LONDON, September 15, 2007— -- A group linked to al-Qaeda offered a cash reward Saturday to anyone who would kill a Swedish cartoonist for drawings deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed.
In a 31-minute audio statement posted on an Islamist Web site, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, head of the extremist Islamic State in Iraq, offered $100,000 for artist Lars Vilks' murder. Al-Baghdadi also promised $50,000 for the killing of the editor-in-chief of the newspaper that printed Vilks' cartoon.
"From now on we announce the call to shed the blood of the Lars who dared to insult our Prophet…and during this munificent month we announce an award worth $100,000 to the person who kills this infidel criminal," the statement said, according to a report by Reuters.
"The award will be increased to $150,000 if he were to be slaughtered like a lamb," the statement added.
Vilks' cartoon, printed in the Swedish regional newspaper Nerikes Allehanda in August, showed the head of Mohammed on the body of a dog. The newspaper published the drawing alongside an editorial defending freedom of speech and freedom of religion after three Swedish art galleries had refused to display the picture over security concerns.
"This is unacceptable self-censorship," the editorial stated, an English translation of which was posted on the newspaper's Web site today. "The right to freedom of religion and the right to blaspheme religions go together."
Editor-in-chief Ulf Johansson, who says he first heard of the price on his head when reports of al-Baghdadi's tape reached the paper's newsroom this morning, told ABC News he didn't expect death threats over the decision to publish Vilks' cartoon.
But, he said, "It's a threat you must take seriously. We are discussing right now what measures to take."
Today's tape comes nearly two years after a Danish newspaper published a series of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed, leading to massive protests throughout the Muslim world and sending the cartoonists into hiding.
Islam regards any visual representation of the Prophet Mohammed as sacrilege.
The artist of the Swedish cartoon, Lars Vilks, told ABC News he drew the controversial picture to challenge what he says is his country's excessive political correctness when it comes to Muslim religious beliefs.
"We had a debate in Sweden about making exceptions for Islam compared to Christianity where you can actually do caricatures and everything," said Vilks from an art conference in Germany. "You try to make exceptions because Muslims get insulted."
"But," Vilks said, "we have to be very clear that religion and politics are different fields in Western thinking. You should not interfere into that."
Vilks added that he is not "against Muslims...I just want a discussion."
About 300,000 Muslims live in Sweden, according to the U.S. State Department. One of the nation's most prominent Muslim organizations has already denounced al-Baghdadi's words.
"We accept neither criminal acts or attacks on individuals' rights to a safe and secure existence and to worthy and respectful treatment," said the Swedish Muslim Council in a statement posted on its Web site.
Besides the threats against Vilks and Johansson, today's audio statement also warned of violence against major Swedish companies.
"We know how to force them to withdraw and apologize," Abu Omar al-Baghdadi said on the tape. "If they don't, they can wait for our strikes on their economy and giant companies such as Ericsson, Volvo, Ikea."
Torbjorn Carlson, a spokesman for the Swedish police, told ABC News Swedish authorities are taking today's threats "very seriously."
"We will do what we decide is necessary in this kind of situation," Carlson said.
But Vilks, who plans to return to his home in southern Sweden tomorrow, seemed largely unfazed by al-Baghdadi's threat.
"I was a little disappointed by the low price on my head," he said, adding that the reward should be "a million" at least.
"Al Qaeda is poor these days," Vilks said.
Ingrid Hardcastle contributed reporting to this article.