By Scott Stewart
When one considers all of the people and places in the West targeted by transnational jihadists over the past few years, iconic targets such as New York’s Times Square, the London Metro and the Eiffel Tower come to mind. There are also certain target sets such as airlines and subways that jihadists focus on more than others. Upon careful reflection, however, it is hard to find any target set that has been more of a magnet for transnational jihadist ire over the past year than the small group of cartoonists and newspapers involved in the Mohammed cartoon controversy.
Every year STRATFOR publishes a forecast of the jihadist movement for the coming year. As we were working on that project for this year, we were struck by the number of plots in 2010 that involved the cartoon controversy — and by the number of those plots that had transnational dimensions, rather than plots that involved only local grassroots operatives. (The 2011 jihadist forecast will be available to STRATFOR members in the coming weeks.)
Groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have gone to great lengths to keep the topic of the Mohammed cartoons burning in the consciousness of radical Islamists, whether they are lone wolves or part of an organized jihadist group, and those efforts are obviously bearing fruit. Because of this, we anticipate that plots against cartoon-related targets will continue into the foreseeable future.
A Recent Plot
On Dec. 29, 2010, authorities in Denmark and Sweden arrested five men they say were involved in planning an armed assault on the offices of Jyllands-Posten in Copenhagen. Jyllands-Posten is the newspaper that first published the cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in September 2005. According to the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (known by its Danish acronym PET), three of the arrested men, a 29-year-old Swedish citizen born in Lebanon, a 44-year-old Tunisian and a 30-year-old Swedish citizen, lived in Sweden and had traveled to Denmark to participate in the plot. The other two individuals arrested were a 37-year-old Swedish citizen born in Tunisia who was detained in a Stockholm suburb and a 26-year-old Iraqi asylum seeker who was arrested in a Copenhagen suburb. The Iraqi has been released from Danish custody.
According to the PET, one of the three men who had traveled to Copenhagen, 29-year-old Swedish citizen Munir Awad, had been arrested in Somalia in 2007 and in Pakistan in 2009 on suspicion of participating in terrorist activity. When arrested in Pakistan, Awad was allegedly traveling in the company of Mehdi Ghezali, a Swedish citizen who had been released in 2004 after being held in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay since 2002. Given Awad’s background, it is almost certain that he had been placed under intensive surveillance by Swedish authorities and it is likely this surveillance resulted in the unraveling of the plot.
In addition to Awad’s background, there are several other indicators that this latest plot against Jyllands-Posten was serious. First, the attack plan was reasonable, practical and achievable. The plotters sought to attack a specific target, the Jyllands-Posten offices, with an armed assault. They were not seeking to execute some sort of grandiose, fanciful attack using skills and weapons they did not possess, or to conduct attacks against targets that were too difficult to strike using their chosen method of attack. They appear to have been aware of their own capabilities and limitations and planned their attack accordingly.
This stands in stark contrast to plots like the one also thwarted in December in the Netherlands, where a group of Somalis allegedly plotted to shoot down a Dutch military helicopter but lacked even a rudimentary weapon with which to mount such an attack, much less a surface-to-air missile, the weapon of choice for anyone really wanting to bring down a helicopter. In another recently thwarted plot in the United Kingdom, the planners considered hitting pretty much every conceivable target in London, including the U.S. Embassy, Parliament, the London Stock Exchange and a host of religious and political leaders. The Copenhagen plotters were far more focused.
The PET said the group arrested in Denmark had obtained a pistol and a submachine gun equipped with a sound suppressor for use in its assault on the newspaper offices. Reportedly, the plotters were also found to possess flexible handcuffs, an indication that they may have been seeking to take hostages and create a theatrical terrorist operation to play to the world media.
In addition to conducting their preoperational surveillance, planning their operation and obtaining weapons, the plotters had also brought in a team of operatives from Sweden to assist them in implementing their plan. This indicates that the operation was likely in the later stages of the terrorist attack cycle and was close to being executed. Even though it appears that Swedish and Danish authorities had the plotters under close scrutiny, had the attack been launched against unsuspecting security at the Jyllands-Posten offices, it would have had a fairly good chance of creating considerable carnage and terror.
History of Plots
The cartoons received very little notice after their initial release by Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. It was not until early 2006 that a group of Muslim clerics traveling through the Middle East brought attention to the issue in a deliberate effort to stir up emotions. Those efforts were successful in fomenting a violent, if somewhat belated, reaction. In early February 2006, Danish and Norwegian embassies and consulates were attacked in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia. In Damascus, rioters set fire to the Danish and Norwegian missions, and in Beirut the Danish Embassy was burned. At least nine people died when protesters tried to storm an Italian Consulate in Libya while protesting the cartoons.
The furor diminished to a low boil but did not go away. In addition to calls by Muslims to boycott Danish goods, a Swedish newspaper published yet another cartoon of Mohammed, once again stoking the fires. In September 2007, Omar al-Baghdadi, then leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, offered a $100,000 reward for killing Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist who drew the August 2007 cartoon in which the Prophet Mohammed was portrayed as a dog. In a March 2008 audiotape, a speaker purporting to be al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden threatened to conduct attacks in Europe because of the drawings. According to bin Laden, drawing cartoons of the Prophet was even more provocative than killing Muslim civilians.
On June 2, 2008, the Danish Embassy in Islamabad was attacked in a suicide vehicle bombing. Before the attack, the Danes had drawn down their embassy staff in Islamabad and, recognizing that their embassy was not very secure, had ordered the Danish staff remaining in Islamabad to work out of hotels. This move undoubtedly saved lives, as the bombing killed only a handful of people, mostly Pakistani Muslims.
But militants were clearly trying to take their retribution for the cartoons to Denmark itself. Following the October 2009 arrest of U.S. citizen David Headley, American officials learned that Headley, who had conducted preoperational surveillance for the November 2008 Mumbai attacks, had also been dispatched to conduct surveillance in Denmark.
According to a complaint filed in federal court, the U.S. government determined that the Kashmiri militant group Harkat-ul-Jihad e-Islami (HUJI) had ordered Headley to travel from Chicago to Copenhagen on two occasions to plan attacks against Jyllands-Posten and cartoonist Kurt Westergaard in what HUJI called “Operation Mickey Mouse.” Westergaard is a Jyllands-Posten cartoonist who drew one of the original batch of 12 Mohammed cartoons in 2005. In Westergaard’s cartoon, the Prophet’s turban was depicted as a bomb, which caused the drawing to elicit a stronger reaction than the other cartoons. In January 2009, Headley conducted surveillance of the Jyllands-Posten offices in Copenhagen and Aarhus, Denmark. He then traveled to Pakistan, where he met with his HUJI handlers to brief them on the findings of his surveillance and to formulate an attack plan. Headley traveled back to Copenhagen in August 2009 to conduct additional surveillance (presumably to address issues that arose during the operational planning session in Pakistan). During this second trip, Headley made some 13 additional videos and took many photos of the potential targets and the areas around them. It is suspected that some of the observations, photographs and video recordings may have been used in planning some of the subsequent attacks against Jyllands-Posten and Westergaard.
Plots pertaining to the cartoon controversy in 2010 include:
- On Jan. 1, a Somali man reportedly associated with the Somali jihadist group al Shabaab broke into Westergaard’s home armed with an axe and knife and allegedly tried to kill him. Westergaard retreated to a safe room and the assailant was shot and wounded by police.
- On March 9, seven people were arrested in Ireland in connection with an alleged plot to kill cartoonist Lars Vilks. The group was apparently implicated with American Colleen LaRose (aka Jihad Jane) and included a second American woman, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez.
- On May 11, Lars Vilks was assaulted as he tried to give a presentation at Uppsala University in Sweden. On May 14, Vilks’ home was the target of a failed arson attack.
- On Sept. 10, a Chechen man was injured when a letter bomb he was assembling detonated prematurely inside a Copenhagen hotel bathroom. The letter bomb, which featured a main charge comprised of triacetone triperoxide and contained small steel pellets, was intended for Jyllands-Posten.
- On Dec. 11, an Iraqi-born Swedish citizen detonated a poorly constructed explosive device in his car and then detonated a suicide vest, killing himself. The man had sent a warning email expressing anger over the Lars Vilks cartoon as well as the presence of Swedish soldiers in Afghanistan.
Cartoonists Remain in the Crosshairs
In July 2010, AQAP released the first edition of its English-language magazine Inspire. One of the articles in that issue was written by the American-born Yemeni cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who wrote, “If you have the right to slander the Messenger of Allah, we have the right to defend him. If it is part of your freedom of speech to defame Muhammad it is part of our religion to fight you.” He added: “Assassinations, bombings, and acts of arson are all legitimate forms of revenge against a system that relishes the sacrilege of Islam in the name of freedom.” Al-Awlaki also referred to a 2008 lecture he gave regarding the cartoon issue titled “The Dust Will Never Settle Down” and noted that, “Today, two years later, the dust still hasn’t settled down. In fact the dust cloud is only getting bigger.”
The first edition of Inspire also featured a “hit list” that includes the names of people like Westergaard and Vilks who were involved in the cartoon controversy as well as other targets such as Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who produced the controversial film Fitna in 2008; Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the screenplay for the movie Submission (filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the director of Submission, was murdered by a jihadist in November 2004); and Salman Rushdie, author of the book The Satanic Verses.
The van Gogh murder demonstrated that such targets were vulnerable to attack — and not just by highly skilled transnational operatives. They were also potential victims of grassroots jihadists using readily available weapons in relatively simple attacks. The January 2010 attack against Kurt Westergaard using an axe and knife underscored this point. In light of the events of 2010, al-Awlaki’s boasts ring true. The dust kicked up over the cartoon issue has not settled — and there is no indication it will any time soon.