Profile of Danish Terrorist Gunman Omar Abdel Hamid El-Hussein and How He Slipped Through Danish Security Net
April 22, 2015
Special Report - How Denmark’s unexpected killer slipped through the net
April 22, 2015
COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - On
Valentine’s Day, two weeks after his release from prison, Omar Abdel
Hamid El-Hussein walked up to a Copenhagen cafe hosting a debate on
freedom of speech and sprayed it with bullets.
As a manhunt began, the 22-year-old went to ground. Nine hours
later he launched a second assault, this time on a synagogue. Police
eventually shot him dead, ending a rampage that left Danish filmmaker
Finn Noergaard and security guard Dan Uzan dead, and six people wounded.
The attacks on Feb. 14 and 15 shocked Danes, who prize their
country’s openness and sense of security. The country was further
confounded when it emerged that prison officials had warned Denmark’s
domestic intelligence agency that Hussein was at risk of being
radicalised. If Denmark’s prison system – famed for its focus on
rehabilitation and education over punishment – could not prevent a young
man from turning into an Islamist killer, then perhaps it was not the
model that many Danes believe it was. Parliament demanded an inquiry
into the attacks and how both the prison system and the municipality had
handled Hussein’s case.
In interviews with dozens of people, including a former
cellmate and a source familiar with the as-yet unpublished official
investigation, Reuters has learned new details about Hussein and his
final months. His story seems to show how quickly people can be
radicalised and how easily they can slip through the net, even a net as
supportive and ostensibly secure as Denmark’s.
Those who knew Hussein both inside prison and out say the son
of Palestinian immigrants was a violent and troubled 22-year-old, but
not a long-term convert to radical Islam. For most of his life he was a
rebel without any obvious cause. He drank alcohol, listened to Katy
Perry and did not appear very religious.
Something changed in his final six months in prison, according
to the source familiar with the official investigation. In September,
according to the source, Hussein started talking about travelling to
Syria. Two months later another young inmate who spent time with Hussein
was found supporting extremist group Islamic State on social media
using a hidden cell phone. Hussein was increasingly religiously
observant, according to the source, and attacked another inmate just
weeks before his release.
Such rapid transformations are becoming more common, according
to Matthew Levitt, a counter-terrorism and radicalisation expert at
the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Levitt, who last month
served as a prosecution witness at the trial of Boston marathon bomber
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, said that the rise of Islamic State means “the pace
of radicalisation has gone into hyper-drive. It is no longer a matter of
months but of weeks or even days.” Islamic State’s use of social media
and the Internet, he said, allows people to quickly learn its extremist
doctrines without needing long exposure to its supporters – in prison or
Much is still unknown. Police have arrested five other men.
Lawyers say they face a range of charges including suspicion of
procuring the weapons and bulletproof vest used by Hussein, and hiding
evidence between the two shootings. At the same time, the Danish police
have said that there is no indication Hussein was part of a cell or had
travelled to Syria or Iraq. Police declined to comment for this story.
CRIME AND EDUCATION
Hussein was born in Denmark on Sept. 11, 1992, the elder of two
sons. Little is known about his Palestinian-born parents, who have both
kept low profiles since the shootings. Danish media have reported that
his mother was a biochemist.
Lise Egholm, the head of Hussein’s primary school, said the boy
did not get along with other children and that Hussein’s mother grew
frustrated by her son’s behaviour in primary school.
She said that the family moved to Jordan in 2006 when Hussein
was 14. They lived in the north of the country for three years. It is
unclear whether Hussein’s father was with them. After the family
returned to Denmark in 2009, Hussein’s parents divorced.
At 17, Hussein was arrested for burglary. Over the next few
years he was in and out of institutions and prison, with convictions for
theft and possession of knives. He became an active Thai boxer for a
while and told a court in 2013 that he spent time at a gym.
The young man seemed to waver between a life of crime and an apparent desire for education, work and stability.
“He came across as a sullen, scary and Terminator-ish type,”
said Lotte Akiko Nielsen, who taught him English one-to-one at a school
in 2012. But once, when she praised his work, he smiled and seemed
genuinely surprised, she said. Another time, when a conversation about
Nelson Mandela and freedom fighters moved on to the Middle East, he grew
“Out came a lot of anger. Something had been pent up,” she
said. “He was angered by the treatment of people in Palestine, and the
injustice he’d seen and heard of in Jordan.”
Nielsen remembers receiving a phone call from Hussein’s mother
in 2012. She had been asked to tell the teacher that her son had been
sentenced to prison. “He has a good head, but he gets into trouble from
time to time,” she told Nielsen.
Hussein’s lawyer told Nielsen it was unlikely the young man
would get out of prison in time to sit his exams. But after the exams,
as teachers began marking, Hussein ran into the school with a crumpled
hand-written synopsis and asked to take his exam belatedly. The school
said yes, and Hussein, who talked about prison systems in his oral exam,
earned a 12, the top mark, Nielsen said.
Social workers met the young man regularly on behalf of prison
officials in 2011 and 2012, and recommended social help for him. Hussein
turned it down.
In early 2013, just six months off finishing a two-year higher
preparatory examination that would have enabled him to apply for
university, he was arrested for stabbing a stranger on a train.
Explaining the stabbing in court, Hussein said he wrongly
thought the victim had previously attacked him. He also said he was high
and felt angst and paranoia. A court psychiatrist decided he did not
need a mental health assessment because “the suspect is found mentally
enlightened and no necessity for the suspect to be mentally examined
prior to the case ruling is found.”
Sociologist Aydin Soei, who first met Hussein in 2011 when the
youth was a member of Brothas, a local gang, speculates that he may have
felt lost because he had been thrown out of the gang just before the
stabbing. According to Soei, the gang reckoned Hussein was out of
control and did not follow gang rules.
“When he no longer has an identity with a gang that provides an
alternative to society, he could be even more susceptible to seek an
identity with a radical interpretation of Islam,” Soei said.
KATY PERRY AND A KORAN
In Vestre prison Hussein met Alexander, 20, who was serving time for burglary.
Speaking in a Copenhagen cafe last month during a day release
from jail, Alexander said Hussein seemed like a regular, if troubled,
young man. He talked about drinking beer, smoking marijuana and girls,
Alexander said. He loved Katy Perry’s song “Black Widow”, and would
crank up the volume on the radio when it came on.
A prison source confirmed that Alexander and Hussein knew each
other in Vestre but officials declined comment, in line with Danish law.
Alexander, who asked that only his first name be used for fear
of reprisals from supporters of Hussein, said the young man did not
appear overly observant of his Muslim faith. At one point Hussein got a
copy of the Koran from the library but did not follow up on a plan to
read it with Alexander.
“We were supposed to read it together, but we never got around to it before I was released,” Alexander said.
The one time Hussein did engage on religion was during a
discussion about Sunnis and Shi'ites, the two main schools of Islam. “He
told me that Shi'ites are responsible for everything wrong with the
world,” Alexander said. "That Sunnis are the good ones. That’s the only
time he ever raised a finger with religion.
"He didn’t get aggressive, but rather resentful. He turned very
serious on this topic, and I felt that this wasn’t something we should
discuss. He just had his opinion,” Alexander said.
In January, according to local residents, Hussein moved into a
red-brick apartment block in Norrebro, a suburb of Copenhagen. The glass
in the main entrance door to the block is cracked and blue paint is
flaking on the staircase. But graffiti is rare and the area boasts
soccer fields, basketball courts, and climbing frames for children.
In the days before he attacked the cafe and synagogue, Hussein
contacted the municipality for help finding permanent housing and a job.
He was, it seemed, planning for the future.
Hussein’s father told Danish media he was “as shocked as
everyone else,” when he heard the news from the police, though he has
declined to comment further.
Former prison mate Alexander was also stunned. “Omar was a good
man, and I saw him as a friend. I respected him, and I was shocked and
disappointed when I found out … He never talked about shooting
innocent people. He never talked about killing cops. We joked about it,
as you do in prison. But what happened, I could never have imagined. I
still can’t believe he did it.”
NESTS OF RADICALISATION?
When Islamist gunmen attacked the satirical weekly Charlie
Hebdo in Paris in January, Yemen-based Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula
quickly claimed responsibility for the assault.
There were no such claims after Copenhagen, and police still have no comment on Hussein’s motives.
The April edition of Dabiq, a magazine produced by Sunni
militant group Islamic State, carried a story honouring Hussein, but did
not take responsibility for his actions. The magazine called him Abu
Ramadan Al-Muhajir, and linked him to a Facebook page with that name and
a picture of a bare-fanged white wolf as its profile photo.
The Center for Terror Analysis within the Danish Security and
Intelligence Service (PET) said in a threat assessment in March that
Hussein may have been “motivated by current militant Islamist propaganda
issued by IS (Islamic State) and other terror organisations.” PET
declined to comment on Hussein for this story. Soon after the attacks,
the agency said that the prison service had told it Hussein was at risk
of radicalisation. But PET said it had no reason to believe that Hussein
was planning an attack.
In all, prison authorities have reported 60 prisoners to PET
between the end of 2012 and the middle of March 2015, the Danish Justice
minister said in a statement last month. PET estimates that around 115
Danish citizens have travelled to Syria, mostly to fight for Islamic
The official investigation found not only that Hussein had
started talking about travelling to Syria but that he would grow angry
when he saw people wearing skimpy clothing on television. Sixteen days
before he was released he assaulted another inmate for no apparent
reason, according to the source familiar with the investigation.
Wasseem Hussain, Vestre’s imam, told Reuters that the Danish
prison system is built in a way that should curb radicalisation. “We’re
not storing people in vast numbers, where they can do what they want.”
Wasseem said that guards are encouraged to be friendly rather than
intimidating, and prison offers education and help in applying for jobs.
Four days before the shootings, Hussein returned to prison to
pick up his belongings. Two days later he missed a scheduled meeting to
help find him housing. On Feb. 14 he attacked.
Danish and international media have speculated that Hussein may
have come under the sway of Sam Mansour, a Danish-Moroccan serving time
in Vestre for inspiring terrorist acts. But Lissi Kristensen, a priest
working in Copenhagen prisons including Vestre, said contact between
inmates is closely monitored by staff to prevent young men from
interacting with known radicals. A lawyer for Mansour and the source
close to the investigation said that Mansour had never met Hussein.