Al-Qaeda puts bounties on heads of Swedes

An Al-Qaeda front organization in Iraq has offered rewards to anyone who kills two Swedes behind a cartoon depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad as a dog, in a statement posted on the Internet.

The self-proclaimed Islamic State in Iraq placed a bounty of at least $100,000 on the head of the cartoonist Lars Vilks and $50,000 on Ulf Johansson, editor in chief of the Nerikes Allehanda newspaper which published the caricature.

“We call for the liquidation of the cartoonist Lars who offended our prophet,” said the statement issued in the name of the group’s leader Sheikh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.

“We announce a reward of $100,000 to anyone who kills this infidel criminal. This reward will be raised to $150,000 if his throat is slit,” said the statement whose authenticity could not be verified.

The statement also threatened attacks on Swedish firms unless unspecified “crusaders” issued an apology.

“We know how to force you to apologize. If you do not, expect us to strike the businesses of your major firms like Ericsson, Scania, Volvo, IKEA and Electrolux,” it said.

The Swedish TT news agency said Saturday that Vilks was temporarily abroad, and quoted him as feeling safe but on guard.

“I think there’s no reason to worry for the moment because I am moving around but when I am back home, in one spot, it will be very easy to track me down,” he said.

Responding to the threat on his life, the caricaturist was characteristically defiant.

“I suppose this makes my art project a bit more serious. It’s also good to know how much one is worth,” said Vilks.

“Of course you can’t just brush off an organization like this. I’m not that irreverent. I’ll have to look over my shoulder when crossing the street,” he added.

Having already received a number of threats via e-mail and over the telephone, Ulf Johansson has also been on his guard since the publication of the controversial cartoon.

“The police have already contacted me and I’m going to stay in touch with them. I have received various types of threat but none have been so explicit. This is a direct death sentence,” he told TT.

Speaking to AFP, he said he had received police protection and Swedish authorities were analyzing the tape to determine who Sheikh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi was and if he really existed.

Muslim Council of Sweden chief Helena Benouda denounced the threats, saying that Muslim organizations in Sweden were capable of handling the cartoon issue themselves.

“We don’t think like this at all. It is criminal to call to kill somebody,” said Benouda. “It is really unnecessary and it’s ugly, especially in the moment of Ramadan,” the Muslim holy month.

Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt also held talks with envoys from 22 Muslim nations on September 7th in a bid to defuse the row.

The publication of the sketch in Nerikes Allehanda on August 18th – featuring the prophet’s head on a dog’s body – sparked a fiery debate in the Swedish media on freedom of expression and prompted protests by Muslims in the western town of Örebro, where the newspaper is based.

A strict interpretation of Islam forbids the depiction of Muhammad in any form.

The cartoonist has received previous death threats, while the Swedish foreign ministry has also advised its nationals to exercise caution in the Middle East.

A series of 12 cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed published in Denmark’s biggest daily more than a year ago led to riots in several Muslim countries.