Danish Jews Say Community Not Properly Protected, Despite Security Threats

PM Thorning-Schmidt denies synagogue wasn't sufficiently protected; local Jewish leader says it took Denmark time to realize 'we need a different approach with all that is happening across Europe.'

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, center, and Rabbi Bent Lexner, right, speak to the media outside a synagogue where an attack took place in Copenhagen, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.
Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, center, and Rabbi Bent Lexner, right, speak to the media outside a synagogue where an attack took place in Copenhagen, Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

COPENHAGEN – The central synagogue in Copenhagen is war-scarred. Thirty years ago a bomb laid by a Palestinian terror organization detonated next to it without causing casualties. On Monday morning normal service resumed with shacharit prayers at a quarter to seven, after a 24-hour closure at the request of the police, following the murder of community member and security volunteer Dan Uzan, who was shot at the entrance during a bat mitzvah party on Saturday night.

About 20 men attended prayers, a few more than usual on weekdays. They passed an armed police cordon and then through two electric gates leading to a sterile zone. The gates, along with a new closed-circuit camera system, had been installed following the rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the wake of the fighting in Gaza last summer, including a series of anti-Israel demonstrations in central Copenhagen where people chanted in support of Hamas.

Last month, following the attacks in Paris, the leaders of the Danish Jewish community asked the Justice Ministry, which is charge of the security services, to increase protection of Jewish buildings in the capital.

“They answered that we are already protected at the highest level,” says one community leader. “The problem is that it takes a long time in Denmark to change anything, and that includes the realization that we need a different approach with all that is happening across Europe.”

Officially, the ministry informed them that they were reassessing the threat level to the community, and that the reassessment was still going on last weekend when the attacks took place.

“We asked that police be stationed at the synagogue during services and events and at the Jewish school when kids arrive in the morning,” said community chairman Dan Rosenberg-Asmussen. “Those discussions haven’t ended, but now it’s quite obvious that there’s a need.”

PM: 'Increased protection at synagogue'

At a briefing Monday for the international media, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt denied that the reassessment had dragged on. “The protection of the Jewish synagogue had been increased after the Paris attacks,” she said in reply to a question from Haaretz. “As soon as the [first] attack on [the art cafe took place Saturday] afternoon, the Danish police had increased protection of the synagogue. We had the security in place and had we not had the security in place, the situation could have ended much worse than it did.”

On this point as well, there is a divergence between the official version and that of the Jewish community. Rosenberg-Asmussen said, “When we called the police [after the first attack] there was no police in front of the synagogue. There was police in the area but not on the spot.”

Rosenberg-Asmussen's version tallies with eyewitnesses' from the scene. Ronen Thalmay, a guest at the bat mitzvah party, said, "When we arrived at the synagogue, there were no police at the entrance. They must have arrived later, while we were there."

The question marks surrounding the level of security for the synagogue on the night of the attack are being added to those surrounding what is beginning to look like a much wider, major security failure. The Danish media have published the name of the killer, Omar Abdel al-Hussein, a 22-year-old Copenhagen resident, who was shot dead in the early hours of Sunday morning by a police ambush. The Danish government has yet to officially acknowledge his name or the fact that he was the gunman in both incidents. The local media have reported that Hussein was known to police as a criminal gang member who had been arrested for illegal possession of weapons and released from prison only two weeks ago. In prison he had spoken of his desire to travel to Syria and join jihadist fighters, and his name was on a list of 39 prisoners who had been radicalized while behind bars.

It is still unclear why the Danish security services did not continue monitoring Hussein after he was released following a court order. After the first shooting attack at the event in the art cafe – in which artist Lars Vilks, under threat for depicting the Prophet Mohammed as a dog, was the target but filmmaker Finn Noorgard was the fatal victim – Hussein returned home, then went out to attack the synagogue nearly 10 hours later. He was identified from security camera footage, but was only located and shot outside an apartment where weapons and camouflage uniforms were found, four hours after the synagogue assault.

Jans Madsen, chief of Denmark’s security and intelligence service, PET, told reporters it still wasn’t clear whether Hussein spent any time in the Middle East, and they were still investigating whether he had been inspired by the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher grocery in Paris.

Thorning-Schmidt refused to comment on the investigation and would only say that from the evidence so far, it did not seem that the “alleged perpetrator” had been a member of, or directed by, a larger cell. She insisted, “This is not a conflict between Islam and the West. Not a conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is a conflict between the core values of our society and violent extremists.”

However, when she was asked whether her government would reassess its security methods, she almost slipped, saying, “We will evaluate our fight against Is ... radicalization.”

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