Made in prison: Copenhagen and the Paris attacks

By Charlie de Rivaz:

The cafe in Copenhagen where the gunman attacked. Photo: Benno Hansen (CC)
The cafe in Copenhagen where the gunman attacked. Photo: Benno Hansen (CC)

When news trickled through about Saturday’s attacks in Copenhagen, it was difficult to avoid a sense of déjà vu. Another Islamic extremist attacks another cartoonist. Then he targets Jews. Was this another Charlie Hebdo? Another gruesome episode in the increasingly depressing battle between radical Islam and the West?

This is not another Charlie Hebdo, there were important differences that should impact on the way we understand and react to the Copenhagen attacks. However, there were also similarities, one of which shines a light on a little-reported aspect of the Charlie Hebdo story: the importance of prisons in radicalising young Muslims.

Copenhagen is not another Charlie Hebdo

Why was Copenhagen not another Charlie Hebdo? First, unlike the gunmen in Paris, the gunman in Copenhagen, named as 22-year-old Omar El-Hussein by Danish media, was not a trained militant with links to al-Qaeda groups in the Middle East. He was a gang member with convictions for crimes like grievous bodily harm, burglary and dealing in weapons. There is no indication that El-Hussein had even travelled abroad, let alone to countries with terrorist training camps. Indeed, the Danish Prime Minister said she wanted to “make it very clear” that she had “no indication at this stage that [El-Hussein] was part of a [terrorist] cell”.

Contrast this with the gunmen in Paris: Said and Cherif Kouachi had both been known to police for militant Islamist activities since 2003, when Cherif was involved in sending would-be jihadists to fight for al-Qaeda in Iraq. He was arrested in 2005 trying to escape to Syria and imprisoned in 2008. Two years later he was named in the plot to free Smain Ait Ali Belkacem from jail. Belkacem was serving life for the 1995 Paris metro bombing that wounded 30 people. Yemeni sources say that both Kouachi brothers had trained in camps run by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2011 in the deserts of Marib in Yemen. The other gunman in Paris, Amedy Coulibaly, had also been imprisoned for his role in the 2010 plot to free Belkacem.

The second important difference is that while the Paris attacks were coordinated and carried out with near-military precision, the Copenhagen attacks were carried out by a lone gunman and appear to have been somewhat haphazard.

The Kouachi brothers struck hard and fast in Paris. Armed with Kalshnikov assault rifles, they identified and killed their targets, mostly cartoonists, as well as killing two policemen in their escape. Coulibaly similarly succeeded in taking the shoppers in a Kosher supermarket hostage. He killed four of the hostages. The fact that some 80,000 police and security personnel were mobilised in response to the attacks shows just how effective the gunmen were.

By contrast, El-Hussein only succeeded in killing one man in his initial attack on the café, documentary film-maker Finn Noergaard. The person who was probably his real target, cartoonist Lars Vilks, escaped unscathed. Vilks has been targeted several times since drawing pictures of the Prophet Muhammad dressed as a dog in 2007. The café where Vilks was due to speak was being guarded by armed police and security agents, as well as Vilks’ own bodyguards, so it is difficult to see how El-Hussein ever thought that he might replicate the kind of mass killings seen in Paris. His later shooting of a synagogue guard seemed unplanned and opportunistic.

Copenhagen is not the same as Charlie Hebdo. It was not a well-planned attack led by trained gunmen with links to terrorist groups; on the contrary, it was a clumsy attempt to replicate the Paris killings by a lone gunmen without any terrorist links or training.

The prison connection

Of course, the intentions behind both attacks appear similar: to kill those cartoonists who have published depictions of the Prophet Muhammad (often in provocative poses) and to kill Jews. This is why the copycat theory is plausible.

But the more interesting similarity relates to where these intentions come from, and, in particular, where the motivation to kill is cultivated. This is where the role of prison is key.

El-Hussein attacked the café just two weeks after his release from prison, where he had served two years for stabbing a man on a subway train. It was while in prison that he became radicalised. The head of the country’s prison and probation service had become so concerned about El-Hussein’s radicalisation that he informed Danish intelligence. It is currently unclear exactly who was involved in turning this gangster into a religious extremist.

In France the key players are well known. In 2005 Cherif Kouachi found himself in the infamous Fleury-Merogis prison, the largest in Europe with 150% over-crowding and a culture of violence, drugs and decay. There he met Djamel Beghal, who would become his chief inspiration and mentor, and Coulibaly, the third gunman in the Paris attacks.

Beghal was halfway through a 10-year sentence for his part in a plot to bomb the US embassy in Paris. In the late 1990s he had visited the Finsbury Park mosque in London to hear the radical preachings of Abu Hamza and Abu Qatada, and by the turn of the century was considered one of al-Qaeda’s chief recruiting agents in Europe after returning from training in Afghanistan. According to Jean-Charles Brisard, the head of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism, “Beghal was in direct contact with the highest ranking members of al Qaeda at the time.”

Beghal was the defining influence on Kouachi and Coulibaly, and they both continued to visit him in the south of France after Beghal had been placed under house arrest there in 2009. Although Said Kouachi never went to prison, it is safe to assume that what his brother learned inside was passed on.

The key role that prisons play in radicalising young Muslims was little reported in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. We heard much about the gunmen’s marginalised background, their difficult childhoods, their upbringing among the estates and the decaying parks of the banlieues; but we heard little about how their deep-seated sense of injustice and dislocation was moulded into the motivation to kill. The attacks in Copenhagen have now put the role of prisons centre-stage. It is while serving in prison that many of these young Muslims are turned from angry young men into religious extremists carrying the motivation to kill in the name of Allah.

The Copenhagen attacks were not the same as Charlie Hebdo, but it is important to recognise that the killers’ murderous motivations were formed in the same place: in the cold corridors of prison.

Charlie de Rivaz is an MA student on the Conflict, Security and Development programme at King’s College, London. For three years he worked in Argentina and Colombia as an English teacher and journalist. His main interests include the political economy of war, international human rights law, conflict resolution, and state-failure and state-building. Charlie is currently the Managing Editor of the Strife blog.

3 thoughts on “Made in prison: Copenhagen and the Paris attacks”

  1. Good that you have pointed out the differences between botch attacks, one can as well compare how much calmer the Danes appear to be in comparison to the French publie, moreover the act itself is completely differently coined. The blame-game is not as intense as in France.
    Nevertheless, it will be necessary to identify more parallels and patterns – Islamist radicalization is not a local problem and therefore cannot be solved locally considering the transnational networks to spread ideologies of extermist groups.

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