Danish newspaper plotter arrested twice before
Former Guantanamo detainee Mehdi Ghezali's Swedish passport. Ghezali was arrested in 2009 in Pakistan along with Munir Awad, the primary suspect in the most recently foiled Danish newspaper plot. Image from The Associated Press/Washington Times..
One of the suspects arrested in connection with the recently foiled terrorist plot against Jyllands-Posten, a Danish newspaper that printed cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, has been arrested twice before.
Munir Awad was among the suspects arrested earlier this week for plotting to kill employees at the Danish newspaper, according to The Local, a Swedish publication. Awad had been arrested twice before because of his suspected ties to the terror network -- once by Ethiopian forces in Somalia and a second time in Pakistan.
On both of the previous occasions, Awad and his supporters claimed that he and his traveling companions were merely vacationing.
"Vacationing" in Somalia
In 2007, Awad and his girlfriend, the then 17-year-old Saifa Benaouda, were detained in Somalia. They were suspected of answering the call for jihad. New recruits were streaming into Somalia from around the world at the time.
But the worldwide press ran Benaouda's story that she and Awad were just a young couple mixed up in a foreign adventure. For instance, The New York Times published an account entitled, "Young Tourists Pick Somalia, and a 3-Nation Ordeal Begins." The Times described Benaouda as having a "blend of naiveté and a love of travel" and explained that she and Awad just happened upon Somalia while in pursuit of an "authentic" Muslim vacation.
Benaouda, according to the Times, "disavow[ed] any political or religious motive for her venture into Somalia, and says her boyfriend is also not political." The Times concluded its piece by assuring readers: "While there is no telling whether there are similar adventures in store for Ms. Benaouda as she exercises her wanderlust, her immediate future promises to be uneventful."
Benaouda's passport had supposedly been confiscated by American soldiers, according to the Times, and Ms. Benaouda's mother, who heads a prominent Muslim organization in Sweden, "had no intention of signing the parental consent form that a minor needed to get another one."
2009 arrests in northern Pakistan
In August 2009, Benaouda and Awad, along with their young son, were arrested again. This time they were traveling to northern Pakistan. A former Guantanamo detainee named Mehdi Ghezali was part of their traveling party and was arrested as well.
The Swedish press has reported that Ghezali had previously served 10 months in prison in Portugal because he was suspected of burglarizing tourists and stores. He was freed and attempted to study Islam in Saudi Arabia, but failed to do so. He traveled to London where he may have studied under Omar Bakri Muhammad, a notorious jihadist preacher.
Ghezali then made his way to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he claims he stayed with family. Press reports indicate that he is suspected of staying in a notorious al Qaeda safehouse in Jalalabad instead. Ghezali was arrested in Pakistan in December 2001.
"Ghezali reportedly was part of a group of 156 suspected al-Qaida fighters caught while fleeing Afghanistan's Tora Bora mountains," according to the Associated Press.
Ghezali was sent to Guantanamo and his story became a cause for attorneys and activists in Sweden who portrayed him as a wrongly-detained innocent. In July 2004, Ghezali was transferred from Cuba to Sweden.
But the controversy surrounding Ghezali was not over. Five years after he left Gitmo, Ghezali, along with Awad, Benouada, and nine others, was detained in northern Pakistan. The group had traveled through Iran, and one member of the entourage was an Iranian.
Shortly thereafter, another Muslim Swede, Sahbi Zalouti, was arrested in the same area of Pakistan. Zalouti was also picked up this week in connection with the plot against Jyllands-Posten.
Through their attorneys, Benaouada, Awad, and Ghezali all professed their innocence, claiming they were simply on a pilgrimage to a "larger Pakistani city" in order to celebrate Ramadan.
Pakistani authorities claimed otherwise.
Expressen, a Swedish newspaper, reported that the group may have had the Danish embassy in Islamabad in its sights. A bomb belt, $10,000 in cash stuffed in diapers, maps, and other "detailed information" concerning Western embassies were reportedly found in the group's possession. If this is true, then it is possible the group had planned an operation similar to the plot against Jyllands-Posten, targeting the Danish embassy as retribution for the controversial cartoons.
The Local explains that the "Swedes were part of a group of foreigners thought by Pakistani police to be travelling in the company of a terror suspect who was bringing the group to the lawless region of northern Waziristan to meet Zahir Noor, a suspected Taliban leader."
According to yet another Swedish publication, Aftonbladet, "the group's 20-year-old Pakistani guide exposed the Swedes, and confessed to having had the task of taking them to a local leader with connections to al-Qaida."
And in an interview with the Associated Press after the arrests, Mohammad Rizwan, a Pakistani police chief, described Ghezali as "a very dangerous man."
Awad is one of three suspects arrested in Denmark on Wednesday. Zalouti was arrested in Sweden. European officials have concluded that the four intended to launch a "Mumbai-style" plot against Jyllands-Posten.
The three men who were brought before a Danish court "were accused of being in possession of a machine pistol, a 9-millimeter pistol, ammunition for both and a silencer," according to The New York Times. Quoting from a Danish charge sheet, the Times explains that the men picked up the weapons in Sweden and "then on Dec. 29, 2010, drove into Denmark from Sweden, where using the weapons, they intended to attack Jyllands-Posten and kill an unknown number of people."
Thus far, the press has not reported that Awad or his alleged co-conspirators really intended to vacation in Denmark.