Why would a young man in one of the happiest countries on earth commit a brutal act of terrorism? Inside the mind of Copenhagen killer Omar El–Hussein.
Omar El–Hussein in a photo he posted to his Facebook page
At about 3.30pm on February 14 last year, Omar El-Hussein cut down a back street in Østerbro, a quiet neighbourhood near the centre of Copenhagen, and steadily approached the Krudttønden cultural centre.
A panel discussion inside featured Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist who’d been living under police protection since 2007, when he published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, now the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, had announced a bounty of at least £70,000 on Vilks’s head. A heavy security detail—two Swedish bodyguards, two uniformed cops and three agents from Denmark’s security and intelligence service (PET)—scanned the guests as they arrived.
Standing about six feet from the centre’s glass facade, 22-year-old El-Hussein withdrew an M95 assault rifle from a bag and opened fire. Several agents managed to return fire, but there’s no evidence that they hit El-Hussein. Finn Nørgaard, a 55-year-old filmmaker, was killed and four security agents were injured.
“The government is against us. Straight up: those who depict our prophet, we’ll blow them up.”
El-Hussein got away and eventually made his way to Mjølnerparken, the low-income housing project where he’d been born. At 4.15pm, according to the Danish newspaper Politiken, El-Hussein entered a nearby apartment and changed his clothes to disguise his appearance. After that, Danish news reports state that at 10pm El-Hussein spent 30 minutes at a local internet cafe.
He resurfaced at 12.41am outside Copenhagen’s Great Synagogue, where a Bat Mitzvah party was under way. Two policemen, their machine guns hanging loosely by their straps, stood guard outside. As El-Hussein stumbled towards the men, pretending to be drunk, a 37-year-old security volunteer named Dan Uzan joined them in front of the building. El-Hussein produced two handguns and fired at least six rounds at the guards, killing Uzan and wounding both officers. One of the policemen was able to return fire—a single shot, which missed.
El-Hussein managed to get away again. When police caught sight of him in Mjølnerparken on a live surveillance feed at about 5am, they scrambled to the scene. After they reportedly called out to him to surrender, he opened fire and was gunned down.
El-Hussein’s attack came just weeks after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, and the parallels between the two incidents seem clear. Like the shooters in Paris, El-Hussein was a troubled young man. But he was also something more: a Muslim in a formerly ethnically homogeneous European nation that’s now decidedly less so, and struggling with it.
A man kneels next to flowers laid in honour of the shooting victims. Image via Times of Israel
In the 1960s, Denmark experienced its first major wave of non-European immigration, as guest workers from Turkey, Pakistan and Morocco came to fill manufacturing jobs. Many were slotted into social housing. A decade later immigration controls were ratcheted down and family reunification became the main channel for non-European immigration.
When it was built in 1987, Mjølnerparken boasted some 600 fairly sizeable one- to three-bedroom apartments, centrally located near Nørrebro railway station. But it quickly became a hub for immigrant families, and those with the resources to move soon took flight.
Its transformation coincided with a new immigration trend, beginning in the 1980s, in which family reunification would be overshadowed by the arrival of refugees from war-ravaged Muslim countries such as Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia and Bosnia.
In a historically homogeneous country uncomfortable with public displays of religion, it was also the start of a continuing debate—many Danish Muslims would call it an anti-Muslim discourse—about the place of religion in Danish society.
"He was a good man, but when people put pressure on us… then you explode."
Together with Jens Beck Nielsen, a journalist for Berlingske, a top Danish newspaper, I retraced the path of El-Hussein’s escape. We passed the modest four-storey brick building where El-Hussein’s mother and brother live—no one answered the doorbell—and proceeded down a main thoroughfare lined with housing projects.
El-Hussein was a member of a gang called the Brothas. Outside the group’s clubhouse, located in the basement of one of the buildings in Mjølnerparken’s housing block, we met two of his friends: a thin 19 year-old named Abdurramadan, who had a short beard of wispy scruff, and Ahmed, a slightly cherubic 20-year-old who requested that I not use his real name.
No one fully understands El-Hussein’s motives and he acted alone, the young men insisted. Yet his horrific actions were almost inevitable, they said, a consequence of a society that views Muslims as second-class citizens.
“He was a good man,” Ahmed said of El-Hussein.
“But when people put pressure on us... then you explode,” Abdurramadan continued. He explained the implicit racism in Danish society—the way the police treat Muslims and politicians talk about them, the way cartoonists lampoon their prophet and call it freedom of speech, and how the military joins US-backed combat operations across the Muslim world. “The government is against us,” he said. “Straight up: those who depict our prophet, we’ll blow them up.”
Søren Rosenberg, a former policeman in Mjølnerparken who’s now a social worker there, said the young men’s heated rhetoric shouldn’t be taken strictly at face value. Their bluster disguised an element of shock. “I’m sure they fully understand what he [El-Hussein] did,” Rosenberg said.
Social workers who counselled El-Hussein’s gang associates and childhood friends had told me that members of El-Hussein’s circle admit that there’d always been an extremism to his political views, maybe even some underlying mental instability. But in front of two journalists, they seemed eager to portray their friend in a less hostile light.
“He’s completely normal, just like the rest of us,” Abdurramadan said.