Muhammad cartoons still resonate as Nordic risk

How did the Nordic region go from being a tranquil group of countries known for their egalitarian ideals to a prime target for militant attacks?

One word: cartoons.

The arrest on Wednesday of five people suspected of planning a bloody strike on a newspaper office in Copenhagen, two weeks after a botched suicide bombing in Stockholm, was the latest and strongest sign that cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad are still a potent recruiting tool for militants.

Five years ago Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons lampooning Islam, including one by illustrator Kurt Westergaard showing the Prophet with a bomb in his turban.

Islam considers any image of the Prophet to be offensive and the cartoons set off a storm of deadly protests worldwide.

There have been various attacks on Westergaard — once with an axe — and on the newspaper, but nothing on the scale of what police described on Wednesday. A machinegun and plastic strips for possible use as handcuffs were among the items seized.

“A number of experts including myself have been surprised at the importance that al-Qaeda and its like-minded jihadi fellow travellers have attached to the caricatures and the energy they have devoted to trying to hit Jyllands-Posten,” Brynjar Lia of the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment said. “Jyllands-Posten is clearly the most legitimate target for attack for jihadi in Europe at the moment,” said Lia, a senior research fellow.

Both Denmark and Sweden have committed troops to the western forces in Afghanistan and Danish soldiers were also stationed in Iraq after the US-led invasion.

But the cartoons have become a symbol of what militants see as a hostile West: they are a powerful and enduring call to arms.

Michael Taarnby, an independent researcher in Denmark, said the threat is here to stay. “This is not going away. They will keep trying,” he said.

‘Blinking red’
Though three of the suspects in the alleged Danish attack plan were Swedish citizens, police said there was no sign of a direct link between Wednesday’s arrests and the December 11 bombing in Stockholm.

In that case, a man appears to have planned to blow up a railway station or department store but ended up only blowing up himself.

But that case too seems to have had its origins in a drawing of the Prophet. A note sent by a man police believe was the bomber complained of cartoons by Swedish artist Lars Vilks as well as Sweden’s military presence in Afghanistan.

“In Denmark, it’s been blinking red for a while,” said Magnus Ranstorp, an expert with the Swedish National Defence College, adding that Wednesday’s arrest signified “business as usual” despite the scale of the alleged plot.

“For Sweden the whole security environment changed in the space of five days, from political correctness, from not talking about the possibility of extremism to ‘We have a suicide bomber.'”

Ranstorp said Wednesday’s news had more significance for Sweden than Denmark because for Swedes, “it reinforces what happened on the 11th of December”.

Sweden released a report this month that said nearly 200 people in the country had been identified as supporters of Islamist violence.

A Danish attack was thought to be only days away, but Lia said that could be read as a positive sign.

“The fact that they disrupted the threat so late doesn’t mean that this was a very close call,” Lia said. “It might mean that they felt they were very much in control.”

Lia said police would have wanted to gather as much evidence as possible to ensure a successful conviction. Even though the risk of attacks in the region has risen, the arrests could also help prevent future attacks, he said. “When you uncover and roll back some of these cells, you might be able to stop this for some time.” – Reuters

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