The video surfaced on YouTube last month. Abu Khattab, a Danish member of the radical Salafi group Call to Islam, squats on a hillside in rebel-controlled Syria, cradling a Kalashnikov rifle, surrounded by three bearded and severe-looking men. He is waging jihad here, in this blood-drenched country choked by chemical weapons and on the precipice of Western military intervention. But Khattab has something else on his mind. In heavily accented Danish, he suborns the murder of “enemies of Islam” and murtadeen (apostates) living in Denmark, encouraging his co-religionists not to “forget the mockery” they have visited upon the Prophet Muhammad.
After Khattab’s short speech, the men drop to one knee, training their guns on a mud wall plastered with images of writers, artists, and politicians who have offended their religious sensibilities. They empty their clips. One jihadist pumps his fist in celebration. The camera cuts to the photo of the former radical Danish imam Ahmed Akkari, holding a copy of that infamous Danish cartoon—Muhammad with a lit bomb swaddled in his turban.
The picture of Akkari—once a hero of Islamism who not so long ago stalked the Middle East, inciting hatred against Denmark for not condemning a series of satirical drawings—was turned into confetti.
In 2005 Akkari was a baby-faced religious leader, the pious but integrated immigrant called upon by the Danish media to explain Muslim discontent with the West. Danish historian Jytte Klausen found that between 1999 and October 2007, Jyllands-Posten, the country’s largest circulating daily, “published nearly 300 stories featuring Akkari.”
Many of those citations would come after September 2005, when Jyllands-Posten published 12 satirical drawings of the Prophet Muhammad—some respectful, some mocking Islam, some mocking the newspaper for soliciting them—that precipitated what is known in Denmark as “the cartoon crisis.” Flemming Rose, the editor who commissioned the illustrations, would later write that publication of the caricatures was “prompted by my perception of prevalent self-censorship among the Danish media,” a fear that the Islamic proscription on images of the prophet were encroaching on the country’s free-speech traditions. Most of the drawings have long since been forgotten. But it was a cartoon by artist Kurt Westergaard depicting Muhammad with a bomb in his turban that would provoke a violent global crisis.
“It was Westergaard’s image that change my life,” Rose wrote in his memoir of the “cartoon crisis,” published in 2010. It would dramatically alter Westergaard’s life, too. And Ahmed Akkari’s.