On the evening of November 2, an alleged Islamist terror attack took place in the Austrian capital, Vienna, which left four people dead and more than 20 injured. The alleged perpetrator, who was armed with an assault rifle, a machete and various other weapons, as well as wearing an explosive vest, was shot and killed by police. Some news outlets reported that ‘military style’ weapons were used.
The attack began around 8pm local time in Vienna’s Bermuda-Dreieck area, specifically around the Seitenstettengasse, which is popular for parties. The gunmen allegedly opened fire on pedestrians and guests in various bars in at least six locations. Both the opera house and the main synagogue are close to this area. While still under investigation, both the fact that the synagogue and the attached office were closed and that the synagogue’s steward saw the gunmen firing at pubs and restaurants rather than at the synagogue building, point to a Paris-style modus operandi and target selection, rather than a specifically antisemitic motive.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, it was unclear whether law enforcement was dealing with one or more perpetrators. Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer spoke of “at least one other” attacker on the loose in a press conference which took place in the early morning hours of November 3 and advised citizens to stay indoors. After reviewing more than 20,000 videos of eyewitnesses and surveillance cameras in the area, however, officials said they believed it to be a lone actor attack.
Attacker Was an ISIS Loyalist
Interior Minister Nehammer spoke of an Islamist attack. He stated in a press conference that the slain gunman was loyal to the so-called Islamic State (ISIS). Officials identified the dead attacker as a 20-year old Austrian with a migrant background from North Macedonia. He held both Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship.
Police investigators allegedly already examined the killed attacker’s apartment and found evidence for a jihadist motivation. Moreover, according to news reports, he had already been arrested and sentenced to twenty-two months in prison for trying to join ISIS in Syria in April 2019. However, he had been released early, after just eight months, in December 2019, after taking part in an in-prison deradicalization program and receiving a positive prognosis for re-integration.
Shortly before the Vienna attack took place, the perpetrator had been investigated by law enforcement in Slovakia after trying to buy illegal ammunition. It remains to be investigated why Austrian police did not act after receiving this information from Slovakian law enforcement.
Attacker’s Social Network Probed
Arrests were made in the social network of the perpetrator in Austria. In Switzerland, two contacts of the perpetrator were detained and questioned. In Germany, police raided various apartments in multiple states in connection with the attack.
The German news outlet Der Spiegel received the information that two known Islamists from Osnabrück in western Germany had visited the alleged perpetrator in his apartment in Vienna in July. Allegedly, German law enforcement had begun a Gefahrenabwehrvorgang (danger prevention process) in relation to the perpetrator and his contacts in Germany in September of this year.
While still ongoing, the investigation so far shows that the alleged “lone” perpetrator was not really alone, a common finding in terrorism cases. Rather, the Vienna killer was embedded in a network of Islamist supporters across Europe. This may point to an increased threat of clandestine Islamist activities across the continent as a whole and is likely to occupy law enforcement in various countries.
European Jihadism on the Rise
The attack and the ensuing discussion concerning the Austrian approach to in-prison de-radicalization programs and potentially dangerous individuals, comes at a time of heightened participation in European jihadism generally, and ISIS activity specifically.
Already the previous week, Vienna had suffered an alleged Islamist incident when fifty teenagers stormed a Catholic church, yelling “Allahu Akbar” and damaging the benches.
France, too, has suffered multiple attacks in the weeks leading up to the Vienna incident, sparking a renewed sense of worry about ISIS activity.
In the United Kingdom, the threat level has been raised to ‘severe’ following the surge in attacks on the Continent.
France has received criticism for its response to the most recent wave of Islamist terrorist attacks, but Austria’s response is remarkably similar, even in tone. Austrian Chancellor Kurz expressed concerns about potential copycat attacks in the coming weeks and appealed to his fellow heads of government in the European Union to “stop the misunderstood tolerance” of political Islam. Kurz called for more measures against political Islam as an ideology that threatens European culture and freedom.
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