February 17, 2021
IntelBrief: Disrupted Terror Plot in Denmark Highlights the Need to Remain Vigilant
Last week, authorities in Denmark and Germany arrested 14 individuals for allegedly planning “one or more” terrorist attacks in Europe. The Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET) arrested thirteen individuals, while the Germans detained another. Denmark’s minister of justice, Nick Hækkerup, described the arrests as part of a "major anti-terror operation," and noted that the individuals arrested had been charged with obtaining ingredients necessary for manufacturing explosives and making bombs, as well as possession of firearms. Others were charged with aiding and abetting. The plot, or plots, were described as motivated by “militant Islamism.”
This is hardly the first time Denmark has dealt with the threat posed by jihadist-inspired terrorism. In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which touched off protests throughout the Muslim world and resulted in death threats and plots targeting personnel from the newspaper. The cartoon controversy served as propaganda for al-Qaeda, which successfully leveraged the incident to recruit new members, including Westerners. In 2017, an individual was arrested in Denmark for allegedly shipping drones, drone components, and infrared cameras to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) via Turkey. The following year, two more individuals in Denmark were arrested under anti-terror laws, suspected of purchasing drones believed to be destined for ISIS. In late 2019, twenty individuals were arrested on charges of planning a terrorist attack, once again described by Danish authorities as “driven by a militant, Islamist motive.” Then again, in April 2020, Danish police arrested an individual, said to be operating alone, for planning a terrorist attack with a “militant Islamic motive.”
With the increased focus on right wing extremism globally, and particularly in Europe, it is crucial not to lose track of the persistent threat posed by individuals and cells motivated by ISIS, al-Qaeda, and jihadist ideology more broadly. Of the twelve terrorist attacks conducted in the United Kingdom since March 2017, ten were jihadist related while two were connected to far-right extremists. Between late September 2020 and late November 2020, there were six separate terrorist attacks in Europe (France, Switzerland, and Austria) carried out by individuals motivated or inspired by jihadist propaganda. Countries worldwide are also preoccupied with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has diverted attention and resources from counterterrorism and made it more difficult for law enforcement and security services to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the terrorist threat. The progressive decentralization of global jihadist groups, compounded by the constraints of the pandemic, has prompted more low-tech, low-cost attacks perpetrated by individuals or small groups.
The plot in Denmark was disrupted, in part, due to cooperation between the Danish PET and German authorities. Hækkerup, the Danish justice minister, noted that cooperation between the Danes and Germans was “excellent and efficient.” Continued intelligence sharing and ongoing cooperation between law enforcement and security services in Europe will remain essential to preventing future terrorist attacks. As evidenced by the Vienna attack perpetrated by Kujtim Fejzulai in November 2020, so-called “frustrated foreign fighters” – individuals that attempted to travel abroad to join ISIS but who were arrested and prevented from doing so – will continue to pose a danger. Images from the deplorable conditions at the al-Hol detention camp in northeastern Syria will also continue to serve as propaganda for ISIS, especially as its core leadership encourages its followers to “spend less time on social media and more effort on high-impact attacks,” as noted in a recent United Nations report. The national security and intelligence infrastructures leading the charge to address the breadth of extremist threats cannot afford to let up the pressure on either far-right or jihadist terrorism, given the transnational nature of both and feedback loop on tactics and rhetoric between them.