Machine-Gun Censorship

02.14.15 9:09 PM ET

Barely a Month After Charlie Hebdo, Twin Terror Attacks Hit Denmark

Two dead and others injured after two attacks on a cafe and synagogue.

This article updated throughout as of 11 a.m. Eastern Standard Time, February 15, 2015

PARIS—In normally quiet Copenhagen on Saturday afternoon, a gunman opened up on a café where Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was to talk about why he drew the head of the Prophet Muhammad on the body of a dog back in 2007—and why he’d had to have armed guards since. Dozens of bullets blasted through the café windows, killing a documentary filmmaker and injuring others before the attacker or attackers, at first believed to be two men, made an escape in a black Volkswagen Polo.

A friend wrote to me from near the scene shortly afterward that the streets of Copenhagen were empty, and "the only sounds are the police sirens."

With the Danish capital on virtual lockdown, the killing continued, and the next target—in what is becoming a predictable pattern in Europe's new age of terror—appears to have been a synagogue. It was the city's most important, in Krystalgade, not far from the scene of the first shooting. A security guard at the synagogue was killed nearby with a gunshot to the head and two police officers were wounded before the shooter fled once again.

Late Saturday evening, Morten Frich, a journalist and news editor at Berlingske, one of Denmark's national newspapers, signed off for the night with the day's grim tally.

Early Sunday morning, according to the BBC, police had staked out an address in the largely immigrant Norreboro district. When the man they were waiting for returned, he pulled out a gun and the Danish cops killed him.

"We assume that it's the same culprit behind both incidents, and we also assume that the culprit that was shot by the police task force... is the person behind both of these assassinations," Chief Police Inspector Torben Molgaard Jensen told a news conference.

Danish authorities were appropriately cautious about assigning motives since no claim of responsibility has been made, but from the beginning there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that these were terrorist attacks along the lines of the slaughter at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo last month, which also published caricatures of the Muslim prophet, and at a kosher supermarket where Jewish hostages were murdered. In all, 17 people were killed by terrorists in Paris over three days before all of the gunmen were shot down in separate police raids. In Copenhagen, the death toll stood at two civilians, with five police officers wounded and one potential suspect dead.

"Denmark has been hit by terror," said Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, as reported by the Associated Press. "We do not know the motive for the alleged perpetrator's actions, but we know that there are forces that want to hurt Denmark. They want to rebuke our freedom of speech."

The AP reported that the head of the Danish intellegence agency—PET—said the shooter, who has not been identified but who was on the agency's watch list, was likely inspired by Islamic extremism.

"PET is working on a theory that the perpetrator could have been inspired by the events in Paris. He could also have been inspired by material sent out by (the Islamic State group) and others," said Jens Madsen.

Now, as with the slaughter in Paris, the challenge for authorities will be to determine not just who did the shooting, but what connections that killer or those killers may have to larger organizations like the so-called Islamic State, widely known as ISIS, or Al Qaeda and its subsidiary Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). In the terror attacks that struck Paris last month, the killers at Charlie Hebdo claimed connections to AQAP, while the thug who shot a policewoman and then took over a kosher delicatessen where he murdered four Jewish shoppers pledged his allegiance to ISIS. Conceivably the attacks in Copenhagen may have been the work of a lone gunman, but even if the man shot dead Sunday morning proves to have been the only killer at large in these incidents, it probably will take investigators a long time to unravel his potential links to others.

In Scandinavia, the history of cartoons taunting Muslims by caricaturing Muhammad dates back almost a decade, to September 2005 when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons by different satirists. Local Muslims were offended, but it was governments in several Muslim countries encouraging and orchestrating protests that turned the controversy into a firestorm. More than four months after the publication, in February 2006, protesters tried to burn down the Danish and Norwegian embassies in Damascus. The same embassies were attacked in Beirut. Soon, more than 50 people had been killed in related violence in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

In Denmark itself, Islamic organizations took Jyllands-Posten to court, claiming that the Muhammad cartoons were an offense against all Muslim people, but they eventually lost the case.

Against this background, Lars Vilks, a run-of-the-mill artist in Sweden, published a rough sketch in an obscure local newspaper in Orebro that picked up on a curious phenomenon of the time—mysterious sculptures of dogs appearing in the grassy centers of traffic circles. He drew the turbaned head of Muhammad on one such “roundabout dog.” Again, governments in Muslim countries made official protests while anger on the streets of those countries grew.

In the years since, the cartoonists and editors responsible for the Jyllands-Posten publications have lived under constant threat, and so has Vilks.

A timeline published by Reuters in 2012 ticked off one plot after another, some of them only narrowly thwarted. Two Tunisians and a Dane of Moroccan descent were arrested in 2008 for plotting to kill Jyllands-Posten cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who had drawn Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. Then came a plot by the American David Headley and an accomplice who planned to attack the newspaper’s offices. (Headley, who is of Pakistani descent, also conspired with the Pakistani terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba and elements of the Pakistani intelligence agency in planning the 2008 attacks in Mumbai. A U.S. judge sentenced him to 35 years in federal prison in January 2013.) 

In 2010, the cartoonist Westergaard narrowly escaped an attack by an axe-wielding Somali at his home in Aarhus, Denmark, and other attackers set fire to the house a few months later. That same year a Chechen man accidentally set off a bomb in a Copenhagen hotel where police found a map with the Jyllands-Posten offices circled.

In December 2010, two bombs went off in a busy shopping district of Stockholm following an e-mailed threat that vengeance would be taken for Sweden sending troops to Afghanistan—and for publishing the sketches by Vilks (who was targeted today). Shortly after the 2010 bombings, Danish and Swedish police rounded up five people plotting yet another attack against the Jyllands-Posten, this time armed with a machine-gun and ammunition.

In 2012, a Danish double agent claimed in an interview with the Jyllands-Posten that he had worked with the CIA to track down AQAP’s infamous American-born propagandist and planner, Anwar al Awlaki, enabling the United States to kill the charismatic jihadist with a drone attack in Yemen. Awlaki was especially vehement in his diatribes against those western media that caricatured the Prophet and is believed to have provided the original inspiration and funding, in 2011, for the two brothers who attacked Charlie Hebdo in January this year, eventually killing 12 journalists, police and bystanders.

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The French ambassador to Denmark, François Zimeray, was at the meeting in the Krudttoenden Café in Copenhagen when Saturday’s shooting took place. He was supposed to speak about the Charlie Hebdo affair at the conference on “Art, Blasphemy and Freedom of Expression.” He escaped unharmed, and French President François Hollande was quick to deplore the incident.

The identity of the man who died in the café shooting has not been released. The victim near the synagogue was not named, but was identified as Jewish by a Jewish organization. A photo released by the police on Saturday showed a figure believed to be one of the shooters, or the shooter, wearing dark winter clothes and what looks like a maroon-colored ski mask. His face was not identifiable. The name of the man killed by police in Norreboro has not yet been released.

The hunt for the such killers goes on, while the defense of art, of the right to blaspheme, and the freedom to speak grows more dangerous by the day.