PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande bestowed France’s highest honor on Monday on three Americans and a Briton who helped disarm a gun-toting suspected Islamist militant on a train last week.
“Faced with the evil called terrorism there is a good, that’s humanity. You are the incarnation of that,” Hollande told the four men at a ceremony to award them the Legion d’honneur.
The suspect’s lawyer said on Sunday the man, named by intelligence sources as Ayoub el Khazzani, 26, of Morocco, was “dumbfounded” to be accused of being an Islamist militant. She said he had told her he only intended to rob people on the train, because he was hungry.
Khazzani spent two months in France last year working for a mobile telephone company but his contract was cut short because he lacked working papers, the head of the company said after being interviewed by police.
“He seemed to be a good person, no problems, and behavior beyond reproach,” Lycamobile chief Alain Jochimek told Reuters.
Spencer Stone, a 23-year-old U.S. airman traveling with two friends on the train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday, has told of how he plugged the blood-spurting wound of another passenger with his fingers after himself being wounded by the attacker.
“I just stuck two of my fingers in the hole, found what I thought to be the artery, pushed down and the bleeding stopped,” he said at a news conference alongside his friends, student Anthony Sadler, 23, and National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, 22.
After the medals ceremony, Stone and Skarlatos went to Germany, where Stone was to receive further treatment at a U.S. Army hospital, said Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis.
The man Stone helped, a Franco-American Hollande named as Mark Moogalian, remains hospitalized. The U.S. ambassador to France, Jane Hartley, said he was “doing pretty well.”
Chris Norman, a 62-year-old British consultant who lives in France, was also decorated by Hollande on Monday.
Stone said another man, who is French and whose name has not been disclosed, “deserves a lot of the credit” because he was the first one to try to stop the gunman.
Stone thanked the doctors who reattached his thumb, which was almost severed by the gunman, who was armed with a box cutter, a pistol and a Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rifle.
According to Spanish security sources, Khazzani traveled to France in 2014 and went to Syria. French security sources said he caught a flight from Berlin to Istanbul on May 10 this year. Turkey is a preferred destination for would-be jihadists heading for Syria.
Khazzani is on a French list of around 5,000 people who are documented as being a potential militant Islamist threat and was classified as a high risk, according to a source close the investigation.
His father, Mohammed el Khazzani, was quoted by Spanish newspaper El Mundo as saying he had not spoken to his son since he left the Spanish port town of Algeciras for France in 2014.
“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.
“Why would he want to kill anyone? It makes no sense,” he said of his son. “The only terrorism he is guilty of is terrorism for bread. He doesn’t have enough money to feed himself properly.”
France has been on alert since January this year when 17 people died in Islamist militant attacks on a satirical newspaper and a Jewish shop.
Additional reporting and writing by Fiona Ortiz in Chicago, Adrian Croft in Madrid and Andrew Callus in Paris, Editing by Paul Simao and Robin Pomeroy