Two Chicago men who were schoolmates in Pakistan plotted terrorist attacks against a Danish newspaper that triggered widespread protests by printing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, federal prosecutors said Tuesday in announcing charges against the men.
David Coleman Headley, 49, took trips to Denmark in January and July to conduct surveillance on possible targets, including the Copenhagen and Aarhus offices of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, prosecutors said in criminal complaints filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago. Tahawwur Hussain Rana, 48, helped arrange Headley's travel, prosecutors said.
Danish authorities said there could be more arrests.
According to U.S. prosecutors, Headley told FBI agents after his Oct. 3 arrest at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport that the initial plan called for attacks on the newspaper's offices, but that he later proposed just killing the paper's former cultural editor and the cartoonist behind the drawings, which triggered outrage throughout the Muslim world. He described his plans to contacts in Pakistan as "the Mickey Mouse project," according to the FBI.
The newspaper published twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed in 2005. One cartoon showed Mohammed wearing a bomb-shaped turban. Any depiction of the prophet, even a favorable one, is frowned on by Islamic law as likely to lead to idolatry.
Headley, a U.S. citizen who changed his name from Daood Gilani in 2006, is charged with conspiracy to commit terrorist acts involving murder and maiming outside the United States. He could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted. He was arrested as he boarded a flight to Philadelphia, the first leg of a trip to Pakistan.
Headley and Rana are each charged with conspiracy to provide material support to a foreign terrorism conspiracy, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison. Rana was arrested Oct. 18 in his home.
Headley's attorney, John Theis, said he would have no comment. Rana's attorney, Patrick Blegen, said that his client "is a well respected businessman in the Chicagoland community."
"He 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. "We would ask that the community respect the fact that these are merely allegations and not proof."
Nobody answered a knock at the door at Rana's Chicago home on Tuesday. Neighbors, who asked not to be quoted, said they did not know Rana or his family.
Jakob Scharf, the head of the Danish Security and Intelligence Service, or PET, called the alleged plot "serious" but said investigators didn't believe an attack was imminent. He said the alleged plotters considered various options, including using handguns and explosives, and that investigators seized footage of sites around Denmark ranging from the newspaper's offices to Copenhagen's main train station.
"We cannot exclude that there could be more arrests" in Denmark or other countries, Scharf said at a Tuesday news conference.
U.S. prosecutors said Headley was carrying a data stick in his luggage that contained surveillance video footage of sites in Denmark. They said Headley reported and attempted to report on his efforts to individuals with ties to terrorism overseas, including at least one with links to al-Qaida.
Headley and Rana attended school together in Pakistan, the FBI said in court papers. Headley posted a message on an Internet discussion site in October 2008 saying he resented the Danish cartoons and adding: "I feel disposed toward violence for the offending parties."
According to prosecutors, Headley told FBI agents after his arrest that he received training from a terrorist organization, Lashkar-e-Taiba, starting in 2006. Headley told agents he had worked with Ilyas Kashmiri, a Pakistani based terrorist with al-Qaida links, and that Kashmiri helped plan an attack in Denmark, prosecutors said.
He said he had surveilled the paper's offices in Copenhagen and Aarhus "in preparation for an attack to be carried out by persons associated with Kashmiri and Individual A," prosecutors said. They did not identify Individual A.
Headley told agents he "proposed that the operation against the newspaper be reduced from attacking the entire building in Copenhagen to killing the paper's cultural editor, Flemming Rose, and the cartoonist who drew the cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban, Kurt Westergaard, whom Headley felt was directly responsible for the cartoons."
Headley also told agents that he conducted surveillance of Danish troops posted near the newspaper, believing they might be a quick reaction force in the event of an attack. He also said he surveilled a Copenhagen synagogue in the mistaken belief of one of his contacts that Rose was Jewish."
Westergaard, 78, said in a posting on the Jyllands-Posten Web site that he trusts the Danish security services to keep him safe, but that "it is scary to be threatened."
"I am an old man so I am not so afraid anymore," he said.
U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said in a statement that "the public should be assured that there was no imminent danger in the Chicago area."
"However, law enforcement has a duty to be vigilant to guard against not just those who would carry out attacks here on our soil but those who plot on our soil to help carry out violent attacks overseas," Fitzgerald said.
Associated Press Writers Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen and Sophia Tareen in Chicago contributed to this report.