Ruslan Trad, journalist and co-founder of De Re Militari
The attack on Vienna on November 2 linked the fates of three people of Albanian descent: the terrorist Kujtim Fejzulai, the first victim Nexhip Vrenezi, and Doruntina Miroci, a security officer involved in the operation against the terrorists. In Albania and Kosovo, events in Austria resonated as a personal drama, and provoked much media attention. Both countries have several hundred of their citizens who have traveled to Syria to join Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS). They are such vital components of these groups that thy formed separate national brigades, commanded and composed of Albanians and Kosovars. Fejzulai had failed in his attempt to join one of these combat units.
Vienna and ISIS in Europe
Vienna is home to tens of thousands of Albanians, forced to live outside their country because of poor living conditions. When Kujtim Fejzulai began his attack on passers-by in central Vienna, his first victim was Nexhip Vrenezi, who came out of a nearby restaurant to smoke. He was only 21-years-old, from northern Macedonia, but living and studying in Austria. The police force on the scene within minutes included Doruntina Miroci from Kosovo, whose uncle is Kosovo’s representative in Germany. All three call Austria their home, as do the three men who rushed to the front line to help the wounded—two of Turkish descent and one Palestinian. They gave first aid to a severely wounded police officer and a woman who was the victim of an indiscriminate shooting during the attack.
The Austrian capital is just the latest target in a series of terrorist attacks involving ISIS fighters in recent months. The group claimed responsibility, recognizing Fejzulai as one of its own. Albanian’s case is telling and proves the theories that security experts have long shared. First, ISIS has not been defeated, and its leadership has managed to reach sympathizers worldwide. Secondly, the case of Fejzulai is yet another example of somebody blocked from joining ISIS’s ranks—in this case by Turkey—choosing to carry out an attack in the country they are “trapped” in. The call to do this by ISIS’s commanders, even before the killing of the “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was clear.
Given that hundreds of militants in the radical group are from the Balkans and France alone, the situation is getting even more dangerous. French police list more than 4,000 people for links to extremist groups or preachers. In general, politicians in Europe have not paid attention since 2019 to the alarming signals of ISIS’ return. And such signals have been getting stronger the last few months.
ISIS in the Wider World
6,000 kilometers east of Vienna, in Kabul, other tragic events unfolded. Just hours before the Austrian attack, the Afghan capital witnessed a well-organized double terrorist attack. First, an early morning explosion in one part of the city injured civilians. Later, shooters armed with explosive materials and heavy weapons entered the campus of Kabul University and opened fire on students and staff. Terrorists barricaded themselves in the school, while students fled desperately—some even jumping out of classroom windows. Twenty-two people, mostly students between the ages of 20 and 24, were killed in cold blood. Sixteen of them were from one class, and their teacher posted photographs of some of them on social networks. The attack came just days after a terrorist attack on an educational center in the city.
In a country where violence and war are part of life, attending university is even an act of resistance to extremism. Young people who have decided to stay in their country are considered the future generation of politicians, rulers, engineers. Kabul University was full at the time of the attack, with more than fifty wounded. The siege of the campus by security forces lasted several hours, with some attackers detonating explosives. The situation is so dire that armored vehicles of the coalition forces are coming to the rescue. Shortly before the world received the first news from Vienna, Kabul was bloodied in one of the gravest attacks on civilians in a long time. ISIS took responsibility, and the details soon disclosed an operation by teams in identical uniforms, typical of the so-called “elite units” of ISIS, notorious after the 2015 Paris attacks, and implying a similar high degree of planning and military training.
The tragedy does not stop here but continues 7,000 kilometers southwest of Kabul—in Mozambique. On August 5, armed men with ISIS flags launch a large-scale attack by sea and land on the strategic port of Mocímboa da Praia, located in northern Mozambique. In less than a week, they pushed out government forces and took over the entire city and its population of more than 30,000. A little later, they controlled several smaller settlements around the town and declared Mocímboa da Praia the “capital” of the new “province of the caliph.” Employees of the French oil company Total located in the area find shelter in a base provided at the port’s far end, guarded by contractors. The next attack, which can be on the facilities, is expected at any moment.
A few days later, jihadists attacked the famous Kouré Wildlife Park about 60 km away from Niamey, Niger’s capital. Eight people were killed, including six French aid workers.
At the beginning of November, Mozambican officials announced that terrorists had twice attempted to break into the Mieze prison in Cabo Delgado province. The attackers were from ISIS’s “Central African Province” (ISCAP).
ISCAP’s Congolese fighters conducted a major prison break in Beni that freed more than 1,300 prisoners, including some hundreds of jihadists this October. Mozambique witnessed also a series of mass beheadings in its north, and there is no sign this savagery will stop any time soon.
From the Wider World Back to Europe
The two attacks on opposite sides of Africa – in Mozambique and Niger, are among dozens of violent events that shake the continent’s increasingly visible expansion of the ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Less than two years after the fall of the “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group is trying to establish itself in Africa. It will have far-reaching consequences for the region already hit by poverty, corruption, and COVID-19. The results will be visible in Europe, something experts have been warning about for at least a year.
For example, in France’s latest attack, in Nice on October 29, which took place after the dispute over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, Tunisians were involved, who came to French territory recently. They received training in jihadist camps in Sub-Saharan Africa and moved to France via North Africa. In the Sahel region, France maintains a contingent whose main task is to eliminate the threat of Al-Qaeda and ISIS by aiding the governments in Mali, Chad, Niger, and Burkina Faso. So far, this operation has failed to deal with the groups, and increasing numbers of European forces are going to Africa to try to assist. For example, Portugal has strengthened its presence in Mali and East Africa.
At least three insurgencies supported by Al-Qaeda and the ISIS are growing in large parts of Africa—from the deserts of Sinai, Lake Chad, and settlements on the Indian Ocean. The rise in violence comes amid a desire by the United States to withdraw its forces from several areas where American equipment and capabilities have proved vital in the fight against jihadist groups. The White House is considering reducing the US military presence in Africa, despite warnings from some analysts and officials that this would be a big mistake. Violence in the Sahel caused the deaths of 4,825 people in 2019—the decade’s highest level according to ACLED’s data. As of October, the number of victims has risen to 5,365 this year, indicating that 2020 is far more deadly. Local government forces, who are killing civilians at alarming rates in their anti-terrorist operations, have exacerbated the bloodshed.
No less worrying for European interests and local governments is jihadists’ tendency to attack closer to major cities in coastal states, where terrorist activity is minimal until recently. In June this year, Al-Qaeda fighters attacked an army post on the northern border of Côte d’Ivoire, killing fourteen soldiers in the country’s first significant attack in four years. Meanwhile, ISIS’s “West Africa Province” (ISWAP), covering western Africa and the Sahelian region, has killed and wounded hundreds of government soldiers, while claiming de facto control over remote areas of Niger and the northern state of Borno in Nigeria. At the other end of Africa, ISCAP has carried out its first two attacks in Tanzania.
There is convincing evidence that jihadist groups are shifting their forces from the Middle East and Europe to Africa and vice versa. Through smuggling channels and bribes and a lack of substantial local control, ISIS has managed to bring in experienced fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria into its new branches in East and West Africa. It means that increased activity on the southern border of the EU. Tunisians trained by the organization have moved from North Africa to France to carry out attacks and that should worry European countries’ security forces. Finally, the fact that ISIS has an ever-widening network in Syria and Iraq has managed to attack frequently and aggressively, despite the International Coalition’s campaign against the ISIS. The group increased its attacks in Syria in the summer and even before this period, the jihadists had a more visible network since the beginning of this year.
Along with Kurdish forces, US forces have carried out more than 30 operations against the group’s cells in eastern Syria in just one month. Simultaneously, due to bureaucracy, geopolitical disputes, and the inability to govern, the Kurdish administration has announced it will release detainees at the Al-Hol camp in Eastern Syria. Hundreds of ISIS members and supporters are along with refugees and displaced people. The effect of this decision would have a severe impact far away from Syria.
The Way Forward
There is evidence that the attacks in Afghanistan, Tanzania, and Austria have been coordinated. The fact that the group operates on three different continents at such a rate that security forces cannot respond is also a political problem. The governments seem to have fallen asleep peacefully after the group’s main strongholds in Syria and Iraq fell, leaving many issues unresolved. Geopolitical clashes like the one between Paris and Ankara are happening at the most inopportune moment. Both countries, among the primary victims of ISIS terrorism, need to exchange crucial intelligence information while suffering from the same enemy. Meanwhile, according to a newly published index, Africa now is at the heart of global terrorism threat. The data proves the warnings that Sub-Saharan Africa is now home to some of the world’s worst terrorism hotspots and the main reason behind this trend is the ISIS and Al-Qaeda-linked groups.
Although there have been comments that the latest episodes are related to the dispute over the Prophet Muhammad’s images and Charlie Hebdo, experts believe that the operations were preplanned. Erdogan and Macron’s contest is simply a bonus to the already-emerging “perfect storm” of events. Now, governments must work together to prevent future attacks that may be imminent. We have yet to see which will prevail—the coolness or egocentrism of world leaders.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.