Here's Who's On Al Qaeda's Most Wanted List (And Some Names Might Surprise You)

Twin terrorist attacks in Copenhagen have left the world on edge once again; a lone gunman left citizens of Denmark shaken after a day of violence on Saturday. The attacks left two dead and five wounded, but the assumed target of the assault, Lars Vilks, escaped unscathed, thanks to a highly-trained security detail. Such attempts on Vilks' life are not new occurrences — rather, the controversial artist has incited considerable negative attention following his infamous 2007 sketch of the Prophet Mohammed as a dog. This work landed him on Al Qaeda's "Most Wanted" list, the latest version of which was published in 2013.

Found in the group's recruitment magazine, Inspire, the list's targets are not necessarily the world leaders that you might expect. George W. Bush's "War on Terror" didn't garner him a spot, nor has President Obama's and the Navy SEALs' successful mission to terminate Osama Bin Laden earn Al Qaeda's (unwanted) recognition. Rather, Inspire's list of nine men and two women are individuals who have been critical of Islam and the Prophet Mohammed. As such, the names featured are those of prominent artists, writers and editors — not necessarily the first people who come to mind when we think of the greatest threat to Al Qaeda. But the heinous list is a true testament to the power of words and the need for free speech, and the everlasting necessity for expression.

Carsten Juste

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Carsten Juste is the former editor-in-chief of Jyllands-Posten, the Danish publication that was thrust into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons after publishing a series of 12 caricatures of the prophet Mohammed. Reprinted in over a dozen Danish publications over the next few years, some taking the original headline, “The Face of Muhammad,” the cartoons catalyzed an international culture crisis, with several leaders of Muslim majority nations decrying the pieces as offensive and insensitive. The most controversial of these drawings, completed by Kurt Westergaard (who also makes the list), depicted the Prophet with a bomb in his turban.

Juste apologized rather profusely for the series in 2006, saying "The 12 cartoons … were not intended to be offensive, nor were they at variance with Danish law, but they have indisputably offended many Muslims, for which we apologize." But for many, this was too little too late — by this point, political officials had become involved after a series of protests in Denmark and throughout the world. Juste left the position in 2008, but is still remembered for his role in the controversy.

Terry Jones

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One of the Americans on the list is former presidential candidate Terry Jones, a pastor from Florida who took to politics in 2012 with a bid for the highest office in the land. A severely outspoken critic of Islam, Jones made a name for himself burning copies of the Koran as an act of defiance and revenge for terrorist attacks on Americans. Described as a "hate-mongerer" by New York, the religious leader and his pyrotechnics have been blamed for the 2011 massacre on United Nations workers in Afghanistan that resulted in the deaths of seven individuals.

As if that weren’t enough, Jones also sought to burn nearly 3,000 copies of the Koran, each representing "every person who was murdered by Islam" on 9/11. As of late, however, Jones has taken on a new challenge — opening up a french-fry stand in a mall in his home state. While local police are said to loosely monitor his whereabouts for his safety, it seems, for the time being, that he is relatively safe in Florida’s suburbs.

Kurt Westergaard

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Easily the most notorious cartoonist of the West, Westergaard is the artist behind the now infamous 2005 depiction of Mohammed with a bomb placed in his turban. The cartoon, published in Jyllands-Posten, sparked major controversy throughout the Muslim world, with numerous protests resulting in attacks on Danish embassies in the region, and countless death threats against Westergaard.

In 2008, two Tunisians were arrested after being suspected of plotting against the artist’s life, but neither was brought to trial. A few years later, however, a Somali man managed to fight his way into Westergaard’s home with an axe and a knife in a violent assassination attempt. At the time, Westergaard was with his grandchild, and spoke of being terrified by the incident, telling The Guardian, "He threatened to kill me. I ran out to the bathroom where our security room is. I was worried for my grandchild. I was afraid. I knew that I could not match him. So I alerted the police. It was scary. It was really close. But we did it. It was good … my grandchild did fine."

The now 79-year-old still remains defiant, telling the National Post, "As I see it, many of the immigrants who came to Denmark, they had nothing. We gave them everything — money, apartments, their own schools, free university, health care. In return, we asked one thing — respect for democratic values, including free speech. Do they agree? This is my simple test.”

Geert Wilders


The face of the far-right movement in The Netherlands, Geert Wilders is known for his anti-Islamist opinions, speaking out not only against extremist terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, but against the religion as a whole as well. This, naturally, has invited roundabout criticism, but Wilders remains a force to be reckoned with in Dutch politics. Subjected to death threats on a daily basis, Wilders told Winston Ross of Newsweek in a recent interview, “I’m not in prison. But I’m not free, either. You don’t have to pity me, but I haven’t had personal freedom now for 10 years. I can’t set one foot out of my house or anywhere in the world without security.”

Though he has claimed that he hates Islam and not Muslims, much of his rhetoric is dangerously reminiscent of Fascist xenophobia. He told Ross, “The biggest disease we have faced in the last decades in Europe is cultural relativism, the idea by liberals and leftist politicians that all cultures are equal. They are not. Our culture, based on Christianity, humanism and Judaism, it’s a better culture. We don’t settle things with violence—well, sometimes we do, but mostly we don’t. Cultural relativism has made it so people don’t know who they are anymore.”

The Dutch themselves are not terribly taken with Wilders opinions, and in late 2014, he was set to face trial for making racist comments. According to official statements, “The public prosecutor in The Hague is to prosecute Geert Wilders on charges of insulting a group of people based on race and incitement to discrimination and hatred. Politicians may go far in their statements, that’s part of freedom of expression, but this freedom is limited by the prohibition of discrimination.”

Lars Vilks

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Close friends with Westergaard, Lars Vilks has also made the list for his incendiary cartoons, this one showing Mohammed as a dog. Since then, he has been the target of a number of assassination attempts, the most recent of which occurred on Saturday in Copenhagen at a free speech rally. Like Westergaard, the artist has remained defiant, and despite his security detail, has refused to go into hiding. In fact, for anyone interested, he is easily found in the Swedish Yellow Pages.

Stéphane Charbonnier

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In January 2015, Stéphane Charbonnier, the editorial director of the satirical Charlie Hebdo newspaper, was killed in the terrorist attacks on the newspaper’s Parisian office. The 47-year-old cartoonist, who was known by his nom de plume Charb, published a series of caricatures of the Prophet, inciting criticism from both the French government and the Islamic world. Despite multiple death threats and warnings by those who tried to preserve his life by urging him to tread lightly, Charb remained defiant till the end, famously proclaiming, "Maybe it’s a little pompous to say, but I’d rather die standing than live on my knees."

In an interview with the BBC following an earlier attack on Charlie Hebdo offices, Charb said that the newspaper was correct in defying extremists in order to ”make their lives difficult, as much as they do ours.” His death was mourned throughout the journalistic world, and crudely celebrated by Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations, who boasted of their victory.

Flemming Rose

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At the time of the 2005 publication of Westergaard and others’ cartoons in Jyllands-Posten, Flemming Rose served as the newspaper’s culture editor, and as a result, received rather severe backlash for allowing such controversial content to be run. Despite the myriad of criticism he received as a result, Rose has continued on the same path, and not only remains the editor of the Danish paper, but also contributes regularly to the New York Times, where he has also taken on the issue of the boundaries (or lack thereof) of free speech. He has also written a book, The Tyranny of Silence, to address the meaning of freedom of speech and the responsibilities of citizenship in the 21st century.

In a recent interview with Al Jazeera, Rose was asked about his feelings regarding the list, to which he replied, ”Well, I’m trying not to focus on it. I really put a lot of effort into doing exactly the same as I would have done without being on this list. Because if I start to change the way I live my life and what I do and what I believe in, then I would hand those who would like to come after me a victory. And I don’t want to do that.”

Morris Sadek


Egyptian-American Morris Sadek rose to prominence and infamy with the widely criticized and poorly-made film, Innocence of Muslims. The bizarre and largely inaccurate production was perceived as hugely offensive by much of the Muslim community throughout the world, and led to widespread riots and protests, including attacks on American embassies in Egypt and Libya, where an ambassador and three staff members were killed. Sadek was largely responsible for the film’s promotion on his site, and also appeared, at one point, to be friendly with Pastor Terry Jones.

Fellow Coptic Christians have said of Sadek, “He likes to use inflammatory and abrasive language to insult Muslims and Islam. As his actions agitate more the Islamic extremists, some people wonder if he is not in fact working to fulfill their agenda.”

Salman Rushdie


Perhaps the least surprising name on the list, Salman Rushdie is the author of the highly controversial 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses, a critically acclaimed but largely incendiary publication that resulted in Ayatollah Khomeini’s issuance of a fatwa against Rushdie in 1989. In fact, the recent attacks in Copenhagen were set to mark the anniversary of this edict, according to Lars Vilks’ website.

Rushdie has apologized, to some extent, for the book, releasing a statement in 1989 saying, “As author of ‘The Satanic Verses,’ I recognize that Muslims in many parts of the world are genuinely distressed by the publication of my novel. I profoundly regret the distress that publication has occasioned to sincere followers of Islam. Living as we do in a world of many faiths, this experience has served to remind us that we must all be conscious of the sensibilities of others.”

Today, Rushdie serves as a University Distinguished Professor at Emory, where he will deliver the institution’s commencement address on May 11. He remains a prolific writer, and in 2012, published the autobiographical book, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, telling of his experiences following the fatwa order.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali

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One of two women on the list, Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a human rights activist, Harvard Kennedy School Fellow and an acclaimed author, whose story of her own female genital mutilation, coupled with her unflinching bravery and undeniable intelligence, has made her a significant feminist figurehead (despite her problems with “American feminism”). An outspoken critic of Islam and its treatment of women, Ali worked closely with Theo van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker, on a critique of the subject.

Van Gogh was assassinated in 2004 for his efforts, and Ali remains a target of similar death threats. Still, Ali has remained a vocal and high profile activist, publishing a piece in The Wall Street Journal following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, in which she wrote, “There can only be one answer to this hideous act of jihad against the staff of Charlie Hebdo. It is the obligation of the Western media and Western leaders, religious and lay, to protect the most basic rights of freedom of expression, whether in satire on any other form. The West must not appease, it must not be silenced. We must send a united message to the terrorists: Your violence cannot destroy our soul.”

Molly Norris

The last American on the list, Molly Norris has been in hiding since 2010, heeding the advice of the FBI who urged her to protect herself after publishing the “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" cartoon in Seattle Weekly. Though a Seattle Weekly reporter wrote shortly after her disappearance, “The gifted artist is alive and well, thankfully," Norris’ forced sequestration is a stark reminder of the constant dangers associated with free speech, even in the United States. The reporter continued, "But on the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is, as they put it, ‘going ghost’: moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity. She will no longer be publishing cartoons in our paper or in City Arts magazine, where she has been a regular contributor."

In the immediate aftermath of the cartoon’s publication, Norris noted that its effects were entirely unintentional, saying, ”I didn’t mean for my satirical poster to be taken seriously. It became kind of an excuse for people to hate or be mean-spirited. I’m not mean-spirited.” Still, this did not stop a number of extremists from issuing fatwas and other death threats, sending her underground. Recently, a friend of Norris’ told CNN’s Erin Burnett that the cartoonist wanted to come out of hiding and back into the real world. "She wants her life back," her friend told the CNN anchor.

But with continued threats against her and others’ lives, it is unclear when that will happen.

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