Theme: This analysis concerns Denmark as a potential target for al-Qaeda. It seeks to define and understand the nature of the threat by tracking the historical and current connections between Denmark and al-Qaeda.
Summary: Contemporary events like the Danish cartoon crisis and the deployment of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in the fight against terrorism are often cited as the specific causes which have placed Denmark in al-Qaeda’s sights. While these examples are certainly relevant elements in a threat assessment they need to be supplemented by other events and developments in order to gain a clearer picture. While Danish foreign policy has attracted the attention of the Jihadis, it is important to study the internal developments within Denmark over the past decade to understand the current situation, especially within militant Islamist circles. It is the interplay between external and internal developments that highlights future trends and this situation is likely to continue over the coming years. The threat to Denmark is real but has not reached the same critical level as for other European countries.
Al-Qaeda’s Threat to Denmark and the Development of Links to the Global Jihad
In the early morning hours of 4 September 2007 the Danish police raided several apartments in Copenhagen in a counterterrorist operation. Eleven different locations were searched and eight suspects were initially arrested while two remain in custody. The eight arrested were between 19 and 29 years of age and had Turkish, Afghan, Pakistani and Somali backgrounds. All have been charged according to Danish legislation with conspiracy to conduct an act of terrorism by using an explosive device.
Those arrested were suspected of being in the preparatory stages of a bomb attack, although the nature and location of the target remains unknown. Close cooperation between the US and Danish intelligence services established that one of the suspects had received training in explosives and surveillance techniques in a terrorist training camp in Pakistan within the past 12 months. Aid in the case was provided by electronic intercepts, presumably conducted by the US National Security Agency (NSA). These circumstances provided the background for the press conference by the Danish Security Intelligence Service (PET) on the same day the counter terrorist operation took place. In the PET’s assessment the primary suspects were militant Islamists with international connections, more specifically with direct contact to senior al-Qaeda members. The PET made an effort to distinguish between independent operatives, so called home-grown cells, and cells in close contact with al-Qaeda, specifying that in the Danish case there was a direct link to senior, but as of yet unnamed, al-Qaeda figures.
As expected, the terrorist-related arrests in Copenhagen took up the headlines. One central question remains, and that is the specific mentioning of a direct link between Danish terrorist suspects and senior al-Qaeda operatives. At the time of writing no further information about this specific relationship has been made publicly available. However, it appears inconceivable that the head of PET would identify this type of connection unless the security service was very certain about the information. While this particular case is of interest, it is not an isolated incident. As such, it must be contextualised because this incident is preceded by similar events, but it also has a bearing on future developments.
This paper is concerned with the threat to Denmark from al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups. This is a complicated task for several reasons and requires a closer look at what is actually meant by a threat assessment and al-Qaeda. Even with full access to classified material, threat assessments are more a matter of art than science in the sense that the analyst is always confronted with an incomplete picture based on incomplete sources and a constantly changing operational environment. For an open-source researcher, such as the author, even more details will be missing, making it very difficult indeed to approach the degree of accuracy required for this particular type of assessment.
What exactly is meant by al-Qaeda in this specific context? It is important to be specific because the al-Qaeda label has been used and misused in endless publications, journalistic accounts and even in government statements over the past years, thus adding to the confusion instead of clarifying the issue. It is thought provoking that six years after 11 September 2001 there is still a debate about what al-Qaeda actually is, so some sort of clarification is required. Today al-Qaeda means two things: (1) a specific terrorist group established in the 1990s and led by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri; and (2), simultaneously, a global movement of disparate groups and individuals with a single common denominator which is a shared ideology. These variants coexist and actually reinforce each other as shown by the following examples of the connections between al-Qaeda and Denmark.
Al-Qaeda Connections During the 1990s
It would be a mistake to assume that the connection between Denmark and al-Qaeda emerged recently with the cartoon affair of late 2005, to mention a well-known example. Specific links between Denmark and al-Qaeda, or more precisely between groups that would eventually become part of al-Qaeda, have existed since the late 1980s. In trying to understand the current situation it is necessary to take a historical view of this connection, especially because there have been significant changes in the relationship which are only identifiable through a long-term perspective.
Everything has its beginning and Denmark’s connection with the international Jihadi scene is both long-term and intricate as outlined by the author elsewhere. For the sake of clarity the following incidents should be mentioned as they are indicative of what can be termed the first-generation relationships between Danish Jihadis and individuals associated with al-Qaeda.
The beginnings can be traced to Peshawar during the late 1980s and early 1990s, before al-Qaeda actually came into existence. A number of individuals became acquainted in Pakistan from across the Muslim world, and among them were a few with a connection to Denmark. Copies of Abduallah Azzam’s Join the Caravan were available in Islamist circles in Denmark at the time, although it must be stated that very few individuals actually travelled to Pakistan or Afghanistan for training, indoctrination or the frontline. Those who did venture abroad plied the well-known route through Pakistan, through the guest houses in Peshawar and, some of them, further into Afghanistan. Their activities had a very limited impact, if any, and their involvement was largely irrelevant in a larger context.
Another incident is of interest because it highlights a direct relationship between a Danish resident and one of the most important al-Qaeda figures in the late 1990s. Omar Maarouf had in his possession the Abu Zubaydah’s telephone number when he was arrested in Brussels in March 1998. Maarouf was an associate of Algerian Islamist militants, presumably the GIA. At that time, Abu Zubaydah held the key to al-Qaeda’s training camps in Afghanistan, and he was the person in charge of recruiting. The exact relationship between Maarouf and Abu Zubaydah is not known, and Maarouf is currently serving a lengthy prison sentence in Morocco on a terrorism-related offence.
Abu Rached, a Syrian national living in Denmark, has been identified by Spanish investigators as having been close to al-Qaeda in Europe. At the very least there were telephone contacts between Abu Rached and Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas. Transcripts of intercepted phone calls between Denmark and Spain have revealed that when Abu Rached called Yarkas it was because he needed the number of a certain Abu al –Hareth, who was residing in London at the time. The latter was very close to Osama bin Laden, as shown by telephone records that listed no fewer than 200 calls between the two. Yarkas actually visited Copenhagen in December 1997, where his host was a certain Said Mansour during his week-long stay. Mansour was sentenced to three years imprisonment in 2007 for incitement to violence through his distribution of Jihadi propaganda material.
In a more recent incident three men remain in custody in Lebanon suspected of cooperating with the militant Islamist group Fatah al-Islam. The three unnamed men are all citizens or residents of Denmark and their alleged connection to this particular group raises some cause for concern. Fatah al-Islam has denied it is part of al-Qaeda, but has stressed strong sympathies for the organisation. The recent fighting around the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp in northern Lebanon proved that Fatah al-Islam is very close to al-Qaeda in ideology and style of fighting, even if it uses a different name.
The Cartoon Affair
When the Danish cartoon affair peaked in intensity in the early months of 2006 militant Islamists from a multitude of groups voiced their opinion about the issue and some issued explicit threats to Danish citizens or Denmark in general. At the height of the crisis the PET had registered around 200 threats on the Internet and this is indicative of the interest the affair generated among global militant Islamists. The nature of the Jihadi reactions, especially as regards their timing, is worth noting. When the cartoons were first published in September 2005 there were some Jihadist reactions linking the issue to a wider war on Islam. However, the protests had largely evaporated by mid-October, only to resurface in January with an unexpected intensity and ferocity. Eventually, al-Qaeda took note of the event and commented on it.
A significant part of this Internet traffic occurred on the al-hesbah website, a well-known propaganda outlet and forum for al-Qaeda sympathisers. Also, the Global Islamic Media Front (GIMF), one of al-Qaeda’s main propaganda outlets, joined in and encouraged Muslims to actively support the jihad in any way possible. The line taken by GIMF seemed to be less concerned with punishing Denmark than with tying the cartoon issue into a wider and global context of a perceived Crusade against Islam. According to this view the cartoons were simply one more instance among many of this ongoing war. On 1 February 2006 the al-hesbah website posted a statement by the imprisoned Abu Qatada, the leading Europe-based al-Qaeda ideologue. Abu Qatada launched a verbal attack on Denmark specifically accusing the government of its bias against Islam.
The cartoon issue was quickly aligned with the presence of Danish troops in Afghanistan and, particularly, in Iraq. Images of Danish soldiers were posted on the al-hesbah website to aid Iraqi insurgents to identify their targets. The forum participants suggested that Danish soldiers should be abducted and beheaded as punishment for the perceived attack on Islam. In late January the Mujahedin Army in Iraq posted a general threat against Danish targets, urging its sympathisers to carry out retaliatory actions. Al-Qaeda in Iraq did not directly issue specific threats against Denmark or Danish troops and the reason for this silence is unknown but may be related to a later statement by the al-Qaeda leadership. However, a direct threat emerged from the Islamic Army in Iraq in February as well. This online threat went one step further, stating that not only should Danish soldiers be abducted and killed but that civilians were also fair game.
The most significant statement to appear on the Internet in relation to the Danish cartoon incident was broadcast by al-Jazeera on 4 March 2006. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, specifically mentioned the cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed as evidence of the war on Islam waged by the West. By the time this message appeared, Danish embassies had been under attack by furious mobs in Lebanon, Indonesia, Iran and elsewhere. However, al-Zawahiri considered this type of response insufficient. In order to stand up to the insult a real defence against the Crusader campaign was required: torching embassies and then returning to normality would prove inadequate in the long run. According to al-Zawahiri several courses of action in this legitimate act of self-defence were needed, including ‘inflicting losses on the Crusader West, especially economic losses in strikes that will keep letting blood for years, and the strikes in New York, Madrid, Washington, and London are a good example of this, forbid the stealing of petroleum, and support the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine, who are the first line of defence of Islam and the Muslims’. He also called for a ‘grassroots economic embargo’ of Denmark, Norway, France, Germany and all the other countries that participated in this lowly attack, and all countries that took part in the Crusader war against Islam and the Muslims.
The initial reactions to the cartoons by al-Qaeda and its affiliate organisations were limited indeed. It was only when the crisis erupted and took on an international dimension that the Jihadi organisations chose to comment, and in the end even al-Qaeda’s leadership had taken note of the issue.
The Internal Dimension
The arrests in September 2007 underscore an important development, and that is the internal dimension of al-Qaeda in Denmark, both organisational and ideological. Terrorist arrest in Denmark since September 2001 have exclusively dealt with Jihadism, and this means that the Danish threat does not come from secular, nationalist, separatist or left-wing militant groups.
By looking at developments over the past six years it is evident that a change has occurred. Three suspected Jihadi cells, all involving bomb plots of some kind, have been disrupted in the planning stages. The plots presumably involved mass casualty bomb attacks against civilian targets, although the exact details are as yet unknown. If verified, this would follow the general development in Europe over the past few years, where indiscriminate bombings in London and Madrid have caused numerous deaths, while similar plots have been foiled by the authorities. To that number must be added the Danish citizens or residents who have become entangled abroad on suspicion of being affiliated with Jihadi movements in Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.
The cells so far uncovered have been, relatively speaking, independent. The radicalisation process, which is the first indispensable step on the path to terrorism, has primarily taken place within Denmark. This circumstance is in need of some qualification, because in all three instances there has been ample evidence of vital internet communication. In some instances there have been direct contacts between a few of the cell members with Jihadis abroad. This in turn signifies a growing dependence on the Internet among militant Islamists. The availability of propaganda through the Internet has made it much easier to acquire now than it was a decade ago, and this includes bomb-making manuals as made evident by the ongoing Vollsmose trial.
The culture of martyrdom, at best a marginal phenomenon in Jihadi circles in Denmark in the 1990s, has attracted more interest as shown in the so-called suicide video confiscated by the Bosnian police in a raid involving young Danish Muslims. If in past cases there have been no known links to either Egyptian groups or North African networks, the situation at present is rather more diffuse in nature. Old structures have been replaced by less organized informal networks, which appear to be just as lethal –if not more so–. And they are very hard to detect.
The pattern in the 1990s evolved around very few individuals who primarily entered Denmark with an already established connection to a militant Islamist group. By using Denmark as a sanctuary they were able to continue their activities, although with very limited success. From what is known about this period, their efforts in attracting Danish Muslims to a militant cause must be considered a failure. The recent cases, involving three suspected cells, follow a quite different pattern, with young Danish Muslims who had no known previous involvement in Islamist or Jihadi activity being recruited or volunteering to participate in violent action. This is not to say that they are part of al-Qaeda, since actually the contrary might be closer to the truth, but it seems clear that they have to some extent been inspired by the world-view propagated by al-Qaeda.
The threat to Denmark has no direct historical or cultural bearing. It is structurally different from say, the UK’s involvement in the Middle East or the constant reference to Spain as al-Andalus, suggesting centuries of shared history. The Danish connection, however much undesired, is a recent innovation brought about by contemporary events. For all practical and rational reasons there is nothing to avenge or recapture, yet the threat is real.
Conclusion: In the light of the recent arrest in Copenhagen and the continued threats on the Internet issued by al-Qaeda and its affiliate groups and sympathisers, it is possible to conclude that Denmark still has a heightened risk profile. From the examples of the cartoon affair, the deployment of Danish troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and Denmark’s general support for the US-led war on terrorism it is tempting to conclude that these events have heightened the confrontation between Denmark and al-Qaeda. These instances of foreign policy have undoubtedly attracted the wrath of Islamist militants, yet it is important to understand the internal dimension as well. There is a more subtle and perhaps more significant dimension in the connection between Denmark and al-Qaeda that is far more difficult to analyse. This requires a continuous re-evaluation of the threat. Danish analysts or researchers warning against the dangers of home-grown Jihadi cells ten years ago would in all likelihood have been shrugged off, and this is assuming that they would even have thought of such a development as a possibility at all.
It appears that Denmark is confronted by two types of threat: one external and the other internal, directed at either Danish interests abroad or at targets located within Denmark. Have these two dimensions converged recently in the latest arrest in Copenhagen? This central question is impossible to answer with the scant information available, although the re-establishment of operational links to Pakistan should prompt a re-consideration of the global reach of contemporary Jihadism. Pakistan might not be the only area of interest as shown by recent developments in Lebanon in connection with the battle between the Lebanese army and Fatah al-Islam.
The current cases, which only date back to 2005, signify that Denmark is confronted by a new generation of largely home-grown Jihadis. They might not be directly connected to al-Qaeda, but their mindset and inspiration is undoubtedly linked to this infamous terrorist organisation. These young Muslims are serious players and they are willing, but not always capable, of going all the way. The PET has proved to be successful in pre-empting three separate plots, but a major concern is that it only takes one incident to increase the tension among the Danish Islamic community. Vigilance is required in the foreseeable future as there is no sign that the attractiveness of Jihadi ideologies is waning. Unfortunately some young Muslims will perceive al-Qaeda as the vanguard against a Western crusade which must be stopped at all costs, even if it means detonating an explosive device in a public space somewhere in Denmark.
Research Fellow, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen, Denmark
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