Attacks in Copenhagen and Paris raise fears of more insecurity in Europe
Uncomfortable parallels between Copenhagen and Paris attacks raise fears more tragedies lie ahead
The targets were eerily familiar: a cartoonist, police officers and Jews.
The manhunt, too, had echoes: a European capital on virtual lockdown as police searched block by block, with helicopters sweeping the skies.
And after the suspect had been shot to death on a Copenhagen street, the profile that emerged was remarkably similar: a habitual criminal who, after time in prison, emerged as an ideologically motivated killer.
A month after homegrown terrorists traumatised France, a 22-year-old who was born and raised in Denmark tormented this nation for 12 hours over a murderous weekend that left many in this normally placid country wondering whether Europe had entered a new normal of unending fear.
Before a pre-dawn shootout with police ended his spree, the assailant left 2 people dead and 5 police officers wounded, having attacked a cafe hosting a debate focused on free speech and a synagogue where a bat mitzvah was underway. In each case, a heavy security presence probably prevented the attack from becoming a massacre.
The parallels between last month’s attacks and the ones here focused investigators’ attention on the possibility that the assailant was a copycat killer, “inspired by the events in Paris”, said Jens Madsen, head of the Danish security agency PET.
The reaction, too, followed familiar patterns. Danish leaders vowed not to shrink from terror, as mourners gathered for solemn candlelight vigils to honour the dead. With Denmark’s small Jewish community feeling especially vulnerable, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the occasion of an anti-Semitic attack on European soil to again encourage immigration to the Jewish homeland.
As was the case in the Paris assaults, police said the killer had an extensive criminal record, including convictions for assault and weapons possession. He also had a history of gang involvement. Although police did not name the suspect, widespread reports in the Danish media identified him as Omar Abdel Hamid el-Hussein and said he had recently been released from prison.
Unlike the killers in Paris, who variously claimed allegiance to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, it was not clear whether the attacker here had connections to established extremist organisations. But that may not have mattered.
“There is a confluence between criminal gangs and extremism which is more pronounced in Denmark than in other countries,” said Magnus Ranstorp, who is leading a counter-extremism effort in Copenhagen. “There are gang leaders here who have gone on to participate in the fighting in Syria.”
At least 110 young Danes have left to wage war in Iraq and Syria, which by some measures is the second highest per capita number in western Europe, behind Belgium. In total, more than 4,000 western Europeans have joined the fight – a flow that has overwhelmed intelligence agencies across the continent.
The assailant in this weekend’s attacks was well-known to Danish intelligence, Madsen said. In November 2013, Hussein stabbed a teenager in the thigh while aboard a commuter train, and according to Danish media, had recently been released from prison following his conviction.
But it was unclear whether this weekend’s assailant was under surveillance and, if so, how he managed to slip free long enough to plan an attack with an assault rifle.
His first target was a gathering convened by a Swedish cartoonist, Lars Vilks, to discuss free speech in the age of terrorism. Vilks, 68, has long been marked for death by Islamic extremists for his depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, including one that shows him with the body of a dog.
Vilks and dozens of other attendees survived the Saturday afternoon attack, but a 55-year-old documentary filmmaker, Finn Noergaard, was killed when the cafe hosting the event was raked by scores of bullets. Three police officers were wounded.
After fleeing in a Volkswagen, the assailant struck again after midnight, shooting a volunteer security guard in the head outside the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen as about 80 people celebrated a bat mitzvah in an adjacent building. The guard, 37-year-old Dan Uzan, was killed, and two police officers were wounded. But the suspect fled without gaining access to the building.
Jewish leaders said that they had been asking for additional security for weeks, but police had been deployed outside the synagogue only after the attack on the cafe on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s an absolute nightmare to think what could have happened,” said Dan Rosenberg Asmussen, chairman of the Jewish Society in Denmark.
“We’ve been afraid of something like this, and we’ve been warning the authorities.”
While attacks such as the ones this weekend have no direct precedent in Denmark, the threat has long been known.
The decade-long storm of controversy over cartoons featuring the Prophet has its origins here, following publication of a series of 12 by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005.
Still, for a country unaccustomed to gun violence, news of the attacks came as an especially violent assault on the country’s core beliefs.
“I’m furious,” said Rita Sorensan, a retiree who had come to lay flowers at a makeshift memorial to Noergaard, just beyond a barricade manned by assault-rifle-wielding officers.
“There are many, many people who don’t respect the values of Denmark. And I don’t think it stops here. I’m not naive. I’m expecting more attacks.”
Police, too, were focused on the possibility that there would be more attacks. Security forces tracked the killer using CCTV footage, and officials said he opened fire on officers as they approached him near an apartment building in an ethnically diverse neighbourhood of north Copenhagen before dawn.
The assailant had visited the building, near a train station, in between the two attacks.
“The culprit that was shot by the police task force is the person behind both of these assassinations,” Torben Molgaard Jensen, the chief police inspector, said.
Two men suspected of helping the gunman were arrested yesterday. The lawyer for one of the two suspects, Michael Juul Eriksen, said they were accused of sheltering the gunman and disposing of a weapon.
Meanwhile, in a reminder of the transnational nature of extremism, a carnival planned in the northern German city of Braunschweig that normally attracts a quarter of a million revellers was cancelled at the last minute over a terror threat.
The police said there was a “concrete threat of an Islamist attack” and that they had received a tip from “reliable state security sources”.