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Cartoonist in hiding after death threats from al Qaeda
02:04 - Source: CNN

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Molly Norris was threatened with a fatwa after she depicted the likeness of Mohammed in cartoon

She has been hiding since 2010 after the FBI advised her to disappear

CNN  — 

Molly Norris drew a cartoon four years ago that depicted the likeness of Mohammed on several items, including a tea cup, a thimble and a domino.

She received her first death threat within days.

One was a fatwa that came from radical and influential cleric Anwar al-Awlaki – an American-born imam who lived in Yemen – who said Norris was a “prime target” for execution for creating blasphemous cartoons.

Norris had kicked off controversy in April 2010 with a cartoon published online about an imaginary group called “Citizens Against Citizens Against Humor” that proposed an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”

She disappeared, at the advisement of the FBI, in the fall of that year and has been in hiding since.

‘Lighten up’

“She didn’t mean to skewer or offend. She just thought people should lighten up,” her friend Tim Appelo said. “She was just standing up for free speech. But in a very gentle way.”

At the time, Norris told a Seattle magazine that the consequences of the drawing were unintended.

“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,” Norris told City Arts Magazine.

Norris said in media interviews at the time that she was inspired by the furor created from an episode of the show “South Park” that depicted Mohammed dressed in a bear suit. Comedy Central, which airs “South Park,” aired an edited version of the episode after the show’s creators received threats.

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Internet vulgarity

Norris’ cartoon inspired others to launch a campaign to create pictures of the Islamic prophet across the Internet. More than 100,000 people signed up on a Facebook page. A Pakistani court ordered access to Facebook there cut off for two weeks. Competing sites that blasted the campaign also drew tens of thousands of followers.

“When she learned about the Facebook page that had the most vulgar cartoons you can imagine, she distanced herself immediately,” Arsalan Bukhari, the executive director for the Washington chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told “Erin Burnett OutFront.” “She realized this is the wrong thing to do, to deliberately insult a minority group.”

Norris made a short film about the experiences of American Muslim women who wear head scarves. She was trying to destroy stereotypes about Muslim women, he said.

It was too late and the death threats too many.

She changed her identity and went into hiding.

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FBI’s dilemma

The threat posed a challenge to the FBI, retired agent David Gomez told CNN’s Don Lemon. Gomez was once in charge of Norris’ case.

His regional office told FBI leadership in Washington they thought they needed to protect Norris to avoid her becoming the first U.S. citizen victimized by Islamist extremists for exercising her right to free speech. “Of course, it came back and said ‘absolutely,’” he said.

Whether or not to go into hiding was her choice, he said. “She wasn’t forced. She was given the option,” Gomez said.

He and his colleagues believed back then that the threats were credible.

“Now, four and a half years later the credibility of that threat has been shown,” he said.

The attack on the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo in Paris has boosted the danger to people on terrorists’ kill lists. He hopes Norris is keeping an extra low profile right now.

“There is an argument to be made that increased publicity increases her risk. I don’t know what can be done to avoid that,” he said.

Like cancer

One of her employers, the Seattle Weekly, wrote this when it announced she was leaving: “She likens the situation to cancer. It might basically be nothing, it might be urgent and serious, it might go away and never return, or it might pop up again when she least expects it. We’re hoping the religious bigots go into full and immediate remission, and we wish her the best.”

Unfortunately, Tom Fuentes, a former FBI agent and a CNN analyst, said it means leaving everything – family, friends, job, home – behind and likely never coming back.

Al-Awlaki was killed by a drone strike in Yemen in 2011 but the threats against her remain.

Recently, Norris’ name popped up on al Qaeda’s most wanted list in the jihadist magazine, Inspire. The list also included Charlie Hebdo’s editor, Stéphane Charbonnier, gunned down along with 11 others last week in Paris.

“A chill ran down my spine because I saw her name on a list of “A Bullet a Day Keeps the Infidel Away” and it was horrible,” Appelo said. “I’m sure she felt the chill too.”

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CNN’s Alina Machado and Patrick Oppman contributed to this story.