Security Stepped Up at Comedy Central Following Threats Against 'South Park'

The New York Police Department has stepped up security at the headquarters of the Comedy Central cable channel after an Islamic extremist Web site posted apparent threats to the creators of South Park, Matt Stone and Trey Parker, for making fun of the Prophet Muhammad. Paul Browne, NYPD deputy commissioner and chief spokesman, says that his department for some time has been aware of the small group, which appears to organize around a now-unreachable Web site called, at least one of whose purported leaders posted threats against South Park after the scatological cartoon series made fun of Muhammad, Jesus, and the icons of several other major religions, as well as numerous prominent Hollywood celebrities, in a two-part story celebrating the program's 200th episode. "We were aware of the threat before it surfaced and took precautions to safeguard the offices of Comedy Central," Browne says. He declined to discuss the security measures in further detail or to disclose how NYPD managed to get advance warning that the cartoon and its producers were going to be threatened.

A law-enforcement official who asked to remain unnamed due to the sensitivity of the information and private experts who monitor extremist Islamic Web sites say that from what they can tell, the people behind, who at one point last year apparently succeeded in organizing a pro–bin Laden demonstration outside a Queens, N.Y., mosque known for propagating a moderate form of Islam, espouse a particularly virulent extremist Islamic message that includes support for bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks. But the experts say that there is no evidence that the Web site or its supporters have ever engaged in actual violence or have access to any weapons. "It's all talk," the law-enforcement official says.

Nevertheless, law-enforcement agencies are concerned that the implied threats that the Web site posted condemning the latest South Park lampoon of Muhammad "might inspire someone else," says the official. According to Reuters, after the first part of the two-part South Park anniversary episode aired 10 days ago, depicting Muhammad in a bear costume, warned Parker and Stone that they could be murdered: "we have to warn Matt [Stone] and Trey [Parker] that what they are doing is stupid and they will probably wind up like Theo Van Gogh for airing this show." Along with this warning threat, the Web site posted a photo of Van Gogh, a Dutch filmmaker who was killed by an Islamic militant in 2004 for producing a short film that criticizes Islam for demeaning women. The Web site also reportedly posted a link to a news report that gave details of a mansion in Colorado that Parker and Stone reportedly own, implying, according to Reuters, that posters "know where to find" the South Park creators. (The Web site is no longer accessible in the wake of the broadcast of the latest, heavily censored South Park episode featuring Muhammad that was aired Wednesday night.)

Recent court cases brought by federal investigators have demonstrated that American citizens living in such diverse locations as Denver, Philadelphia, and Chicago have allegedly become involved in plots to kill foreign artists who published cartoons lampooning Muhammad. In one recent case, two American women who converted to Islam, known as "JihadJane" and "Jihad Jamie," allegedly became Islamic radicals by steeping themselves in propaganda spread on extremist Web sites and subsequently became involved in a plot to kill a Swedish cartoonist with fellow Internet extremists based in Ireland. (Jihad Jamie—real name Jamie Paulin Ramirez, of Colorado—recently pleaded not guilty in Philadelphia federal court to terrorism support charges.)

According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith, which monitors extremist and anti-Semitic groups, the South Park threats were posted on by someone who called himself Abu Talha al-Amrikee. ADL says that the Web posting by al-Amrikee that mentioned Van Gogh also included the addresses of Stone and Parker's offices, as well as an exhortation to readers to "contact them" or to "pay Comedy Central a visit." E-mails sent to two addresses uncovered for al-Amrikee—one under what ADL says is his real name, Zachary Chesser—requesting comment received no immediate reply.

In a statement posted on the South Park Web site, Parker and Stone express dismay not only that the management of Comedy Central, which is part of MTV Networks (in turn part of the giant communications company Viacom), had blocked cartoon images and verbal references to Muhammad from their latest episode, but also that the broadcaster had bleeped other elements of the episode, including a moralistic homily voiced by one of the grade-school characters at the end of the episode in which Muhammad's name wasn't even mentioned. "In the 14 years we've been doing South Park, we have never done a show that we couldn't stand behind. We delivered our version of the show to Comedy Central and they made a determination to alter the episode. It wasn't some meta-joke on our part. Comedy Central added the bleeps. In fact, Kyle's customary final speech was about intimidation and fear. It didn't mention Muhammad at all, but it got bleeped too," Stone and Parker say, adding, "We'll be back next week with a whole new show about something completely different and we'll see what happens to it."

A spokesman for Comedy Central who asked not to be identified confirms that when South Park's producers delivered the latest episode featuring Muhammad to the broadcaster a few hours before air on Wednesday, the only elements that had been bleeped out by the cartoon creators themselves were profanities. The spokesman says that the broadcaster then took the decision to black out any image depicting Muhammad and any verbal reference to him, as well as the closing comments of other characters. "Comedy Central would not let them show the image of Muhammad," the rep acknowledges. He notes that the show had taken on Muhammad in a July 4, 2001, episode in which the Muslim prophet's cartoon image was not censored, as well as in a two-part 2006 episode in which Muhammad's image was censored by the channel. However, the extent of Comedy Central's censorship of this Wednesday's episode appears to have gone beyond even the censorship the broadcaster applied to part one of the same episode a week earlier, in which references to Muhammad's name were left in but images of him were censored (although an image of what purported to be Muhammad hiding in a bear costume was broadcast; in this week's episode, however, it turned out that Santa Claus rather than Muhammad was hiding in the bear costume).