Friday afternoon could have been a very bad time on a train running from Amsterdam to Paris. Ayoub El Khazzani, a 25-year-old Moroccan national, on four European security watch lists for his alleged links to radical Islamic groups, was carrying an AK-47 and allegedly opened fire. Three Americans, a Briton and some other passengers, unarmed, took him down. Over the week-end, President Hollande of France awarded four them the Legion d’honneur, and three more will get their red ribbon soon. Their actions merely show that everyone is on the front lines now.
Spencer Stone, 23, Alek Skarlatos, 22, and Anthony Sadler, 23, three friends on a European vacation, and British businessman Chris Norman, 62, were headed to Paris when Mr. El Khazzani started what could have been a mass shooting on a grand scale (he had eight clips for his Kalashnikov). The Los Angeles Times reported, “On Sunday, Stone, a U.S. airman from Carmichael, Calif., told reporters that he was “in a deep sleep” when a gunshot and the sound of breaking glass awoke him. He and his friends looked up and saw a man holding an AK-47. “Alek just hit me on the shoulder and said, ‘Let’s go.’
“The two childhood friends, with Sadler not far behind, ran down the length of the carriage and tackled the gunman. Stone locked him in a chokehold while Skarlatos snatched his gun away. Once the gunman was knocked out, Norman helped hogtie him with a necktie.”
President Hollande said, “In the name of France, I would like to thank you. The whole world admires your bravery. It should be an example to all of us and inspire us. You put your lives at risk in order to defend freedom. A terrorist decided to commit an attack. He had enough weapons and ammunition to carry out real carnage, and that’s what he would have done if you hadn’t tackled him at a risk to your own lives. You gave us a lesson in courage, in will, and thus in hope. Faced with the evil called terrorism there is a good, that is humanity. You are the incarnation of that.” He added that these men “formed a human community … the best to defeat the worst.”
Although Mr. EL Khazzani was known to authorities as a potential problem, there really is nothing the state can do to prevent this kind of lone-wolf attack. Organizations can be penetrated, and conspiracies can be disrupted. However, a lone individual is not susceptible to the usual anti-terrorist actions. Pre-emption is much more difficult.
Moreover, this kind of attack is more likely than grand conspiracies like the September 11 murders. That attack succeeded because the intelligence and military communities were asleep at the switch. That is no longer the case. Counter-terrorist successes drive those who would do harm to civilization to more desperate means, and that means lone-wolf attacks.
The only real defense against lone-wolf killers is an active population. “If you see something, say something” is a slogan plastered all over New York City public transportation. That is insufficient. “If you see something, do something.” The heroes of Friday afternoon took it upon themselves to defend th train. The experts will say that leaving things to professionals is the best approach, but the professionals were nowhere to be seen on that train. Sometimes, the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun are a few good guys who act.