Cartoons made Scandinavia terror threat ‘much bigger’: experts

Five years after a Danish newspaper first published controversial cartoons of the Muslim prophet, targets in Scandinavia are increasingly in the crosshairs of would-be terrorist attackers, the AFP's Nina Larson explains.

Cartoons made Scandinavia terror threat 'much bigger': experts

The exposure last week of a plot to massacre staff at a Danish newspaper is, according to experts, merely “business as usual” in once tranquil Scandinavia five years after a crisis over cartoons of Prophet Muhammad began.

“The result of the cartoon crisis has been that we went from having a very, very low threat level to a much bigger threat level,” explained Danish terrorism expert Lars Erslev Andersen.

Magnus Ranstorp at the Swedish National Defence College agreed, describing attack plots by Islamic extremists as “business as usual in Denmark.”

“They live with terrorism. They know there are extremists. They know they are the focus,” he told Swedish public broadcaster SVT.

Once renowned for their virtually non-existent crime rates, Denmark and its Scandinavian neighbours Sweden and Norway have recently seen a string of thwarted attacks and unraveled plots by Islamic extremists.

Just weeks after Sweden’s first ever suicide bombing, which narrowly missed wreaking carnage among Christmas shoppers, five men were arrested Wednesday for hatching what Danish officials called a plan to “kill as many people as possible” at the Copenhagen offices of the Jyllands-Posten daily.

The paper published in September 2005 a dozen cartoons of the Muslim prophet, triggering violent and sometimes deadly protests around the world.

The controversial drawings were originally printed as part of a debate about self-censorship and freedom of expression after no one could be found to illustrate a book about Muhammad amid fears drawings of the prophet — prohibited by Islam — would provoke retaliation.

After Danish police discovered a plot to assassinate one of the cartoonists, Kurt Westergaard, at least 17 Danish dailies reprinted his drawing featuring the prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb with a lit fuse in February 2008, reigniting anger among many Muslims.

A month later, a voice message purported to be from al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden warned that publishing the “insulting drawings” was worse than Western forces killing Muslim women and children and that the “reckoning for it will be more severe.”

“What the cartoons did was make Jyllands-Posten, Denmark and really all of Scandinavia visible and a target for Islamic extremists,” explained Wilhelm Agrell, an intelligence analysis professor at Lund University in southern Sweden.

The Scandinavian countries’ participation in NATO-led forces in Afghanistan and Denmark’s role as an eager ally in the US ‘war on terror’ — with around 500 troops stationed in Iraq until 2007 — also made the countries more visible to extremists.

Before 2003, “there would really have been no point for (Islamic extremists) to attack the Scandinavian countries … but through developments they have become targets,” Agrell told AFP.

In the past year alone, there have been four failed attacks in Denmark, including a Somali man who tried to kill Westergaard with an axe and a Chechen man who was arrested after accidently setting off a package bomb destined for the Jyllands-Posten offices.

David Headley, who helped plan the 2008 Mumbai massacre, had also been planning an attack on the paper, and according to reports may have had links to this week’s thwarted attack.

One of three men arrested in Norway in September suspected of plotting attacks said the trio planned to target the Danish daily.

Suicide bomber Taimour Abdelwahab, who killed only himself in Stockholm on December 11, meanwhile made no reference to the Danish cartoons in a message sent out shortly before the blast, but he did mention Lars Vilks.

The Swedish artist, who provoked outrage with a 2007 drawing of Muhammad as a dog, has this year faced several assassination plots, the fire-bombing of his house and was head-butted while giving a university lecture.

Following this week’s foiled attack, experts stressed there was no established connection between the attempts across the region and insisted the threat level in Scandinavia was no worse than elsewhere.

“If you look at Germany, the Netherlands, France, Britain … my impression is that the Scandinavian countries are not an exception to the overall situation in Europe, but rather that they have moved up (the threat scale) to be part of the general pattern we’re seeing everywhere,” Agrell said.

And as elsewhere, the possibility of averting all future attacks is slim.

“These attacks are hard to spot,” he added, lamenting that “sooner or later, one will succeed, from the perpetrator’s perspective.”

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Swedish prosecutors upgrade Almedalen knife attack to terror crime

Prosecutors in Sweden are now treating the murder at the Almedalen political festival as a terror crime, with the country's Säpo security police taking over the investigation.

Swedish prosecutors upgrade Almedalen knife attack to terror crime

In a press release issued on Monday evening, the Swedish Prosecution Authority, said that the 32-year-old attacker, Theodor Engström, was now suspected of the crime of “terrorism through murder”, and also “preparation for a terror crime through preparation for murder”. 

Engström stabbed the psychiatrist Ing-Marie Wieselgren last Wednesday as she was on her way to moderate a seminar at the Almedalen political festival on the island of Gotland. 

Although he was a former member of the neo-Nazi Nordic Resistance Movement, police said his motive seemed to be to protest against Sweden’s psychiatry services, who he felt had treated his own mental illness badly. 

The release gave no details as to why the 32-year-old was now being investigated for a more serious crime, but terror expert Magnus Ranstorp told the Expressen newspaper that the shift indicated that police had uncovered new evidence. 

READ ALSO: What do we now know about the Almedalen knife attack? 

“The new crime classification means that they’ve either found a political motive for the attack which meets the threshold for terrorism, and that might be a political motive for murdering Ing-Marie Wieselgren,” he said. “Or they might have discovered that he was scouting out a politician, or another target that could be considered political.” 

Engström’s defence lawyer said last week that his client, who he described as disturbed and incoherent, had spoken in police interrogations of having “a higher-up target”.