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French Authorities Investigate High-Speed Train Attack

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to learn more now about the man who tried to open fire on passengers on a French high-speed train on Friday. French authorities say he's a 26-year-old Moroccan who lived for years in Spain. Lauren Frayer reports from Madrid.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Crowds of vacationers packed Madrid's Atocha train station at the height of the summertime tourist season. There are noticeably more police, too, many of them accompanied by dogs to sniff out explosives. The authorities have stepped up security at rail stations across Europe after Friday's attack. Tourist Abel Saceda was on his way to Barcelona.

ABEL SACEDA: Usually you can see police in the station, but it's not very common to see them with all the guns and with all the bulletproof jackets.

FRAYER: Saceda says all this security reminds him of the Atocha train bombings 11 years ago - Europe's worst act of Islamic terrorism - when bombs planted in backpacks on commuter trains killed nearly 200 people here. Friday's train attack in France could have been almost as deadly if not for prompt action by a group of passengers who subdued the gunman. Three Americans and a Briton were awarded France's Legion of Honor this morning. The suspect is now in French custody.

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BERNARD CAZENEUVE: (Speaking French).

FRAYER: "If he is who he says he is," said France's interior minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, "he's a 26-year-old Moroccan who was flagged by Spanish authorities in February 2014 for adhering to radical Islam," he said. Ayoub El-Khazzani lived in Spain for seven years with his parents and five siblings. During that time, he was arrested three times, but for drugs, not for terrorism. Still, by the time he left Spain last year, he was on a terror watch list.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

FRAYER: Spanish TV is showing two different photos of El-Khazzani. His first mugshot from 2009 shows a clean-shaven young man, arrested for selling hashish in the street. But Spanish authorities believe sometime after that he traveled to Syria and became radicalized. A 2012 mugshot shows him with a long beard, wearing conservative Islamic dress. El-Khazzani's family still lives in a poor neighborhood in the southern Spanish port city of Algeciras. His father broke down in tears when questioned by media. He said he hasn't heard from his son in months and was shocked to hear the allegations against him. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.