Central Europe had never been the target of a major terrorist attack, despite the rise of jihadism and the Islamic State elsewhere. While overall threat levels did not increase for the region, the Vienna attack shows the importance of understanding the profile of an attacker and the choice of target. Anti-terror measures may become more commonplace in the next years.
A series of shootings occurred on 2 November in the centre of Vienna. A gunman opened fire with a rifle, killed four civilians and injured 23 more.
The Vienna attack echoed throughout Central Europe with border checks launched by Czech police, arrests in Poland, political statements in Hungary and a trace to the perpetrator in Slovakia. There are at least two factors that magnified the response of countries in the region: the geographical proximity of the terror operation and the lack of information in the first hours after it.
Additionally, a jihadist attack in Central Europe is fitting the agenda of right-wing politicians such as Viktor Orbán who stated that Hungary is ready to do everything to save Europe from terrorist attacks. Known for pushing rhetoric on the “Islamisation of Europe” in recent years, the Hungarian government used the opportunity to once again send a political message in line with their rhetoric.
Despite the vocal reactions of countries in the region, the overall threat levels did not increase. This means that Central European countries are not considered primary targets of terrorism, but the Vienna attack happened close enough to make ‘the threat’ a part of local political agendas.
It is likely that right-wing parties and movements will take advantage of public fears to generate support in forthcoming election campaigns.
Meanwhile, security agencies across the region have an urgent task: to improve intelligence sharing with neighbouring countries and ensure their domestic institutions are capable of providing a proper depoliticised response to terrorist threats if any.
The latest experience in Austria sheds light on how the domestic intelligence agency (BVT) has failed to act on the information provided by the Slovak police concerning the fact that the attacker had tried to buy ammunition in Bratislava in July 2020.
The terror assault uncovered structural issues and mixed responsibilities of security institutions, a lesson that can be learned by countries in the region.
The Vienna attack did not differ significantly from recent small-scale terror attacks conducted by jihadists in Europe. Nonetheless, it indicates a gap between the tactical and strategic choices of the Islamic State (IS) and its sympathisers.
While attacks seem decentralised and not coordinated from a core jihadist leadership, the ideological agenda setting remains top-down. IS lone wolves have been inspired by an ideology that is persistent and apparently survives crackdowns on what is understood by security authorities as ‘Islamist networks’ across Europe.
The Vienna attack was not committed by a lone wolf, neither ideologically, nor in terms of a network. IS claimed the responsibility for the terror assault on the next day. From what we know, there was some preparation in place. The gunman travelled to neighbouring Slovakia to buy ammunition for a Kalashnikov AK-47 and although he returned empty-handed from this cross-border visit he obviously found a way to equip himself.
Following the terror assault, the police made 14 arrests of people linked to the IS sympathiser – who was killed by police officers. Initially, the police pointed to six different locations related to the attack but later concluded that the perpetrator acted alone.
The trend in recent years has been about low-scale terror operations without much coordination or more than one attacker involved. The Vienna attack does not follow the pattern of Paris and Brussels when preparators hit in multiple spots simultaneously. Although the Vienna attack was not sophisticated, we still do not know for sure if other people were involved in the preparation.
Moment of choice
The attack happened just before the second lockdown became effective in Austria when people were still out and gathered in public spaces.
While our attention and also the attention of the governments is entirely focused on the pandemic, IS sends signals that the group is still present and capable of more coordinated attacks in Europe.
Some analysts interpreted the Vienna attack as a reaction to President Macron’s words following the beheading of the history teacher Samuel Paty. However, the trip of the attacker to Slovakia and his network hints at the possibility of a longer degree of planning that took place.
Although there may be a cell behind the preparation, the attack itself shows a desire for tactical gains but not an entirely new jihadist strategy. Many people in Europe thought that after the defeat of the IS caliphate, the group itself was defeated.
The attack in Vienna was intended to be a demonstration of the opposite. The message is that they are not defeated and they are ready to commit more violence. IS aimed to show that there is an internal, not an external threat to European societies after several countries decided not to take back foreign fighters from Syria and Iraq.
Vienna as a strategic hub
Since the rise of the Islamic State, Austria has never been a target of a major terror attack. There is an understanding among experts who follow jihadism in Europe that Vienna has been kept by jihadists as a strategic hub in terms of logistics and networks – Vienna is a connector between Western Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East.
Therefore, hitting Vienna is a surprising move because now the attention of security authorities is extremely focused on individuals and activities who may be associated with terrorism-related activities.
A terror assault in a spot strategically important for jihadists may be harmful to the presence of radical networks in the long run.
The profile of the attacker does not differ much from a similar profile of youngsters born to immigrant families in the West. The attacker, identified as Kujtim Fejzulai, was born and grew up in Austria but his family is originally from the Albanian community in North Macedonia.
In 2018, Fejzulai was prevented from going to Syria and was sentenced to 22 months but spent only eight in prison and was released due to his young age. He was also persistent in his views because even after being stopped from becoming a foreign fighter, he remained committed to the cause of jihad.
The fact that his family has origins in the Balkans might mean more difficult integration into the Austrian society and also easier integration into a jihadist micro-society that provided the attacker with a sense of belonging and a network.
The profile of the gunman who was shot requires more answers from local authorities about the ‘invisible’ sample of prevented foreign fighters. While experts, journalists, and security agencies have been entirely focused on the number of people who went to Syria and Iraq, and later shifted their focus on the returning foreign fighters, there was less attention paid to the wanna-be foreign fighters.
Nonetheless, this is not a small sample: in the case of Austria, between 50 and 90 Islamists have attempted to travel to Syria, according to various sources. Many of those who were caught by the police while planning to travel, were sentenced. However, they spent a very short period of time in prison, because they did not manage to reach the battlefield, and therefore, did not become foreign fighters.
There are many questions to be asked following the Vienna attack. Do these individuals go through (effective) reintegration programmes? Do security agencies have the capacity to keep track of them after they are released? Are wanna-be fighters perceived as less of a threat than those who went to Syria?
In addition, the Vienna attack points to a very serious problem that Europe is witnessing: the involved perpetrators, at least the one who got killed on the night of the attack, had served a sentence for terrorism. It is likely that the attacker’s profile hints a trend in the next years and security agencies should demonstrate their capacity to deal with this problem.
Since 2015, there is a significant increase in terrorism-related offences, not only jihadi but also perpetrated by the far-right. This means a growing number of people with short-term sentences.
A recent study by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) points to an increase of attacks that follow an inmate’s release. Perpetrators of a terrorist plot have often previously got acquainted with each other in prison. Of 22 prison-related attacks and plots since 2015, twelve involved jihadists who were recently released, according to the ICSR research.
Bearing in mind that hundreds of extremists who either returned from Syria or were part of recruitment networks in 2012-2016 will be released in the next few years, the question is how security agencies will address this process.
The new anti-terror measures introduced by the Austrian government are a reminder that counter-terrorism legislation and policies are usually event-driven. While for years some Islamic NGOs and cultural organisations could play the role of radicalisation hubs, Vienna is now creating a criminal offence called “political Islam” in order to be able to “take action against those who are not terrorist themselves but who create the breeding ground for them”. The security challenge is how to tackle political Islam justifying violence without pointing to Muslims as a security risk.
Another proposal is to strip individuals of Austrian citizenship if they are convicted of terror-related offences. It remains unclear how such policy responses will prevent future “lone wolf” attacks. While such measures’ effectiveness will be tested in time, the Austrian government seeks to send a message that Vienna cannot be seen as a ‘safe-haven’ for jihadists anymore.
However, the Austrian response to the Vienna attack is an overreaction of the November terror assault, not the outcome of a precise threat assessment. Some of the new counter-terrorism measures include the ability to close mosques, strip citizenship and imprison those ‘convicted of terrorism’ for life.
The planned changes have been criticised for threatening human rights and basic freedoms. An Austrian journalist asked rhetorically if a law on “political Christianity” was planned, thereby questioning the government’s ideas as “simply populist racism”.
Only seven per cent of Austrians were concerned about terrorism in 2018, according to the European Commission’s public opinion survey. Given the increased fears of jihadi terrorism in Austrian society, the proposed steps aim to calm the public down, but they also pose the risk of stigmatisation of Islam. The government has to ensure that the new measures do not fuel Islamophobia and discrimination against their own Muslim citizens.
If not, the tough measures may further fuel the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe narrative adopted by xenophobic movements and populist parties in Central Europe. Countries of the region differ in their threat levels, their individual capacities to prevent terror attacks, and identify potential perpetrators.
What Central European states should learn from the latest experience of Austria is not to overlook intelligence sharing from neighbours in the region and to reform their security agencies in a way they can respond to terrorist threats adequately.
This article is part of the #DemocraCE project. Data visualisations prepared by Maria Ciupka.