Denmark gunman: Could more have been done to stop him?

The suspect in two fatal attacks in Copenhagen last weekend, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, appears to have traveled a path from criminal to jihadist in prison.

Michael Probst/AP
Hundreds of people gathered for a vigil near the cultural club in Copenhagen, Denmark, Monday. The slain gunman behind two deadly shooting attacks in Copenhagen was released from jail just two weeks ago and might have become radicalized there last summer, AP reported.

The parallels between the shooting attacks in Copenhagen and Paris are hard to ignore. Both targeted Jews and cartoonists who had caricatured the prophet Muhammad. Both were carried out by young Muslim men with troubled pasts and criminal records. And both left Danes and French wondering: Why wasn’t more done to prevent them?

After all, the argument goes, law enforcement agencies in both countries had been alerted to the gunmen’s exposure to extremist ideologies. But while the Paris gunmen – the Kouachi brothers and Amedy Coulibaly – had clear ties to radical Islam, including weapons training in Yemen, Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, the suspected gunman in Copenhagen, had less obvious connections.

Much remains to be learned about the 22-year-old former gang member and what drove him to allegedly carry out last weekend’s killing spree that ended Sunday morning when police fatally shot him.

A Denmark native with Palestinian parents, El-Hussein had been in and out of prison since 2011 after being convicted on weapons violence charges. By most accounts he appears to have been, in his late teens, more of a street criminal than a would-be jihadist.

His transformation seems to have occurred behind bars. The Danish newspaper Berlingske reported Monday that, while in prison, Hussein spoke openly about his desire to travel to Syria to fight with the self-described Islamic State. His remarks, the paper said, led prison officials to put his name on a list of 40 criminals radicalized in Danish prisons. 

The Associated Press reports that Denmark's domestic intelligence service, known by its Danish acronym PET, acknowledged Tuesday that prison officials alerted the agency last year to El-Hussein. A source close to the investigation told AP that a change in his behavior last summer set off "alarm bells" for jail authorities.

In Denmark, correctional facilities report to PET if any inmates are at risk of joining extremist groups or carrying out radical acts. Such warnings usually set in motion counter-radicalization efforts, such as counseling in jail.

PET said it received the report from prison officials last September, five months before the gunman killed two people and wounded five others in separate attacks on a free-speech event and a synagogue over the weekend. But the agency said the report didn't give any reason to believe that El-Hussein was planning an attack. 

It wasn't immediately clear if the court was aware of the report's findings before El-Hussein was released about two weeks ago after serving time for aggravated assault.

"We are in the middle of an investigation with many aspects, many things to look into, there are lots of unanswered questions right now," PET chief Jens Madsen told AP. As the news wire reports:

Authorities have said the gunman may have been inspired by last month’s terror attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris. But Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt said there was no indication he was part of a wider cell, and no known terrorist group has taken responsibility for the attacks.

As fear of radical Islam spreads across Europe, the deadly attacks in Copenhagen could test Denmark’s approach to confronting the threat posed by homegrown extremists. In November, The Christian Science Monitor reported on a program in the city of Aarhus that helps reintegrate returnees from Syria and Iraq. Critics cited the program as an example of the Danish government’s “soft” policies.

But Aarhus officials counter that as discrimination against Muslims increases amid Islamic State beheadings and other atrocities against Westerners, the government has to balance punishment with prevention. It is the isolation and failure to integrate that fosters extremism, says East Jutland Police Commissioner Jorgen Ilum. 

“The alternative to what we do here is not punishment, but rather doing nothing,” says Mr. Ilum. “This is crime prevention. Some wrongly call it a ‘soft approach,’ we call it the ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’ approach.”

While the Aarhus integration efforts have received most of the attention, the city’s biggest success to date is in prevention. Just one resident is known to have left for Syria or Iraq in 2014, compared to 30 in 2013.

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