Danish and Swedish police said yesterday they had foiled a potentially devastating terrorist attack after arresting five suspected Islamic militants who wanted to "kill as many people as possible" in the offices of a Copenhagen newspaper that published cartoons of the Prophet Mohamed.
Denmark's intelligence service said it arrested four men in two raids in the suburbs of the capital and seized an automatic weapon, a silencer and live ammunition. Swedish police said they arrested the fifth suspect, a 37-year-old Swedish citizen of Tunisian origin who was living in Stockholm.
Lars Barfoed, the Danish Justice Minister, described the plot as "outrageous" and "terrifying" and said it was the "most serious attempt at terror" ever witnessed in Denmark.
Jakob Scharf, the head of Denmark's intelligence service, told reporters that the militants had apparently planned to storm the Copenhagen offices of Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which published the controversial Mohamed cartoons in 2005. Once inside, they planned to fire automatic weapons at random, he said.
"They wanted to kill as many of the people present as possible," Mr Scharf said, adding that "an imminent terror attack" had been foiled. He described the suspects as "militant Islamic activists with relations to international terror networks". He said more arrests were possible.
The intelligence services arrested a 44-year-old Tunisian, a 29-year-old Lebanese-born man and a 30-year-old who were living in Sweden and had entered Denmark late Tuesday or early yesterday. The fourth person detained was a 26-year-old Iraqi asylum-seeker living in Copenhagen.
Swedish police did not immediately release details about the fifth suspect. They said the planned attack in Copenhagen did not appear to be linked to a suicide bomb in Stockholm in early December, when an Iraqi-born Muslim blew himself up in a crowded shopping street after detonating a car bomb. Only a few people were injured in the blast. The Danish intelligence service said the four arrested in Denmark faced preliminary charges of attempting to carry out an act of terrorism and that their case would be brought before judges during a custody hearing today.
Zubair Butt Hussain, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Denmark, called the planned attack "extremely worrying" and said his organisation condemned any act of terrorism outright "regardless of the motives and motivations" behind them.
There have been at least four plots to attack Jyllands-Posten and Kurt Westergaard, the artist who drew the most contentious of 12 cartoons, which were published by the daily in 2005 in an attempt to challenge perceived self-censorship. Mr Westergaard described the foiled plot as a direct attack on democracy and freedom of the press. In an interview with the German tabloid Bild, he said: "We may not and will not allow anyone to forbid us to criticise radical Islam. We must not allow ourselves to be intimidated when it comes to our values."
In January, a Somali man broke into Mr Westergaard's home wielding an axe and a knife. But Mr Westergaard escaped unharmed by locking himself in a safe-room in the house. In 2008, two Tunisians, who were legal residents of Denmark, were arrested for plotting to kill him.
In September, a Belgian man who was born in Chechnya was wounded when a letter bomb he was preparing exploded in a Copenhagen hotel. Police said it was intended for the offices of Jyllands-Posten, which has also been targeted in a number of thwarted terror plots in Norway and the United States.
Tahawwur Rana, a US citizen, faces trial in Chicago in February in connection with the 2008 terrorist attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai and a planned attack on Jyllands-Posten.
Mr Westergaard's cartoons provoked violent protests in Muslim countries after their publication in 2006. Demonstrators considered them an insult to Islam; Islamic law opposes any visual depiction of the Prophet for fear it could lead to idolatry.
In another incident related to the publication of the cartoon in 2008, the Danish Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, was targeted in a car-bomb attack that killed six people outside. The attacks and threats have caused concern and unprecedented security measures in Denmark, a country that prides itself on personal freedom and openness.
The events leading up to the plot
September 2005 Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohamed. The most infamous image depicted him with a bomb resting in a turban he was wearing, sparking outrage across the Muslim world.
November 2005 Die Welt, the German newspaper, published one of the cartoons. Several months later, Der Tagesspiegel, another German paper, also published a cartoon showing a line of suicide bombers queueing outside heaven. The image depicted the Prophet Mohamed telling them: "Stop, stop, we're out of virgins."
February 2006 At least 127 people were killed in Nigeria in clashes between Christian and Muslim mobs following continued protests against the cartoons.
April 2006 Libya's leader, Muammar al-Gaddafi, told Al Jazeera that "people who defamed Mohamed were defaming their own prophet, because Mohamed is the prophet of the people in Scandinavia, in Europe, America, Asia and Africa... They should agree to become Islamic in the course of time, or else declare war on the Muslims."
February 2008 France Soir republished images first seen in Jyllands-Posten under the headline: "Yes, we have the right to caricature God."
March 2008 In a recorded threat carried by an extremist website, Osama bin Laden vowed revenge against the "wise men" of the European Union for the publication of the drawings.
June 2008 A suicide-bomb attack on the Danish embassy in Pakistan killed six people. Al-Qa'ida claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was in revenge for the caricatures' publication.
April 2009 The Danish Prime Minister's refusal to apologise for caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed threatened to derail his attempt to become the Nato chief. Turkey opposed the candidacy of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, sparking a diplomatic scramble and a personal intervention by Barack Obama.