Copenhagen gunman reportedly freed from jail 2 weeks before deadly attacks

Denmark’s spy chief says gunman was known to the intelligence services prior to this weekend's shootings and probably acted alone.

Investigative personnel work at the scene of a cafe shooting in Oesterbro, Copenhagen (photo credit: REUTERS)
Investigative personnel work at the scene of a cafe shooting in Oesterbro, Copenhagen
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Police shot dead a 22-year-old Danish-born gunman on Sunday whose attacks on a Copenhagen synagogue and an event promoting free speech may have been inspired by an attack on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo last month, authorities said.

Denmark’s spy chief Jens Madsen said the gunman was known to the intelligence services prior to the shooting and probably acted alone. He did not elaborate.Two civilians were killed and five police were wounded in the two separate attacks in the Danish capital on Saturday.Danish media widely reported the gunman to be Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein. Reuters could not confirm his identity and police declined to comment.Danish media said El-Hussein had been jailed for stabbing a 19-year-old man in the leg on a Copenhagen train in 2013, and was freed a few weeks ago.“We cannot yet say anything concrete about the motive... but are considering that he might have been inspired by the events in Paris some weeks ago,” Madsen said.Danish authorities have been on alert since Islamist gunmen killed 17 people in three days of violence in Paris in January, which began with an attack on Charlie Hebdo, long known for its acerbic cartoons on Islam, other religions and politicians.Police, who had earlier released a photo of the suspect dressed in a heavy winter coat and maroon mask, said they did not believe he had received training in jihadist camps in the Middle East.Witnesses to the Copenhagen attacks said the gunman fired as many as 40 shots at a cafe hosting a free-speech event with Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has received death threats for depicting the head of the Prophet Mohammad on a dog.Vilks was unhurt, but a 55-yearold man was killed. A Jewish guard, Dan Uzan, was later shot in the head outside Copenhagen’s biggest synagogue, where around 80 people were celebrating a bat mitzva.Two police officers were also wounded there.Police shot dead the suspect early on Sunday after he opened fire on them near a railway station in the Noerrebro district, not far from the sites of the two attacks.Officers later searched his home, which was nearby.Prime Minister Helle Thorning- Schmidt said the attacks were terrorism and promised to protect freedom of speech and Denmark’s small but vibrant Jewish community.“When you mercilessly fire deadly bullets at innocent people taking part in a debate, when you attack the Jewish community, you attack our democracy,” Thorning- Schmidt said outside the synagogue.“We will do everything possible to protect our Jewish community.”Denmark’s former chief rabbi, Rabbi Bent Lexner, told Israeli Army Radio the synagogue guard was “a fantastic guy,” adding, “We are in shock. I am sitting now with the parents of the man killed. We didn’t think such a thing could happen in Denmark.”Denmark has been a symbol of European tolerance and of the battle against anti-Semitism for years, ever since World War II, evoking the popular legend of King Christian X’s threat to the Nazis that he would don the Star of David himself should the Danish Jews be forced to wear it.The beautiful 19th-century stone building of the Great Synagogue is at the center of local Jewish life, not only for daily services but also a variety of community activities and Jewish studies. For many, the attacks, right at the center of the Danish capital, have shaken many – Jews and non-Jews alike.Jewish leaders from around Europe expressed their solidarity with the Danish community following the murder of Uzan. French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld told The Jerusalem Post that Islamist extremism and the rise of the far-right in Europe “must ring warning bells all around the continent.’’ Rabbi Yitzhak Leventhal, who heads the Chabad Copenhagen Center, said the community leaders have started to hold crisis-management meetings, dealing first and foremost with the security issue, while confronting the community’s anguish. He said he told community members to turn to him, feeling torn between shock and bewilderment.“I cannot say that I was surprised.Ever since the attacks in Paris last month I feared that such an attack might occur here as well,” he said.“And there are quite a lot of people within the community who shared these fears, and were thus, unfortunately, not surprised by what happened.’’ Leventhal said that, for the moment, the Jewish community is receiving messages of solidarity from all around the country.“Danish political leaders are reaching out to us, but it is difficult to say what the long-term effect of this attack will be,” he said. “I already hear voices of Jews claiming that it might not be realistic to continue living here. That Jewish life cannot go on in Copenhagen the way we have been living here before and that Jews here need to make aliyah.”Leventhal also spoke of the Jewish guard’s exceptional character.“Dan Uzan was such a gentle person. He had big shoulders and an imposing presence, but with such a broad smile and with kind words to anyone he met,” he said. “He was much liked here by the community and appreciated for the work he was doing, putting his life on line.The murder of Dan has broken our hearts.’’ Rabbi Menachem Margolin, head of the European Jewish Association, said “The writing was on the wall in August this year when a Jewish school in the city was stoned and sprayed with anti-Semitic graffiti.“We demand that European governments, as well as EU institutions, will implement our call for the establishment of a Pan-European task force in order to increase security around Jewish institutions and enhance education against the rampant anti-Semitism.”Speaking on terms on anonymity, Danish Jews expressed their pain over the changes their country has undergone in the past few years.Some blame it upon the growing Muslim community in Denmark and the sympathy toward the Palestinian cause; others are more careful, emphasizing that it is radical Islam, and not the Danish Muslim community, which is targeting their peaceful existence.Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary- general of the European Jewish Congress, said he and his colleagues have been warning the European authorities for 25 years of the increasing threats faced by the Jewish community.“We feel these threats all around the European continent,” he said.“The different attacks in Paris, Toulouse, Brussels, Copenhagen and in other cities, carried similar characteristics, the same modus operandi.The same worrisome signs of anti-Semitic terrorism.“We have asked the authorities, both nationally and on the European level, to take the necessary measures to deal with this phenomenon, but obviously not enough has been done about it. And the proof is that within the battle fought by the free world against global terrorism, hides another war, which is directed against Jews, specifically.”Cwajgenbaum said he deplores the fact that living under police protection has become the norm for Jewish institutions around the world.“Is it normal to send your child to school escorted by police each day,” he asked.Contrary to other Jewish leaders, he does not expect a massive wave of immigration to Israel, but rather a moderate increase in individual decisions to make aliya.“Sentiments among European Jews are mixed,” he said. “Some see these latest events as a renewal of the scenario played in Europe during the 1930s. Others are confident that the authorities will protect them. And there are those who will redirect their lives towards Israel from now on.”In a statement to the press, Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, warned of the ongoing threat hovering over European Jews.“The Jewish community in Denmark is a microcosm of what is happening to Jewish communities across the continent,” he said. “On the one hand, they are under attack from extremist Muslims who see every Jew as a legitimate target. On the other hand, freedom of religion is curtailed by the government, religious slaughter has been forbidden and the parliament is in discussions about the future of religious circumcision.“I truly hope that this latest attack will lead the people of Denmark to rally behind the Jewish community just as they did in 1943, securing the future of the community.”