The Danish-Cartoonist Attack: Sign of a Wider Plot?

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Ernst van Norde / Polfoto / AP

A television crew is seen outside the home of Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard (center, background) in Aarhus, Denmark, after an intruder was shot and wounded there by police.

A week after the so-called Underwear Bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, exposed intelligence failures in the U.S. when he tried to blow up a Detroit-bound plane, Kenya and Denmark are trying to explain a similar gaffe that may have far more fearsome implications.

In Copenhagen on Friday, Jan. 1, a Somali man identified by Kenyan police as Mohammed Muhideen Gelle allegedly tried to stab a Danish cartoonist who drew one of the 12 cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked a furor in the Muslim world in 2005. Kenyan police and intelligence sources have revealed that they arrested him last year on terrorism suspicions and then deported him to Denmark, where he has residency.

Both cases exposed intelligence problems, but while the bombing attempt on the Detroit plane was believed to be the work of one misguided youth who may or may not have had links to al-Qaeda, analysts fear that the alleged attack on the Danish cartoonist may signal a wider plot by radical Islamists in Somalia to take their fight abroad.

The al-Shabab militia in Somalia, which is suspected to have ties to al-Qaeda, would not say whether it was involved in the plot to kill the cartoonist, Kurt Westergaard. But Sheik Muktar Robow, a spokesman for the group, did say that Gelle, who was shot by Danish police during his arrest, was a "hero to all Muslims." "We are very sad that the mission failed," Robow tells TIME. "Everyone describes him as a brave man, and as a group, al-Shabab prays for him to recover quickly from his injuries."

Even though al-Shabab has not claimed responsibility for the attack, the Danish Security and Intelligence Service has said Gelle had "close relations to the Somali terror organization al-Shabab and leaders of al-Qaeda in East Africa." Al-Shabab has also made repeated, impassioned proclamations that it wants to carry its fight to the rest of eastern Africa and beyond, possibly to the West. And while its resources are not believed to be extensive, it has shown recent signs of increasing sophistication, like using suicide bombs and improvised explosive devices.

"It's quite clear that al-Shabab has international ambitions," says E.J. Hogendoorn, a Nairobi-based Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. "It has an international agenda in that it sees itself in part as relating to the larger Muslim population. So when they can get away with a high-profile attack that they think will generate support, I think they will do so. The question is whether they have the capacity to do so."

If this is indeed the case, then the attack on the Danish cartoonist, which may or may not have been part of the group's plans, raises the question of whether the Kenyan police have the capacity to stop potential Somali attackers from entering their country and possibly continuing on to other nations.

In Gelle's case, the Kenyans got several things right. Police officials confirm that he was on a terrorist-watch list and had been arrested in Nairobi last year before U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Kenya. An intelligence source in Nairobi tells TIME on condition of anonymity that officers had been following Gelle in Nairobi before Clinton's visit and spotted him with other Somalis with European residency "acting suspicious" at various Nairobi landmarks, including the conference center where Clinton later gave a speech. The source tells TIME that officers eventually arrested Gelle at a hotel in the predominantly Somali area of Eastleigh for having improper documents. He was held for seven weeks and then deported to Denmark, where he had lived since he was a teenager.

Kenya has been an eager U.S. ally in its battle against terrorism ever since al-Qaeda blew up the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998. In recent months, the government has received U.S. funding for its antiterrorism activities, which include training Somali security forces. The country is increasingly seen as a bulwark against the Islamic extremists in Somalia, its neighbor to the north.

But for all their successes, Kenya's security services have also made their share of mistakes, as this week has shown. On Monday, Jan. 4, the government announced it would deport a radical Muslim cleric, Sheik Abdullah el-Faisal, who had been able to enter the country on Christmas Eve for a series of sermons even though he was also on an international terrorist-watch list and had done prison time in Britain for inciting racial hatred.

Immigration Minister Otieno Kajwang says el-Faisal had slipped over the border at a crossing that didn't have computer access to the international watch list. He did not mention that very few of Kenya's land-border crossings have such access, nor that it may not matter anyhow — the vast majority of Kenya's borders with Somalia, Tanzania and Uganda are unmarked, unfenced and unpatrolled.

"It's impossible to interdict everyone coming to Kenya from Somalia," Hogendoorn says. "The border is just a line in the sand — not to mention, they could sail a dhow down from Somalia to a Kenyan village on the coast. It would be extremely difficult for Kenya to defend against a terrorist attack on a soft target."