PARIS — A French court on Thursday convicted an Islamic State operative over a train attack five years ago that was foiled with the dramatic intervention of three American passengers.
The special terrorism court sentenced Morocco-born Ayoub El Khazzani to life in prison, with 22 years guaranteed behind bars.
El Khazzani, who went from drug-trafficking in Spain to Syria as a jihadi, met his match in the train car encounter with three childhood friends from California who took him down. Clint Eastwood turned the face-off into a movie, “The 15:17 to Paris.”
Three accomplices, who weren’t on the train, were convicted of complicity and handed sentences ranging from seven to 27 years.
The verdict closes the month-long trial of El Khazzani for attempted terrorist murder. He had boarded the train to Paris on Aug. 21, 2015 with an arsenal of weapons.
The court rejected El Khazzani’s contention that he had changed his mind about carrying out the assault. He seriously wounded a French-American teacher who grabbed his Kalashnikov.
“I still feel lucky to be here. That’s what I’m focused on. Just feel lucky that I survived and just glad to be in France,” said Mark Moogalian, the teacher who was shot in the back with a hand gun. The bullet exited through his neck.
Few if any of the passengers in car No. 12 of the train from Amsterdam to Paris would have reached their destination alive if the attack had gone off as planned, prosecutors, lawyers and some witnesses contended during the trial.
El Khazzani, armed with an assault rifle, nearly 300 rounds of ammunition, a hand gun and a cutter when he boarded the train in Brussels, was tackled, choked and knocked unconscious with his own Kalashnikov by the two American servicemen and their friend.
The heroics of Spencer Stone, a U.S. Air Force man, Alek Skarlatos, in the National Guard, and Anthony Sadler, a student, were a highlight of the trial and their testimony captivated the courtroom. Stone fell ill upon arrival in France and eventually testified by video from California.
But it was the underlying plot the prosecution portrayed that chilled.
Investigators had exposed an alleged network of connections that culminated, months after the train assault, in the attacks on a Paris music hall, cafes and restaurants and at a sports stadium that left 130 people dead.
The train attack was allegedly organized by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, portrayed as the coordinator of the November 2015 attacks in Paris. El Khazzani was with Abaaoud in Syria and traveled with him back to Brussels. He told the court that Abaaoud concocted the plan for the train attack and he followed it to the letter — until he changed his mind.
“It was a very intense trial” because it is linked to the Paris attacks that lay ahead, said Thibault de Montbrial, lawyer for the Americans and Moogalian.
“The terror cell that came to Europe to kill Europeans had as a first step to kill inside the ... train,” he said, noting the prosecution’s contention that El Khazzani had planned a mass attack in the train.
El Khazzani’s testimony was often confused, but he agreed when the presiding judge said he appeared to be “a puppet” of Abaaoud, who was killed by French special forces shortly after the Paris massacre.
“I believed him. It’s stupid but I believed,” he said during testimony in November.
El Khazzani said Abaaoud told him to kill three to five American soldiers in the car, along with the “European Commission,” though no members were on the train. Abaaoud had told him they were responsible for bombings in Syria, including a mosque that El Khazzani said triggered his wish for revenge.
It remained unclear at the trial’s end how he identified the vacationing Americans as servicemen, as he claimed he had, because they were in civilian clothes.
The presiding judge noted that he had more weapons than the terrorists who carried out the massacre in Paris’ Bataclan music hall. El Khazzani said Abaaoud had told him that’s how things are done in Syria.
The verdict comes a day after 14 people were convicted of involvement in the January 2015 massacre at satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and another deadly attack. All three attackers were killed.
The court convicted Bilal Chatra and Mohamed Bakkali of complicity and sentenced them to prison terms of 27 years and 25 years, respectively. A third man, Redouane El Amrani Ezzerrifi, was given a seven-year sentence.