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INSTANT ANALYSIS: Attempted Attack on Danish Cartoonist

02/01/2010

Earlier today, Danish police arrested a Somali national for attempting to kill the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaart with an axe and a knife.

Westergaart drew several of the infamous Mohammed cartoons, whose publication sparked an international crisis in 2006.

In the next days, some of the wider ramifications of the attack will become clearer.
The following points will no doubt be of particular concern:

The attacker is said to have had links with the Somali insurgent group As Shabaab. If it turns out that the group actively directed this attack, the incident will mark a significant change of strategy for Shabaab.

Thus far, Shabaab has used its links to Al Qaeda principally to promote their struggle in Somalia and attract money and foreign fighters. Diaspora Somalis from as far as Minnesota have made their way to East Africa, but few – if any – showed any interest in carrying out terrorist attacks in the West.

Attacks against American or Western targets – never mind Danish cartoonists – simply weren’t on Shabaab’s agenda. If Shabaab is fully buying into Al Qaeda’s global jihad now, this will create an enormous headache for Western security services, especially those in countries with large Somali diaspora populations.

Second, the attack underlines what we’ve already seen with the Detroit bomber, namely that the Al Qaeda threat is becoming more and more diverse. It’s no longer just the tribal areas in Pakistan that cause concern, but a whole lot of locations across the world. There now seem to be regional hubs, which provide all the things – resources, training, direction –  that used to be done in one place.

The UK and US may now have agreed to support the Yemeni government with money and training. But focusing on one or even two places isn’t good enough. There needs to be a comprehensive strategy for dealing with terrorist safe havens across the world.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Al Qaeda is back. It may look different from the Al Qaeda of 2001, and another 9/11 still seems far-fetched, but Detroit and now Denmark show that the threat hasn’t gone away.

Having the makers of the Danish cartoons killed would have been hugely popular with Al Qaeda’s sympathisers. Given how much criticism Al Qaeda has had to face by its own constituency in recent years, this would have revived the Al Qaeda myth and mobilised its supporters once more. (This, in fact, is a point very well made by my friend and colleague Yassin Musharbash at Spiegel Online.)

All in all, there’s clearly more to today’s events than a crazed Somali storming a suburban house in Denmark with an axe and a knife. 2010, it seems, will be anything but a quiet year…