Muslim terror suspect tries to assassinate Danish cartoonist

Police shoot and arrest axe-wielding Somali man with links to al-Qa'ida and other terror groups

The most prominent of the Danish cartoonists whose 12 drawings provoked outrage throughout the Muslim world in 2006, narrowly survived an assassination attempt late on Friday night. His attacker, who has close ties to both al-Qa'ida and a Somali group that has killed 42 relief workers trying to bring food to displaced people, was shot and arrested by police. He has now been charged with two counts of attempted murder in this, the latest effort to kill Kurt Westergaard or his cartoonist colleagues.

It is less than a year ago that Mr Westergaard, 74, and his wife stopped living in hiding in a succession of "safe houses" provided by the Danish authorities and began to have a more open existence. Their home in Aarhus, Denmark's second city, was said to be like a "fortress", a claim which now looks less than convincing. It was at this house on Friday evening that the man, aged 28 and armed with an axe and a knife, managed to penetrate whatever alarm systems there were, break a window and enter the property.

Inside were Mr Westergaard and his five-year-old grand-daughter. In some reports, the cartoonist grabbed the girl and rushed to the bathroom, which had a reinforced door and a panic button. He managed to lock the door before the intruder, a Somali native who has not been named in line with Danish privacy law, could open it. In other reports, the girl remained sitting on the sofa and witnessed the attack. The the man shouted "Revenge!" and "Blood!" as he tried to smash the door with his axe. Mr Westergaard, who has received previous death threats for depicting the Prophet Mohamed with a bomb-shaped turban, pushed the panic button, and police arrived within two minutes in what they said were "strong numbers".

Fritz Keldsen, of Aarhus city police, told the BBC: "When we saw the suspect, he was moving away from the scene. Then he attacked the police patrol. He did that with such skill that they had to shoot him." It is understood that at one point the man threw the axe at an officer. He was shot in the knee and a hand, and is now under guard at a hospital. Yesterday he was wheeled on a stretcher into court, where he denied the charges.

The cartoonist later said on the website of his newspaper, Jyllands-Posten: "My grandchild did fine. It was scary. It was close. Really close. But we did it." He added he was "quite shocked" but not injured.

Jakob Scharf, head of Denmark's intelligence agency PET, said yesterday: "The arrested man has, according to information, close relations with the Somali terrorist group al-Shabab and al-Qa'ida leaders in eastern Africa." He had won an asylum case and so had a permit to stay in Denmark, but is suspected of having been involved in terror-related activities in east Africa, and had been under PET's surveillance for some time, although not in connection with Mr Westergaard.

Mr Westergaard remains a potential target for extremists, four years after his cartoon, along with 11 other caricatures of Mohamed, was printed in Jyllands-Posten in what the paper described as "an attempt to promote freedom of expression". They attracted almost no attention until a Norwegian paper reprinted them.

A group of Danish imams then visited the Middle East, taking with them the 12 cartoons, plus three other satirical images, not produced by the paper's artists but by right-wing extremists, which were even more incendiary. One of them involved a pig's head; another depicted Mohamed as a paedophile.

There then followed angry demonstrations of Muslim outrage around the world, in which Danish embassies were attacked, flags burnt by protesters who felt the cartoons had profoundly insulted Islam, and some 50 people were killed. And, fuelling the saga for some time were several French, Germany, Italian and Spanish newspapers which reprinted the cartoons in solidarity with the Danes.

Throughout the crisis, the then Prime Minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, distanced himself from the cartoons, but resisted calls to apologise, citing freedom of speech and saying his government could not be held responsible for the actions of Denmark's press. Several young Muslims have since been convicted in Denmark of planning bomb attacks, partly in protest at the cartoons. In 2008, Osama bin Laden said Europe would be punished for the cartoons. And militants have put a $1m price on Mr Westergaard's head.

The affair has long since faded from British media, but for the cartoonists – 11 of whom are still in hiding and one of whom suffers from severe stress – and security services in Denmark and elsewhere, it has never gone away.

In 2008, Danish police arrested two Tunisian men suspected of plotting to murder Mr Westergaard. Neither was prosecuted, but one was deported and the other released last Monday after an immigration board rejected PET's efforts to expel him. In October, terror charges were brought against two Chicago men whose initial plan called for attacks on Jyllands-Posten's offices. The plan was later changed to killing the paper's former cultural editor and Mr Westergaard.

Yesterday, an umbrella organisation for moderate Muslims in Denmark condemned the latest attack on the cartoonist, saying: "The Danish Muslim Union strongly distances itself from the attack and any kind of extremism that leads to such acts." Meanwhile, Mr Westergaard's cartoon lies in the dark, in an unnamed Danish bank vault.