“Anything but safe”: the Vienna attack and shifts in jihadist terror

Unlike its larger European neighbours, Austria does not have a recent history of terrorist shootings.

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On the evening of Monday 2 November in Vienna, as people enjoyed their last night of freedom before the start of the country’s new Covid-19 lockdown, at least one attacker – armed with an automatic rifle and a fake explosive vest – tore through the streets of the capital city. Four civilians died in the shooting, which has since been described as a “repulsive terror attack” in a tweet by the Austrian chancellor, Sebastian Kurz.

The interior minister, Karl Nehammer, said overnight that one of the alleged gunmen, who was killed by police on the scene, held dual Macedonian-Austrian citizenship and was sympathetic to the Islamic State (Isis). The suspect was jailed in April 2019 for attempting to travel to Syria to join Isis, though he was released last December, according to Nehammer. Gudrun Harrer, an Austrian journalist, wrote in Der Standard that Monday’s shooter(s) may have been rushed into action by the impending lockdown, announced on 31 October.

The attack is unusual for Austria, which unlike larger European countries does not have much recent history of such events on its soil. The last terrorist attack to have killed multiple people in the country was by a far-right extremist who, in 1995, killed four members of the ethnic minority Roma community.

The incidence of relatively small-scale terrorist attacks across Europe has dropped in the past few years, having increased between 2016 and 2018. Yet Monday’s events in Vienna came just days after two well-publicised terror attacks in France: the murder of the history teacher Samuel Paty and the killing of three people in a church in Nice. On Tuesday the UK government raised the terrorism threat level from “substantial” to “severe”.

[See also: What Macron’s clash with Islamism means for his presidency]

In a statement after the attack in Vienna, Kurz alluded to Austrians’ belief that the small central European state would be spared the terrorist attacks inflicted on its neighbours. “We often see Austria as an island of the blessed in which one only sees violence and terror from the reports on foreign countries,” Kurz said. “But the sad truth is that although we are lucky to live in a basically very safe country, our world is anything but safe.”

According to an Austrian diplomat, “Vienna used to be a boring town, so it was a shock to see that this can happen here.” The character of Vienna has changed significantly over the past 20 years, especially with substantial immigration from neighbouring countries, including the former Yugoslavia, the diplomat told the New Statesman.

Isis has picked the Balkans as its “next frontier” for recruitment and radicalisation, said Sasha Havlicek, the founder of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue. “[Isis has] understood the post-conflict dynamics of the region," she said, adding that the group tends to exploit the political and cultural issues unique to the Balkan diaspora in its recruitment methods.

Up to 300 Austrians are estimated to have travelled to join Isis, with more, including the suspected Vienna shooter, prevented from doing so by the intelligence services.

Austrian authorities are still unsure as to whether further attackers remain unapprehended. Yet whether the shooter was part of an organised network or merely a radicalised individual will significantly alter the course of the investigation. Most terror attacks in Europe since the 2015 Paris attacks and those in Brussels the following year have been the work of individuals rather than of organised cells; the return of well-organised cells of several terrorists would be a concerning trend.

Ido Vock is international correspondent at the New Statesman.

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