Monday, August 24, 2015

24-Aug-15: Honor, shame, technology, crime and how they brought down a good, hard-working boy

A French investigator in protective gear gathers evidence on-board the Thalys intercity train on Friday
[Image Source] The role of officials before and during the attack is considerably less clear
or media-covered
This past Friday evening, as we described here ["22-Aug-15: Carnage on a high-speed European train and the quick-thinking that prevented it"], a massacre on board a busy train traveling between two European capitals was narrowly averted, though the gunman managed to get off several shots. Fast-thinking, selfless action on the part of some of the intended victims made all the difference.

This was not a victory for the governments, the authorities or the people responsible for ensuring public security. Quite the opposite - it was a reminder of what happens when security systems fail. And the huge influence of luck and circumstance.

In the past few days, a little more has become known about the attacker. He started out as a question mark, described in vague terms. Now through media enquiries, we know a little more. Some of it is useful. All of it is helpful to understanding how and why terrorism keeps happening, and will keep on doing so.
  • First and most important, the intending murderer was "a good boy". His father, Mohamed El Khazzani who lives in Algeciras, Spain and who admits to not having had contact with him "for over a year", says so in a Telegraph UK interview.
  • And not only a good boy but a "very hardworking" person who "never talked politics; just football and fishing". In the mosque which his family does not attend, the president of the South Algeciras Muslim community who presides over it knows him. And surprise, surprise, it turns out "He was an ordinary young man, he played football, went fishing, he worked to make a living" [Alarabiya, August 23, 2015].
  • But he's evidently also a "good boy" with a serious grievance. Echoing the days of European slave-trading and its horrors, the son "had been brought to France" (father's words, speaking of an able-bodied son in his early twenties) by "a French telecommunications company... to work on a six-month contract that was terminated early." Imagine. The father of this murder-minded gunman knows a felonious scenario when he sees one: "They're criminals in that company, using people like that... After one month they were just kicked out. So now he's in France, not Spain. What is he meant to do? What is he supposed to eat?" Right. The path from that outrage to dead and bleeding bodies on an inter-city train carriage floor is evident to any thinking person possessed of an honour/shame frame of mind.
  • Then there's the small matter of the fish-loving lad's actual criminal record. Father says his hardworking good boy was arrested twice in Madrid in 2009 on charges of selling hashish though "he was only carrying a little bit". A British report [Mirror UK, August 22, 2015] quoting the Spanish paper El Pais says that in fact he was arrested for "drugs trafficking, in May and December 2009, and a third time in Spain’s north African enclave of Ceuta on a warrant issued by a court in Madrid for a drugs offence." It adds that he is subject today to an arrest warrant issued by a different Madrid court, again for a drugs-related offence.
  • He gave up smoking hashish when he moved back to his parents' home in 2012, and after that "seemed very calm". [Telegraph UK]
  • The father "recycles materials for a living" (meaning he's a scrap dealer, we assume) in Algeciras. He moved there after earlier bringing his family from Morocco to Spain in 2007 and living for a short time in Madrid. Algeciras is a southern port city in Spain with a population of about 120,000. Some 10,000 of them, or about 9%, are Muslims, according to one report [Mirror UK].
  • As for the charges of terrorism-inspired attempted murder, the father says the "hardworking" "good boy" was merely "trying to rob passengers". The young lad "is said to be "dumbfounded" by accusations he was planning a terror attack" [AFP]. Because, we're thinking, that would be so wrong.
  • As for us, we're dumbfounded too. The son, Ayoub El Khazzani, now 25, was not "only carrying a little bit" on Friday when he boarded the train. He was actually packing (and struggled hard to use) a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, plenty of ammunition and a box-cutter with which he came close to slicing off the fingers of one of the men who stopped him.
  • Prior to Friday's murderous attack (or unfortunate attempted robbery, if we engage in fantasies) he had already been tagged "as an Islamic extremist by intelligence services in Belgium, France, German and Spain" [AFP
  • The Mirror report says the French authorities had already decided in March 2014 that his "relationship with radical Islam" justified keeping him under watch. Since he was on a train hurtling towards the French capital when he cocked his high-powered gun and prepared to fire at fellow train travelers, one would be excused for wondering what kind of watch he ought to have gotten. And also whether there might one or two other ladies or gentlemen traveling Europe's roads and tracks at this moment, and who are believed to have a "relationship with radical Islam" that warrants them being watched.
  • Those authorities had had some opportunities to check him out since, as BBC reports, he visited Spain, Andorra, Belgium, Austria, Germany and France in the past 6 months alone, There is some evidence he also went to Turkey and Syria, but his lawyer says that part is untrue. Naturally we're wondering why that's important to either side.
  • Spanish anti-terrorist services are reported [Mirror UK].to have entered Ayoub El Khazzani's data into "the Schengen-area police database" because of a perception that the young man had ties to "religious extremism". Whoever takes care of checking passengers who board international trains in Europe might eventually be asked how the data and the millions of Euros of technology completely failed to trigger any security measures when he board at Brussels South station. 
  • And that's before anyone starts asking about the Kalashnikov assault rifle and the other implements of death and destruction that he brought on-board with him.
  • In that last point, we think the Mirror report means to refer to the "Schengen Information System" or SIS. Let's take a moment on thaty. SIS is a European inter-government database keeping and accessing information on people "of interest" in matters of national security, border control and law enforcement. It's a phenomenally important tool. 27 countries officially use the SIS data: France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Austria, Greece, Finland, Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia.
  • But if, as reported, Friday's would-be massacre-man was listed there, and still got on-board the train with enough fire power to carry out a world-class act of carnage, something might be a teeny tiny bit wrong with this picture. Was SIS down that day? Is using it optional for security officials? Do any security officials work at Belgium's inter-city train stations watching for suspects or trouble? And who watches the watchers?
  • The gunman's lawyer is named as Sophie David by Alarabiya which quotes her saying the client looks ill and malnourished: "[V]ery sick, somebody very weakened physically, as if he suffered from malnutrition, very, very thin and very haggard" but also a person of enormous good fortune who "found the Kalashnikov he had taken onto the train in a park near the Gare du Midi rail station in Brussels where he was in the habit of sleeping..." and, as anyone would, then "decided to get on a train that some other homeless people told him would be full of wealthy people travelling from Amsterdam to Paris and he hoped to feed himself by armed robbery".
This is all probably going to get much clearer soon, especially the part about why it took three quick-witted, selfless and tough travelers to save a carriage full of train passengers while some of the world's most sophisticated anti-terrorism measures - along with the people who operate them and the policies according to which they work - totally and utterly failed

Until it does, we're left to muse about the risks we ordinary people take as we walk into stores, board planes and trains, and generally act as if we live in safe and free societies.

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