IS operative faces possible life sentence in failed Amsterdam-Paris train attack

Verdict to be handed down over 2015 attempted terror attack, which was foiled by 3 American passengers who tackled the accused

A courtroom sketch made on December 17, 2020, shows the defendants Ayoub El Khazzani (up), (From Down L) Bilal Chatra, Redouane El Amrani Ezzerrifi and Mohamed Bakkali at the Paris Courthouse in Paris. (Benoit Peyrucq/AFP)
A courtroom sketch made on December 17, 2020, shows the defendants Ayoub El Khazzani (up), (From Down L) Bilal Chatra, Redouane El Amrani Ezzerrifi and Mohamed Bakkali at the Paris Courthouse in Paris. (Benoit Peyrucq/AFP)

PARIS — A verdict is due Thursday in the month-long trial of an Islamic State operative thwarted in his effort to attack a French train five years ago by a dramatic tackle by three American passengers.

The prosecution has asked for life in prison for Ayoub El Khazzani, charged with attempted terrorist murder. The Moroccan-born El Khazzani, who was armed with an arsenal of weapons, claimed in court that he changed his mind about carrying out the attack, although he seriously wounded a French-American passenger who had grabbed his Kalashnikov.

Three alleged accomplices were tried with El Khazzani in a heavily guarded courtroom.

The prosecution is seeking 30 years for Bilal Chatra who allegedly would have been the second attacker on the Amsterdam to Paris fast train if he hadn’t backed out; 25 years for Mohamed Bakkali; and eight years for Redouane El Amrani Ezzerrifi.

Police work on a platform next to a Thalys train of French national railway operator SNCF at the main train station in Arras, northern France, on August 21, 2015. (AFP Photo/Philippe Hugeun)

Few if any of the passengers in car 12 of the train on August 21, 2015, would have reached their destination alive if the attack had gone off as planned, prosecutors, lawyers and some witnesses contended.

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 out with his own Kalashnikov by the two American servicemen and their friend.

The depictions of the heroics of childhood California friends Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlotta and Anthony Sadler were the highlight of the trial. 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 attack, in the attacks on a Paris music hall, cafes and restaurants and at a sports stadium that left 130 people dead.

Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind of the Paris terror attacks on November 13, 2015, waves an Islamic State flag in this undated picture taken from a magazine published by IS. (screenshot)

The train attack was allegedly organized by Abdelhamid Abaaoud, portrayed as also 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.

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.

Then French President Francois Hollande, second left, hugs US Airman Spencer Stone, center, while US National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos applauds after they were awarded with the Legion of Honor at the Elysee Palace, Paris, France, August 24, 2015. (AP/Michel Euler, Pool)

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 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.

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