe bomber Richard Reid, the underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and so on. One little detail, one minor thing in one direction or the other makes the difference between life and death. But I digress.
My interest here is the person of El Khazzani and how he comes to be the man who tries to do this. He was born on September 3, 1989, in the Moroccan city of Tétouan. His father, Mohamed, a 66-year-old scrap dealer moved to Spain sometime in the Nineties and legalized his status there around 2005. He moved the whole family (mother Zahara Acchoud, brother Imran, and sisters Oumaima, Salma, and Houda) over in 2007, settling first in Madrid before moving to Algeciras and taking up residence in the Calle Federico García Lorca (El Saladillo). He left school very early working odd jobs and ultimately becoming entangled in the drug culture. Ayoub appears to have stayed in the capital where he had two run-ins with Spanish authorities in 2009 for possession and sale of hashish. He was busted again in 2012 trafficking drugs between Morocco and Cueta, one of the Spanish possessions on the coast of North Africa. He ultimately joined his family in Algeciras and life began to calm down for him.
Ayoub’s family worshiped at the Taqwa mosque in the Piñera neighborhood, a converted auto body shop where his father served as caretaker. The mosque stands outside the mainline Islamic community in the country, which makes it a matter of concern to Spanish authorities in a city noted as a “nest” of jihadism within the country. Ayoub and his brother became regulars. His life was taking a more religious turn since his stint in prison, and while he continued to hang out with young men from the street, neither he nor his brother took part in their more “sinful” activities.
It is said that Ayoub’s brother, Imran, was suspected of preaching jihad at the mosque, which may be the real reason behind his surprising deportation to Morocco in 2013. The authorities said that his residency permit had expired, but I doubt they would have expended the effort on him apart from their other suspicions. Family friends say the change in Ayoub became more pronounced at this point.
In 2014 El Khazzani secured a three month contract with Lycamobile in France (Seine-Saint-Denis) as part of their “ethnic marketing” business. He began on February 3 but was terminated after exactly two months because he lacked the necessary papers to continue working in the country. At the time he began work in France, Spanish intelligence alerted its French counterparts to El Khazzani’s presence and its concerns about his activities and relationships to jihadist networks. The Spaniards believed that he had been radicalized during his time in prison. The French subsequently made him a fiche ‘S’ subject.
Here the story becomes quite murky and his movements difficult to trace. News reports say that he lived 5-7 months in Aubervilliers in 2014. Afterwards he spent time in Cologne, moved to Vienna, then returned to Cologne before going to Brussels where his sister Oumaima (“Oum Badr”) and her family lived. He also traveled to Andorra at some point. The dates of his stays at the various locations are not publically known, but his time in Brussels provides some interesting possibilities for his further radicalization.
Sister Oumaima, her husband Karim, and their daughter lived in a fourth floor apartment at Chaussee de Gand 60 in Molenbeek. The family was not officially domiciled at this location but had lived there for approximately five years as a favor from a family friend living in the rue de l’Escaut. According to a neighbor named Rachid, Ayoub had been visiting and sporadically living at the apartment for a year and a half by the time of the attack.
This apartment is literally two doors away from rue Ransfort 3, the headquarters of Tamimi SPRL, a company co-owned by Mohamed Abrini until December 5, 2014. While no solid connection has been made to my knowledge between El Khazzani and Abrini, some in the press have speculated that this is simply too much to have just been coincidence. Reports also state that Ayoub frequented the mosquée Loqman, a little further down the street at rue Ransfort 24, when in Brussels. This mosque is noted for being outside mainstream Muslim community control and is described as “radical” by the Belgian Federal Prosecutor, Eric Van der Sypt. It turns out that the Abdeslam brothers and Abdelhamid Abaaoud also lived quite near and used the mosque as a meeting place when all still lived in the area. Chakib Akrouh, who died with Abaaoud in Saint-Denis, attended the mosque, and Khalid Zerkani, the notorious recruiter from Molenbeek, is alleged to have held meetings at the location.
An interesting coincidence I noticed while researching this article involves that neighbor I mentioned earlier, Rachid. As far as I can tell, the only mention of him comes in this La Capitale article, and no further detail is given about him. Oddly enough, Abrini’s business partner at Tamimi is named Rachid Miyouf. Like Abrini, Miyouf sold his ownership stake in the business to Mustapha Chaibi in December 2014. Yet, the Sunday following the attacks in Paris, news reports say that Abrini’s former business partner was arrested at rue Ransfort 3 as part of the sweeping raids conducted in the aftermath. This suggests that although Miyouf was no longer in business there, he may have still been living in that location. Could he be the neighbor familiar with El Khazzani? Is there something more to Miyouf that we should know?
Those sorts of questions get to the heart of the problem with the El Khazzani story. Apart from the flood of stories which emerged in the few days after his identity was revealed, the public has learned next to nothing in the intervening year. Probably the most important revelation concerned his travel to Turkey (and possibly Syria) in mid-2015. His status as a fiche ‘S’ subject set off alarm bells when he attempted to board a Germanwings flight from Berlin Tegel to Istanbul on May 10, 2015. A search of his person was conducted, but nothing found, and he was allowed to proceed. Furthermore, we discovered that he returned to Europe just under a month later on June 4, going from Antakya to Tirana, Albania, via Istanbul. Apart from a recent series of raids (in Molenbeek, Woluwe-Saint-Lambert and Haren) and six arrests on June 20, 2016, related to the Thalys attack, there has been virtual radio silence.
There have been no details about who he met in the Spanish prisons that may have contributed to his development, nothing about radical relationships within the Taqwa mosque, precious little about the dates of his travels throughout Europe or particulars about his living arrangements in the various cities, nothing about any friends or associates, and no details about how he procured his weaponry. The proximities, the travel patterns, and the behaviors cry out for something bigger than what we’ve been shown. How long do we have to wait until this story can be told?
Note: In just the last day, Le Figaro has published a story on El Khazzani, but unfortunately I do not have a subscription. I’m curious as to whether anything new will emerge from it.