WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two Chicago men have been arrested and charged with plotting to attack a Danish newspaper whose cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed -- including one with him wearing a bomb in a turban -- led to deadly protests by Muslims, the U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday.
The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 published the controversial cartoons of Mohammad, the founder of Islam, which were subsequently republished elsewhere and sparked protests that killed several dozen people.
U.S. authorities accused David Headley, 49 and a U.S. citizen, of hatching the plot in late 2008 to attack the paper and said he posted to an Internet discussion group that he felt “disposed toward violence” because of the published cartoons.
Dubbing the scheme the “Mickey Mouse Project,” Headley traveled twice to Denmark this year where he visited two offices of the Danish newspaper -- in Copenhagen and Arhus -- taking video and posing as a potential advertiser on behalf of a Chicago business, First World Immigration Services.
That business is owned by Tahawwur Hussain Rana, 48 and a Canadian citizen, who was arrested on October 18 at his home in Chicago on a charge of conspiracy for discussing potential targets with Headley and helping him make travel plans, the Justice Department said.
Headley also traveled to Pakistan where he met with a leader of a group with ties to al Qaeda, Harakat-ul Jihad Islami, and communicated with members of the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba about plans to attack the newspaper, the U.S. government said.
He was arrested on October 3 as he was about to fly from Chicago to Pakistan. He also had a ticket to Copenhagen from the United States on October 29, though a Danish official said they did not believe an attack was imminent.
“This is an investigation that is ongoing. We will continue to cooperate very closely with the FBI but also with security services in a number of other countries to curb the threat,” Jakob Scharf, head of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service (PET), told a news conference in a Copenhagen suburb.
The U.S. Justice Department said there was no imminent danger in the Chicago area and that the arrests were unrelated to other recent terrorism cases, including one involving an Afghan man arrested in Colorado, Najibullah Zazi, for plotting to detonate bombs in the United States.
In an interview with FBI agents after being arrested in Chicago, Headley said that he proposed scaling back the plot to kill the cultural editor and the cartoonist rather than attack the newspaper’s building, an FBI affidavit said.
He also told them that he had worked with Lashkar-e-Taiba previously and received training from them. The group has been accused of last year’s assault on Mumbai and was designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States.
Lawyers for Headley were not immediately available for comment while Rana’s lawyer, Patrick Blegen, said his client “adamantly denies the charges and eagerly awaits his opportunity to contest them in court and to clear his and his family’s name.”
Blegen said he would seek his client’s release on bond on Wednesday at a hearing. If convicted, Headley faces life in prison and Rana faces up to 15 years in prison. The Justice Department said its investigation was also continuing.
The re-publication of the cartoon in several newspapers sparked violent protests in Muslim countries in 2006, prompting the newspaper to apologize, though the Danish government defended the paper’s right to freedom of expression.
The editor of the Jyllands-Posten, Jorn Mikkelsen, said on Danish TV2 news that employees were in shock.
“We had a feeling that this case had faded away but now we must realize that the threat against us is even bigger today than before,” Mikkelsen said. The newspaper was following closely the instructions of the PET, but would not back down from its principles in the face of the threat, he said.
“You know our position on the freedom of speech, and in that fight we are in the front line,” Mikkelsen said.
Additional reporting by John Acher and Erik Matzenin Copenhagen and Andrew Stern in Chicago. Editing by Sandra Maler and Vicki Allen