France Seeks Help in Monitoring Suspicious Activity

France is calling on its millions of train travelers to remain calm and take quick action if they observe a fellow passenger with a weapon. One British and three American passengers tackled a fellow passenger carrying an AK-47 aboard a high-speed train. France recognized the rescue team with Legion of Honor. “In times of terror like that, please do something,” urged Anthony Sadler, one of three Americans during a press conference. “Don’t just stand by.” The trains will post a new hotline and signs urging passengers to call authorities with any suspicions. “European governments have begun doing more systematic checks of people leaving and returning to Europe’s Schengen Area,” report Sam Schechner and Matthew Dalton for the Wall Street Journal. “Once inside the area, however, travelers rarely face border checks.” The Schengen Area, in place for three decades, allows free movement within 26 EU nations – it’s estimated more than 1.25 billion journeys are made within the area each year. Data collected and border checks from outside the area are inconsistent throughout Europe. Governments consider new security measures including baggage checks though analysts suggest that complete protection of soft targets like trains could be an impossible task. – YaleGlobal

France Seeks Help in Monitoring Suspicious Activity

Alert passengers can provide the best security for soft targets like trains as shown by three men who tackled Moroccan carrying AK-47 on French train
Sam Schechner and Matthew Dalton
Monday, August 24, 2015

PARIS – Spencer Stone reacted quickly when he awoke from a nap on a high-speed train and saw a shirtless man holding an AK-47 assault rifle.

Mr. Stone, an airman in the U.S. Air Force, ran down the corridor to tackle the gunman, followed closely by two boyhood friends, averting mass bloodshed.

“The gunman would have been successful if my friend Spencer had not gotten up,” Anthony Sadler, a college student, said at a news conference Sunday evening, flanked by Mr. Stone and Alek Skarlatos, a member of the Oregon National Guard. “In times of terror like that, please do something. Don’t just stand by.”

Now the French government is calling on some five million daily train travelers in France to develop similar instincts.

With France’s terror alert at its highest level and security forces stretched thin patrolling the country, the country’s response to Friday’s foiled terrorist attack on a Paris-bound high-speed Thalys train so far boils down to greater vigilance.

National railroad operator SNCF on Sunday said it plans within the next week to launch a toll-free hotline travelers can call if they spot anything out of the ordinary. Manned by special agents that can call in law enforcement if necessary, the hotline also will be accompanied by new signs and alerts warning riders to be on the lookout, the rail operator and the government said.

“The watchword is really vigilance for everyone,” said Guillaume Pepy, head of SNCF, in an interview published on Sunday in French newspaper Journal du Dimanche. “Before demonstrating their heroism, these three men aboard the Thalys identified the threat. It was their vigilance that allowed them to save lives.”

Mr. Pepy ruled out installing airport-style security across the system, arguing that it would be impractical to search all travelers on high-speed trains, given the volume of traffic. Instead, random bag checks and other security measures are being studied, he said.

The focus on public awareness underscores the difficult task that authorities have across Europe when it comes to preventing attacks in public places. France has erected an extensive security apparatus to thwart attacks, and the government recently has passed new laws empowering intelligence agencies to do more snooping at home and abroad.

The targeting of soft sites in recent attacks – including a factory near Lyon and the Paris offices of a satirical magazine – has exposed the limits of state security. The last line of defense against such assaults, officials say, is quick-thinking civilians and first responders.

On one hand, officials have their hands full tracking about 1,850 French residents that officials said in July are involved in radical Islamist movements, including some 500 currently in Syria or Iraq. On the other hand, public-transportation systems and railways are too busy and too sprawling to effectively search once these potential militants return.

Friday’s gunman, identified by French authorities as a 26-year-old Moroccan named Ayoub El-Khazzani, had a security alert, known as Fiche S, in his personal file in France. But so do some 8,000 other people. Following them all is nearly impossible, said Louis Caprioli, a former senior French counterterrorism official.

“The Fiche S doesn’t have a value unless the person who is the subject of a Fiche S is inspected,” Mr. Caprioli added.

Mr. El-Khazzani is reported to have denied being on the train to commit a terrorist attack, claiming instead he wanted to rob the train’s passengers.

Officials said Mr. El-Khazzani took a flight in May from Berlin to Istanbul, in an apparent attempt to reach northern Syria, an Islamic State stronghold. Officials say they don’t know how he returned to Europe.

The alert in his file should have meant that security services were notified when he returned, assuming he passed through a normal border control. European governments have begun doing more systematic checks of people leaving and returning to Europe’s Schengen Area. Once inside the area, however, travelers rarely face border checks.

Routes often used by people going and returning from Syria, such as flights to and from Istanbul, are usually checked against a Schengen security database, said an EU diplomat working on security matters.

But some European intelligence agencies are reluctant to put some information into the database, the diplomat said. And some countries may still not be checking people as needed against the database because doing so could create long lines at borders.

“In practice, there’s always an interest in having an efficient border crossing,” the diplomat said. “That’s especially true for land and sea borders.”

France has significantly boosted patrols across the country in the wake of the terror attacks that shook France in January, killing 17 people. Some 7,000 military service members currently patrol streets and sensitive choke points such as airports, train stations and public-transport hubs alongside security forces, under a plan dubbed Sentinel, the government said.

Over the weekend, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls met with the SNCF’s Mr. Pepy to discuss security measures for the rail network’s existing armed security officers, and Minister Bernard Cazeneuve sent orders to police chiefs nationwide reminding them to maintain the highest awareness in train stations and public transports.

The government in Belgium, where the gunman boarded the train on Friday, said for its part that it would boost Franco-Belgian patrols of Thalys trains and stations. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called for a meeting of transport and interior ministers of France, Germany and the Netherlands to discuss potential new measures to take, including increased baggage searches.

Train operator Thalys, which is operated in cooperation between the SNCF and Belgium’s national railway, has come under scrutiny over the handling of the attack. One passenger, actor Jean-Hugues Anglade, alleged in news interviews over the weekend that he and others tried to seek refuge in a locked room with staff, but no one responded to their pleas to open the door.

Late Sunday, Thalys said food-service employees in the car adjacent to the attack had taken shelter in a baggage-storage room. Thalys said it would take Mr. Anglade’s account into consideration during an internal investigation. But the train operator added that staffers in the car where the attack occurred acted heroically.

Railworkers’ union UNSA Ferroviaire said the staff had acted with professionalism, and it “deplored the polemic unleashed against the train staff.”

Sam Schechner covers technology across Europe, based out of the Wall Street Journal’s Paris bureau. He has previously served as a French business correspondent and covered the U.S. television industry. Sam has been a reporter for the Journal since 2005. Matthew Dalton covers European economics and trade policy for The Wall Street Journal in Brussels.

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