The 15:17 to Paris
As if the world didn't already have enough problems, we never know when a lone wolf will strike. Just like terrorist cells that lie dormant. Hiding underground like a submerged volcano, unpredictable when it will unleash its explosive and deadly power.
Only the perpetrators know where and when they'll strike, what weapons and explosives they will use, what they hope to achieve and what triggers their intentions for so-called revenge. Occasionally, intelligence authorities are able to prevent a terrorist attack but sleeper cells could be hiding anywhere and until the terrorists comes to the attention of police or intelligence groups, they have no reason to stand out.
I've been meaning to watch The 15:17 to Paris for quite some time and I finally did so, over the weekend.
Three young men from Sacramento, California: Spencer Stone (22), Alek Skarlatos (22) and Anthony Sadler (23), became friends whilst attending the K-12 Freedom Christian School. Still friends some 10 years later, they meet up in Europe to reunite on a three-week long backpacking vacation.
After visiting Rome, Venice, Munich, Berlin and Amsterdam, the trio decide to head to Paris, after some debate. On 21 August 2015, they catch the 15:17 Thalys high-speed 9364 train, a journey that takes three hours and 20 minutes. There are 554 passengers on board. (Interestingly today, whether or not it was a direct result of the publicity from this event, the train now leaves Amsterdam Centraal Railway Station at 15:15).
Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan national is also a passenger on the train, having boarded in the Belgian capital of Brussels. Hidden in his backpack, he's armed with a side-folding Draco AK-47 assault rifle with a collapsible butt and a slant-cut muzzle, a 9mm Luger semi-automatic pistol, 270 rounds of ammunition, a box cutter, a bottle of gasoline and a hammer.
Spencer Stone is a 6'3" tall, 99.7kg solidly-built Senior Airman (Medical Technician) with the United States Air Force.
At the time of the incident, he was dozing off with his headphones. A uniformed member of staff sprints past in the aisle, catching the attention of Skarlatos, who's seated next to him. Skarlatos looks up and notices the door of the carriage sliding open. He sees El Khazzani walking through it, carrying an AK-47 in his hands with a backpack on his chest. They would later find hundreds of ammunition rounds in the bag.
American-born Frenchman Mark Moogalian is suddenly shot in the neck.
The 51-year-old Sorbonne University English teacher had confronted the attacker outside the on-board bathroom seconds before, with 28-year-old French banker Damien A (who wished to remain anonymous after the ordeal). During the struggle, Damien falls to the floor, as Moogalian manages to wrestle the rifle away from El Khazzani. As he turns to run off with it, El Khazzani shoots him with the pistol.
Skarlatos wakes up Stone, who quickly sees what's happening and crouches down between the seats. Some five seconds later, he jumps up and charges at El Khazzani, who's just picked up the rifle Moogalian dropped and aims it at Stone. The gun miraculously jams. They fall to the floor, as Stone tries to use his jujitsu training to restrain the terrorist, which appears to be quite difficult. El Khazzani pulls out his pistol and tries to shoot Stone in the head but there's no bullet in the chamber. He pulls out his box cutter. Stone is slashed in the head, neck and hand, almost severing his thumb but it doesn't stop him. He finally gets the Moroccan into a choke hold.
Aleksander 'Alek' Skarlatos has been in the Oregon Army National Guard since 2012.
At the time of the incident, he held the rank of a Specialist and was previously deployed to Afghanistan for a nine month stint. Skarlatos manages to grab the assault rifle out of the terrorist's hands and beats the Moroccan in the head with the muzzle. Stone maintains the choke hold. There are conflicting reports of whether it was Stone's choke hold or Skarlatos who rendered El Khazzani unconscious but it's likely both would have contributed to him passing out.
Chris Norman, a 62-year-old British IT consultant had initially readied himself to attack El Khazzani but Stone beat him to the punch.
Norman collects four neck ties from passengers nearby and together with Skarlatos, Sadler and an off-duty French train driver, they hog-tie the unconscious El Khazzani.
Anthony Sadler is a kinesiology student at the University of California. Either his role is limited to assisting the three others in hog-tying El Khazzani, or his role is underrated.
Whilst El Khazzani is being restrained, Stone jumps up and attends to Moogalian. He sticks two fingers in the bullet hole of Moogalian's neck, to stop the bleeding on the main artery that is spurting blood and pushes down on it. The bullet was reported to have "travelled slightly upwards through Moogalian's body, breaking two ribs and piercing his left lung before exiting at the front of his neck." Stone's training again comes in handy, despite suffering from his own injuries.
Skarlatos uses the assault rifle to sweep the train for other terrorists before examining the rifle. His comment, 'one in a million,' stems from his examination of the bullet which has a perfect, deep dent in the back of it. Just like a bullet that's been fired. Except the bullet didn't! "The firing pin struck the bullet but the chemical reaction that was supposed to initiate simply did not happen." The gunpowder never ignited, saving Stone's life.
The train is diverted to Arras, France where it arrives half an hour after the start of the incident. Police and paramedics storm the carriage and take over.
The Lone Wolf
Ayoub El Khazzani, played by Ray Corasani, had ties to Islamist groups. Although he wasn't carrying any identification, he was soon identified by his fingerprints. El Khazzani later claimed that robbery was his only intention as he was homeless, living on the streets of Brussels at the time and claimed to have found the guns in the park where he slept. Other reports said his intention was to hold the train passengers hostage for ransom. He was later linked to the terrorist cell that planned the Bataclan theatre attack and grew up in Morocco, with the terrorists involved.
In December 2016, El Khazzani's lawyer Sophie David released a statement to the Associated Press saying, "he had been under orders from an Islamic State terrorist cell ..." to attack and it turned out, "... the orders came from Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the mastermind behind the November 2015 Paris attacks on cafe terraces, a concert hall and a stadium that killed 130 people."
El Khazzani was already known to European authorities. He was the subject of a "Fiche S," also known as an, "S notice," which indicates to, "intelligence communities across Europe that a person merits special surveillance." El Khazzani had connections to a radical mosque in Spain, had confessed to spending time in Syria in May 2015 for the purposes of weapons training and had two convictions for drug smuggling.
Interestingly, in an interview with CNN, Skarlatos stated El Khazzani, "clearly had no firearms training whatsoever.'
Stone, Skarlatos, Sadler and Norman were awarded the Légion d’honneur (Knights of the Legion of Honour), the highest French order for military and civil merits. When French President François Holland presented the men with their medals, he stated: “Your heroism must be an example for many and a source of inspiration. Faced with the evil of terrorism, there is a good, that of humanity. You are an incarnation of that.”
The anonymous Damien A also received a Legion d’Honneur in a private ceremony.
Skarlatos was awarded the United States Army Soldier's Medal from U.S. President Barack Obama, the highest medal awarded to Army personnel for actions not taken in combat, as well as the medal of Arras, France. He later left the Oregon National Guard in November 2018.
Stone was honoured with the Belgium Civic Medal for bravery, United States Armed Forces Airman's Medal and a Purple Heart, the latter was typically awarded only for combat actions. The 2015 Defense Authorization Act extended eligibility for the Purple Heart to service members killed or wounded in attacks by foreign terrorist organisations. He was promoted two ranks to staff sergeant but left the Air Force in 2016.
Sadler was also awarded the (US) Secretary of Defense Medal for Valor and the Belgium Civic Medal for bravery.
After Clint Eastwood presented the three young men with Hero awards at the Guys Choice Awards in 2016, he casually asked them if they'd be interested in directing a film about their story. When he was told by the trio that their book was about to be released, he requested a copy to be sent to him. It didn't take long for Eastwood to want to turn it into a film.
The movie is as real as you can get with the actors playing themselves. The only previously known instance was in To Hell and Back, a 1955 movie starring the former US soldier Audie Murphy who by that time, had already been an actor for a number of years.
Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, the barely recognised Chris Norman, Mark Moogalian and his wife Isabella re-enacted the event that changed their lives. So did the same train employees, the same driver as well as some of the responding police and medical team. All except the terrorist. Of course. They even wore the same clothes!
He'd originally picked actors Kyle Gallner (American Sniper), Jeremie Harris (Legion TV series) and Alexander Ludwig (The Hunger Games) to portray the three Paris train heroes. At the back of his mind, Eastwood was considering to cast the three young men to play themselves and decided to do so, a month before filming was to start. When they requested to take acting classes, Eastwood refused. He wanted them to be themselves and re-enact the events exactly as they unfolded.
It's an extraordinary story to tell but Eastwood fails to capture the success it deserves. Most of the reviews I read in response to the film, said it focused on the 90 minutes of lead-up to the climatic scene, only to view the attack sequence which lasted only a handful of minutes. Many continued with praise for the inexperienced actors, the problematic storyline is the downfall and that it was a perfectly good story.
I think the film would have been more successful and enjoyable had it followed a sequence from the day they met, to the events that took place on 21 August 2015. Eastwood swings back and forth, starting with the day Spencer Stone and Alek Skarlatos met Anthony Sadler at the principal's office. Snapshots of the events on-board the Thalys high-speed 9364 train is inserted into what could have been a good sequence.
Despite the way the film is presented, it is history presented by heroes and tells an important story that ought to be shared with the world. Heroes don't always wear capes.