The Magazine

The Good Terrorist

What happened when the Dane came back from Guantanamo.

Oct 18, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 06 • By HENRIK BERING
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DANES ARE KNOWN for many things, but religious zealotry is not one of them. It therefore came as a surprise to newsreaders some two-and-a-half years ago when they learned that there was a Danish citizen among the holy warriors being held as illegal combatants at the U.S. base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The man was in Afghanistan to attend an al Qaeda training camp when the United States attacked the Taliban in October 2001, and he was caught heavily armed on the Pakistani border, fleeing the American forces.

The man's name is Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, which may not strike the reader as a typical Danish name. Abderrahmane is the 31-year-old son of a Danish mother and an Algerian father. Over the past weeks, he has again been dominating the headlines here, calling for attacks on the Danish government--"Denmark is the only country that hasn't realized that a country's leaders are legitimate targets of war in a war situation"--and forcing the Danes to reexamine their traditional notions of tolerance and open-mindedness.

Abderrahmane's is a story of integration gone spectacularly wrong. Born in 1973, he spent his first seven years in Denmark before the family moved to Algeria. He returned to Denmark and in 1997 enrolled at a Danish university, studying mathematics. But his commitment to his studies was half-hearted, and he was living the life of an aimless hedonist existing on the fringes of the techno- milieu, when he got caught up in the Islamist cause in a Danish mosque.

The television footage from Grozny in Chechnya, which was being leveled by Russian forces, was the turning point. The mosque was preaching jihad against the Russian infidels. Abderrahmane dumped the techno music in favor of male voices reciting verses from the Koran, and began adhering to the strict rituals of the true believer.

From the Danish mosque he made connections with the European terrorist network. He visited London's notorious Finsbury Park mosque, the stronghold of the one-armed cleric Abu Hamza el-Masri, dubbed "Captain Hook" by the tabloids, who was the brains behind the bombings in Yemen and is now in prison awaiting extradition to the United States. Abderrahmane is suspected of having served as a money courier in Algeria for the rebel movement GSPC before ending up in an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan.

When news first came out that a Dane was in American hands at Guantanamo, the Danish left-wing opposition, who are highly critical of the allied efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, made him a cause célèbre, casting him as an idealist and a victim, as did the daily Politiken, which accused the Danish government of passivity in securing his release. Abderrahmane's case was taken up by organizations like Amnesty International, which concluded in its annual report that the Danish government was failing to uphold his human rights.

The conservative government, sensitive to the left's human rights arguments, started pressing for his release, and because of the Danish military contribution to the reconstruction of postwar Iraq, the Americans met the Danish demands. Having signed a document stating that he would abstain from terrorism, would not conspire against the United States and its allies, and would not engage in holy war, Abderrahmane was released in February of this year--the first European to be released from Guantanamo. He was flown home, given a new identity and a secret address by Danish intelligence, and advised to keep a low profile.

He didn't take the advice. Since his return, rather than lying low, he has been giving interviews right and left, and a flattering book, The Dane at Guantanamo, has been written about him, so that his fellow Danes have gotten to know him all too well. Abderrahmane displays a curious mindset: a combination of hardened holy warrior and true product of the welfare state, who fully expects that state to help him wage war on itself.

Abderrahmane describes himself as a "good terrorist," who would never harm civilians. He denies having had contact with al Qaeda, and he carefully avoids the standard anti- Jewish rhetoric. Apart from that, he is as hardline as they come: "I do not identify myself as a Dane or an Algerian. I identify myself as a Muslim, and I will shoot anybody who fights against the cause of Allah on the battlefield." He regards democracy as incompatible with Islam and wants sharia law in Denmark, including the stoning of women for infidelity and the cutting off of hands of criminals, which is clearly out of step with the usual ideas of the Scandinavian criminal justice system.