As a picture began to emerge on Monday of the perpetrator of the Copenhagen terror attacks at the weekend, Danes were facing up to the likelihood that the long-expected threat of violence in the Nordic nation was unlikely to recede.
Martin Lidegaard, foreign minister, said it was “increasingly clear” that the suspect shot dead by police in the early hours of Sunday morning was Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein, 22, a Copenhagen-born Danish citizen of Palestinian descent who had a record of criminal violence. Police have neither confirmed nor denied the man’s identity.
“This was not a foreign fighter, not a member of the extremist environment as far as we know — it was a lone wolf,” Mr Lidegaard said. “In a civilised society it is very difficult to protect oneself from such a threat.”
Denmark became a focus for international al-Qaeda terrorists following the furore over the publication in 2005 by a Danish newspaper of cartoons mocking the Prophet Mohammed. But the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, known as Isis, in 2012 fuelled radicalisation among Danish Muslims at home.
Since then, European security officials estimate that about 3,000 people from Europe have joined jihadi groups fighting in Syria and Iraq. More than 100 have travelled from Denmark, according to Danish security estimates.
“Denmark does not have a particular problem compared with other European countries, but after the wars in Syria and Iraq we have seen an increase in Islamist groups,” Mr Lidegaard said. “Since 2005 we have lived with a terror threat in Denmark, and the risk [of further attacks] will remain high for some time.”
After this weekend’s attacks, Denmark was largely spared the hours of mounting panic that gripped France last month as the terrorists responsible for attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and a Jewish supermarket were hunted down. Danes awoke on Sunday morning to find the main suspect already dead, and families went ahead with the annual costumed Fastelavn celebrations.
Political parties have closed ranks behind Helle Thorning Schmidt, Denmark’s centre-left prime minister, who has been lagging behind in opinion polls as the country prepares for elections later this year. But with flags still flying at half mast on Monday, the contours of future political debate over the attacks were becoming clearer.
The rightwing populist Danish People’s party, which opinion polls suggest is now the country’s largest political force, with more than 21 per cent support, said the attacks vindicated its demands that protection of Jewish organisations be stepped up and radical mosques outlawed.
“Everybody expected this,” said Søren Espersen, a DPP deputy and former foreign policy spokesman. “For many years we have tried to get the police to maintain surveillance over the synagogue and the Jewish school in Copenhagen.”
The DPP also railed at what it saw as the ability of radical mosques and websites to get away with espousing anti-Semitism or support for groups such as Isis. Referring to the country’s much-vaunted anti-radicalisation programme for young Muslims, Mr Espersen added: “Dialogue and integrating radicals back into society is brilliant — but I doubt that it works.”
Talks with the authorities over enhancing security around Jewish facilities after the Paris attacks had not reached agreement before this weekend’s assault on the synagogue, in which a Jewish security guard died, a spokesman for the Jewish Community in Denmark said.
The Jewish community has deep roots in the country and is well integrated. There is a sense of pride in Danish society about the relationship — the Danish resistance during the second world war succeeded in evacuating many Jews to Sweden, helping them escape the Nazi occupation.
Immigrants of non-western background in Denmark make up about 7 per cent of the population, with the largest groups coming from Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan and Somalia. But in recent years Denmark has taken in barely a tenth of the number of asylum seekers from war-torn regions as neighbouring Sweden.
Scandinavia as a whole has been faced with evidence of Muslims from the region taking part in Islamist atrocities in Africa and the Middle East. This month it emerged that a Norwegian citizen was suspected of massacres in northeast Kenya last year, together with the Islamist al-Shabaab group, while a Norwegian took part in the 2013 terror assault on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi.
In October a Swede was arrested at London’s Heathrow airport and charged with terror offences, while an isolated area of Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city, has been identified by the EU’s anti-radicalisation task force as an epicentre of recruitment to jihadist causes.
The European Jewish Congress on Monday called on Denmark to “change the paradigm and take the battle to the radical Islamist enclaves” to bring terrorists and their supporters to justice.
The country’s parliament is set to pass a law enabling confiscation of passports from radicals to prevent them fighting for Islamist groups abroad. But a large role is played by social media in the recruitment of young and socially vulnerable Muslims to jihadi groups, according to security experts.
At Copenhagen’s synagogue, the site of the weekend’s second terror attack, Ida Hasselbalch and her boyfriend on Sunday added tulips to the heap of bouquets that had already been laid.
“We have many Muslim friends who are part of the Danish society, and they are not to blame for this,” she said. “But one fears that Facebook can ignite a hatred that is already there.”
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