In a scene right out of the cinema, a young Somali man armed with an axe and a knife came crashing through the door of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard’s Aarhus house late on January 1. Hitting a panic button specially installed in the house, Mr Westergaard was barely able to scramble with his five-year old granddaughter to his safe room while security services raced to the scene. Hearing police arrive, the young man turned to confront them, bellowing “I’ll be back” in broken Danish before being shot in the arm and leg by police.
This is the first time that Islamists seeking revenge for the infamous “Muhammad cartoons” have been able to take revenge in the West. Previous bombing plots were broken up in Denmark in September 2006 and September 2007, with convictions resulting in both cases, and prosecutors claiming that the cartoons were definitely the motivation for the plotters in the second of the two cases (AP, August 11, 2008). In July 2008, two Tunisian men were picked up by Danish police in Aarhus as part of an alleged plot targeting Westergaard, though charges did not stick. In the end, one man was deported and the other released (AP, January 2). Late last year, the FBI arrested David Coleman Headley and Tahawwur Hussain Rana on charges (amongst others) that they were planning a terror attack on the “facilities and employees of Morgenavisen Jyllands-Posten.”  Jyllands-Posten was the newspaper that first published the cartoons while Kurt Westergaard is the most prominent of a group of 12 cartoonists who accepted the editor’s challenge to depict images they associated with the Prophet Muhammad. In hiding until last year, Mr Westergaard announced that he was emerging from seclusion as he was “too old to be afraid” and he wanted to play his part in defending “democratic values” (BBC, April 5, 2009).
In parallel to this growing threat, Danes have watched recently as a network has been uncovered linking their nation to war-torn Somalia and the al-Qaeda-inspired al Shabaab. On December 3, 2009, a suicide bomber killed 22 people at a Mogadishu medical school graduation ceremony, including three ministers of the transitional government. It was revealed soon afterwards that the bomber, who allegedly wore a burqa while carrying out the attack, was a Danish-Somali man known to the Politiets Efterretningstjeneste (Danish Security Intelligence Service – PET) (Somaliland Press, December 9, 2009; Reuters, December 11, 2009).
This was not the first time that alleged Shabaab-linked Somalis with Danish residency permits have been discovered plotting. In August 2009, ahead of a visit to East Africa by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Kenyan security forces broke up a cell that included Somalis with Danish ties (The Australian, September 8, 2009). What has set alarm bells ringing, however, is the revelation that Westergaard’s attacker was one of the members of this Kenyan cell, but had been released after authorities could not find evidence of his involvement in the plot (Copenhagen Post, January 5).
While it quickly emerged that the man, now identified in the Kenyan press as Muhammad Muhideen Gelle, was already known to the PET as an individual with links to al-Shabaab, what has increasingly surprised people is the depth of his connections to previous Danish plotters (AP, January 4). According to a report from neighboring Sweden, Gelle was allegedly seen in the company of the Danish Mogadishu bomber on a fundraising trip in that country last year (Spiegel, January 6). It is unclear whether this was in connection to the Shabaab network that was apparently established by senior Shabaab leader Fu’ad Muhammad Qalaf, who served as an imam at the Rinkeby mosque in Stockholm for many years (Jane’s Intelligence Weekly, August 12, 2009).
Gelle is nicknamed Abdi or MMG by the Danish press, which cannot report his name due to court injunctions. Gelle is believed to have arrived in Denmark in 1997 as part of a group of 38 refugees from war-torn Somalia. He distinguished himself from the rest of the group by learning Danish rapidly and getting good grades in school before graduating to become a caregiver for the elderly, a tutor to younger kids and marrying “the sweetest girl in Aarlborg.” The two had three children together (Ekstra Bladet, January 5). One report said that he continued his work in the community right up to the day before the attack, serving as a temp at a Danish Red Cross center for young immigrants (Jyllands-Posten, January 7).
According to his family, by 2006 things had started to change, in particular after a series of recruitment attempts by the PET (Danmarks Radio, January 5). Gelle started to become more radical and introverted, talking about going back to fight in his homeland of Somalia. He is alleged to have gone to join the fighting at least twice, once returning injured to Aarlborg, where he was apparently spotted attempting to recruit fellow countrymen to the war. His marriage did not survive his newfound religiosity or bellicose desires and the two divorced last year when he moved to Copenhagen, reportedly to support himself as an IT programmer (Ekstra Bladet, January 5). Then in September he was picked up in Kenya and repatriated to Denmark, where he apparently continued to operate as part of a network under PET surveillance.
While al-Shabaab did not officially claim the attack on Westergaard, spokesman Shaykh Ali Mahmud Raage (a.ka.Shaykh Ali Dheere) was reported as saying, “We appreciate the incident in which a Muslim Somali boy attacked the devil who abused our prophet.” He then seemed to make a tacit admission: “There could be some people who might say that boy was related to Shabaab” (AFP, January 3). It is unclear at this stage whether this was a planned attack or a frenzied effort by a single individual linked to Shabaab’s international network – though if it was an organized attack it would mark an escalation in Shabaab’s activities, which have, for the most part, confined themselves to Somalia and its immediate vicinity.
What is clear, however, is that operational networks do exist which link al-Shabaab to Somali diaspora communities in the Nordic countries. Sweden’s security services have repeatedly warned of this threat, while Danish security services have found themselves very busy in the wake of the cartoons. Both have increased their focus on their respective domestic Somali communities. It has been estimated that there are about 20,000 Somalis in each nation, though figures are unreliable. What has alarmed Swedish forces, however, is the growing evidence that non-Somalis are being attracted to the fight from Sweden, something that is supported by a Danish report which claims Somalia is now being seen as the exciting jihad hotspot among young radicals. While the actual numbers are quite small (Sweden claims some 10 nationals are currently in Somalia, and the number from Denmark is unlikely to be much higher), the connection does raise the worrying prospect that al-Shabaab or a similar group might attempt to manipulate the network to carry out an attack in Europe. For Kurt Westergaard, this attack will likely not be the last attempt on his life, given the Islamists’ long memories and the fact that, unlike the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the death threat here does not have a main source (i.e. the Iranian Ayatollahs) capable of rescinding it.
1. Department of Justice, “Two Chicago men charged in connection with alleged roles in foreign terror plot that focused on targets in Denmark,” October 27, 2009: https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/2009/October/09-nsd-1157.html. Translations of the Danish news stories can be found: https://islamineurope.blogspot.com.
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