On February 14, Copenhagen experienced what may be described as the latest manifestation of pre-meditated urban terror when a lone gunman opened fire, first at a café hosting a seminar on ‘free speech and blasphemy’ and killed one 55-year-old innocent victim. The gunman was able to flee and then almost 10 hours later he moved to a Jewish synagogue where a religious ceremony was being held and killed a 37-year-old volunteer security guard. Again he managed to escape from the scene of the attack.

Three local police personnel were wounded in the attacks and a massive manhunt was launched over the weekend, even as a terrified city huddled in fear with the Charlie Hebdo massacre still fresh in the collective memory. The Danish police have since located the perpetrator of the attacks and announced that they had killed him in an exchange of fire. The identity of the attacker has not been disclosed but the fact that the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, better known for his controversial depictions of the Prophet Mohammed, was attending the free speech seminar has led to predictable conjecture.

The attack on the synagogue has also stoked the latent anti-Zionist fears and voices have been raised urging the Jewish community of Denmark to move to Israel for their safety. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt reflected the trauma of her people when she noted: “As a nation, we have experienced a series of hours we will never forget. We have tasted the ugly taste of fear and powerlessness that terror would like to create. But we have also, as a society, answered back.”

The choice of words is instructive and the focus on terror-induced ‘fear and powerlessness’ is likely to be the leitmotif over the next few years for many west European societies. In recent times, Paris, Madrid, London, Brussels and Stockholm, amongst other cities, have being differently subjected to terror attacks.

Campaign of retribution

While no group has claimed responsibility yet for this latest terror attack, conjecture points to the perpetrator being motivated by an anti-Zionist orientation and retribution fervour for the denigration of Prophet Mohammad. This is derived from the fact that the Swedish cartoonist Vilks was among those billed to speak at the Copenhagen café and he indeed went on record to suggest that he was the target of the attack.

It is instructive that the lone gunman not only managed to flee from the café but moved to his next target, the synagogue, and again escaped – this time in a taxi. Available police reports reveal that he went back to his apartment in Copenhagen in a rather unperturbed manner and was finally located based on television footage and the information provided by the taxi driver. Finally when the police moved in on the apartment, it is understood that the gunman resisted arrest and was killed in an exchange of fire. Further details are awaited and it is not clear at this stage if the gunman could have been captured alive.

Denmark as a nation has been the target of Islamic ire since the first cartoons relating to Prophet Mohammad were published in 2005. Blasphemy, in the more extreme interpretation of Islamic law, is punishable by death and the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris is only the most recent expression of this determination to seek revenge and retribution.

'Nightmare starts now'

The anxiety in Denmark and other west European countries over this challenge to free speech and the inflexible interpretation of blasphemy was further exacerbated by a dire warning issued by the Islamic State. A nine-minute video clip in Arabic and French was released on February 14, the day of the Copenhagen shootings, which threatened France and Belgium with more terrorist attacks by the cadres of the IS. The video clip warned: “France’s real nightmare starts now”, adding that the terror group will carry out more attacks in Paris in response to France having crossed “all the red lines”.

Thus the next few months are likely to witness episodic attempts in west European countries either by the IS cadres or staunch adherents of this violent ideology. Even while upholding the principle of free speech as enshrined in the liberal canon, the same ideology that leads to the massacre of innocent schoolchildren in Peshawar, the Paris killings and the excesses of the Boko Haram in parts of Africa needs to be objectively contextualised and quarantined in an innovative and effective multi-pronged manner. Neutralising the perpetrators is an immediate tactical response and warranted but a long term strategy is yet to be crystallised and this will be an arduous task.

Copenhagen is a grim reminder of the unease and turbulence that lies ahead for the café culture of Europe. Higher levels of police surveillance and intrusions into the social sphere, alas, may soon become the norm.

The writer is Director of the Society for Policy Studies in New Delhi.