Those pesky cartoons are at it again.
Irish authorities in tandem with American officials have made 7 arrests in Europe and one in the United States in connection to an alleged plot to assassinate a political cartoonist that sketched a 2007 depiction of the prophet Mohammed. The image, a rather crude drawing by Swedish artist Lars Vilks, was originally published in August 2007 in the regional daily Nerikes Allehanda. Vilks, tapping into the underground art scene in Sweden, depicted Mohammed as a "roundabout dog" in reference to a guerrilla sculpturing movement that began in 2006 after anonymous individuals began placing cut-out frames of dogs in grassy roundabouts and junctions all over Sweden. Some Muslims took offence to the satirical cartoon and an al Qaeda offshoot eventually levied a sizable bounty on Vilks' head. The alleged plot uncovered this week was to murder him.
If all of this sounds familiar, that's because it is.
Who can forget the months of unrest and violence that followed the 2005 publication of a dozen Mohammed cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten . Bloody riots took place, Western embassies were torched, artists and editors were threatened, diplomatic relations were strained, and a general boycott of Danish and EU products swept the Arab world.
Acts of terrorism soon followed.
The individuals responsible for carrying out the failed July 2006 bombing attempt of two German trains – the detonators went off but failed to ignite the devices – confessed they were motivated by the cartoons. In July 2007, four Brits were sentenced to lengthy prison terms for inciting murder and racial hatred during a gruesome demonstration outside the Danish Embassy in London. One of those jailed, Mizanur Rahman, is said to have told the crowd: "we want to see another 9/11 in Iraq, another 9/11 in Denmark, another 9/11 in Spain, in France, all over Europe." In February 2008, two Tunisians and one Danish citizen were arrested in Denmark for plotting to assassinate Kurt Westergaard, one of the artists. Westergaard was again attacked by an axe-wielding Somali youth in January 2010, who managed to gain entry into his home. The would-be assassin was eventually wounded and apprehended by police.
So here we are again -- different cartoon, similar result.
At this point, there are a couple of issues worth making.
i) We absolutely must gain a better handle on the phenomenon of Western radicalization. The American allegedly involved in the Vilks plot is Colleen LaRose. A convert to Islam, LaRose referred to herself as "Jihad Jane" on online forums and is charged with conspiring and providing "material support and resources" to the alleged plot. Her arrest is another reminder that Islamist radicalization remains a serious issue in the West.
ii) At the moment, the alleged plot seems to have been hatched and orchestrated with little support from any known international terrorist organization. While those arrested may have been "inspired" by al Qaeda and its virulent ideology, this case seems to be another example of autonomous homegrown terrorism. LaRose's arrest in October 2009 – kept under wraps by the FBI until the other suspects were rounded up – also marks the eleventh terrorist plot to have been foiled in the US in 2009 alone. This is a precipitous increase in the level of domestic terrorism.
iii) Homegrown terrorists remain motivated but are ill-prepared and amateurish. LaRose is reported to have posted a comment on a June 2008 You Tube video stating that she was "desperate to do something" in the name of jihad. You don't need to be a genius to know what sort of activity will tip off security officials. That might change as al Qaeda, al Shabaab, and other organizations begin tapping into the pool of would-be homegrown terrorists with offers of structured training.
iv) Transatlantic cooperation between the US, Canada, and their EU allies remains strong. Despite the serious security shortfalls unearthed following the failed Christmas Day bombing over the skies of Detroit, this week's arrests suggest intelligence communities are doing a good job sharing relevant information. Continued success in combating global terrorism will rely on solid, multilateral cooperation.
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