Two days after a young Moroccan man was thwarted from an apparent plan to cause carnage on a Paris-bound express train, European officials confronted the deepening quandary of what additional steps they could take in the face of such attacks on soft targets, short of paralyzing public spaces or even more intrusive surveillance.
Enhanced security and surveillance measures had already filtered out the young man, Ayoub El Khazzani, 26. But he was one of thousands of Europeans who had come on the radar of authorities as potential threats after traveling to Syria. The sheer number of militant suspects combined with a widening field of potential targets have presented European officials with what they concede is a nearly insurmountable surveillance task. The scale of the challenge, security experts fear, may leave the Continent entering a new climate of uncertainty, with added risk attached to seemingly mundane endeavors, like taking a train.
In fact, the authorities in at least two countries already knew quite a lot about Mr. Khazzani before he surged into notoriety on Friday afternoon: He was on a French list as a security threat, and Spanish officials told news media there that he had traveled to Syria — not in itself an offense, unless he went there for jihad. Had he been living in France, a tough new surveillance law, approved at the end of July by France’s constitutional council, would have likely turned up even more on him.
Yet with all that the authorities already knew about him, he managed to board unhindered the heavily traveled Amsterdam-to-Paris high-speed train with a sack of weaponry, probably in Belgium, and was ready to inflict serious damage, with dozens of rounds of ammunition, an AK-47, an automatic pistol and a box cutter. If not for the fortuitous presence of three Americans, and the help of a British and a French passenger in the train car, many could have died.
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From one perspective, Lawal Babafemi was a propagandist for Al Qaeda who traversed several countries to join in jihad, and was plotting to carry out an important mission when he was arrested in 2011. From another, he was a desperately poor Nigerian who was sexually abused as a child, was kept from graduating from college because of bureaucratic malfunctions, and faced torture by Nigerian officials after embracing and then turning away from terrorism.
On Wednesday, Mr. Babafemi was sentenced to 22 years in prison in Federal District Court in Brooklyn, having pleaded guilty in April 2014 to providing and conspiring to provide material support to a terrorist group. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a term of 24 to 30 years; the defense had asked for 15.
Mr. Babafemi told Judge John Gleeson that he was “extremely sorry” and that he now denounced Al Qaeda. His lawyer, Lisa Hoyes, noted that he had been advising another of her clients — who is in jail on charges of trying to join ISIS — to avoid terrorism. “It’s hard to conjure a more serious offense,” Judge Gleeson said in handing down the sentence. He noted, however, that Mr. Babafemi’s recent denunciations of terrorism factored slightly in his favor. “I wish I had a better feel for how genuine it is,” the judge added.
Read more: New York Times