Europe’s Post-Copenhagen, Post-Paris Script for Responding to Terror

Amid repeated attacks on cartoonists and centers of Jewish life, these are the issues around which European politics now revolve.


On Tuesday afternoon, police in Sweden executed the kind of grim and slightly surreal operation that has become increasingly commonplace in Europe in recent weeks: They cordoned off the house of a cartoonist.

The cartoonist in question, Lars Vilks, was targeted this weekend by a gunman who sprayed bullets into a Copenhagen cafe — called “the Powder Keg,” of all things — where Vilks was participating in a seminar on free speech. One person, a filmmaker named Finn Noergaard, was killed, and several policemen were wounded. Vilks, a favorite target of jihadis angered by his cartoon depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, was unharmed. The alleged shooter, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, later attacked a synagogue, where he killed a volunteer Jewish security guard, Dan Uzan, who was on duty outside the building while a bat mitzvah celebration took place inside.

Vilks is now reportedly in hiding, and police moved in to protect his house Tuesday as some personal effects were removed from it. Indeed, the clash between ornery defenders of free speech, such as Vilks, and their jihadi opponents is now such an accepted part of the European cultural landscape that it is easy to forget how sad it is that a cartoonist has gone underground to protect his life.

But no matter. Amid repeated attacks on cartoonists and centers of Jewish life, these are the issues around which European politics now revolve.

What is now known about the gunman paints a familiar picture, one reminiscent of the Charlie Hebdo attackers. The 22-year-old Hussein was born in Denmark to a Palestinian father and a Jordanian mother. He grew up angry in one of Denmark’s segregated suburbs, and gravitated toward street life. He was reportedly a member of the gang “the Brothas.” He picked up convictions on weapons and drug charges, but it wasn’t until November 2013 that he carried out his first serious act of violence, stabbing a 19-year-old on a subway. After two months on the run, he was arrested in January of last year and sentenced to two years in prison.

Like Cherif Kouachi, the younger of the two brothers who attacked the Charlie Hebdo newsroom, it was in jail that Hussein reportedly became radicalized. On Tuesday, Danish authorities admitted that the country’s prison system had informed the security service that Hussein had grown increasingly radical during his time in prison. PET, the Danish domestic security service, concluded that there was no evidence he was about to carry out an attack.

Two weeks passed between Hussein’s release from prison and the attack on the Copenhagen cafe and synagogue.

Unlike the Paris attacks, Hussein has no proven affiliations with international terror groups. No such group has claimed responsibility for the attack, and according to the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks online jihadi activity, jihadis are describing the incident as a lone-wolf operation. (One of the Kouachi brothers is reported to have traveled to Yemen, where he received training from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.)

In their propaganda, groups such as the Islamic State and AQAP have repeatedly urged Muslims in the West to rise up and carry out terror attacks. In Hussein, they appear to have gotten their wish, even if his attack was fairly amateurish by the standards of international jihad.

Events in Copenhagen now point toward a predictable cycle: an attack, followed by a solidarity march, followed by a crackdown, followed by an angry backlash.

Danish parliamentarians are pushing for an investigation into how the security services missed Hussein’s intentions, despite his recent stay in prison and his identification as a radical. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt is expected to soon present a proposal for strengthening Denmark’s security apparatus, a move she began preparing weeks ago in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. On Monday, she joined thousands in the streets of Copenhagen for a solidarity march that echoed the Sunday march following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

In neighboring Sweden, police were out in force Tuesday, guarding possible terrorist targets with automatic weapons. Swedish police also carried out an operation that netted four men described as financiers for the Islamic State.

And even as world leaders have used the attacks in Paris and Copenhagen to defend what they describe as the right to free speech and to condemn the anti-Semitic attacks in both cities, the attacks have now seen authorities move against those perceived as defending terrorism. In France, the comedian Dieudonné M’bala M’bala found himself in the authorities’ crosshairs after he wrote on Facebook, “I feel like Amedy Coulibaly,” the gunman who attacked the kosher market in Paris, killing four people shopping before the Jewish Sabbath. In Denmark, a 26-year-old man is now being investigated for writing on his Facebook page, “Je suis Omar. Rest in peace our dear brother Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein. Allah yerhamak. We are all Omar.”

Echoing similar comments in the aftermath of Paris, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, citing repeated acts of violence against European Jews and a rising tide of anti-Semitism there, called for “mass immigration from Europe.”

How long until the next attack and the cycle repeats?

Asger Ladefoged/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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