A French court on Thursday jailed for life a Moroccan man who planned a terror attack on a Paris-bound international train in 2015 but was thwarted by passengers including off-duty US soldiers.
The Paris court convicted Ayoub El Khazzani, now 31, over the August 2015 plot on the Amsterdam-Paris high-speed Thalys train and also issued sentences of between seven to 27 years to three accomplices.
The events inspired a 2018 film “The 15:17 to Paris” directed by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood who had at the start of the trial been mooted as a possible witness but in the end was not asked to appear.
The court ruled Khazzani would have committed “an indiscriminate attack” which would have been “particularly deadly”, had it not been for “a combination of particularly improbable circumstances” including faulty ammunition and “the exceptional courage of the passengers”.
Khazzani showed no emotion as the verdict was read out.
The ruling came just a day day after a Paris court convicted 13 accomplices of the jihadist gunmen who carried out massacres at the Charlie Hebdo weekly and a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January 2015.
Unlike Khazzani, who was immediately apprehended, all the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo assault were killed in the aftermath of the massacres, leaving only their accomplices to go on trial.
‘Not a hero’
Khazzani was tackled by passengers shortly after emerging bare-chested and heavily armed from a toilet on the train.
“I am sorry to the bottom of my heart,” Khazzani told the court in a tearful final statement. “What I did tears me apart, it freezes the blood.”
He argued that despite being armed to the teeth with an AK-47 automatic rifle and 300 rounds of ammunition he renounced the plot at the last minute as he could not kill people.
However the prosecution said it was only faulty munitions and the intervention of other passengers that stopped a massacre taking place.
There were about 150 passengers in the carriage.
The passengers who intervened included three Americans who were holidaying in Europe, two of them — Spencer Stone and Aleksander Skarlatos — off duty American servicemen.
“I don’t feel like a hero because we were just doing what we had to do to survive,” Skarlatos said after giving evidence in court during the trial.
Khazzani had claimed he acted under the orders of Belgian Abdelhamid Abaaoud, believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the bloody November 2015 attacks on bars and restaurants in Paris, to kill American soldiers on the train.
The court however ruled that the Americans had no distinctive insignia and the size of his arsenal indicated he planned a wider massacre.
Abaaoud was killed by police in a Paris suburb five days after he shot indiscriminately at packed cafe terraces in Paris on the night of the November 13 attacks in the French capital.
The verdicts in the Charlie Hebdo and Thalys trials come with France on its highest security alert following three attacks in recent months blamed on Islamist radicals.
These included the October 16 beheading by a young Chechen refugee of teacher Samuel Paty who had showed controversial caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed to his pupils.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government has introduced legislation to tackle radical Islamist activity in France, a bill that has stirred anger in some Muslim countries.