Since 2013, the rising trend of terrorist incidents in EU countries has traced a vicious cycle of twisted ideologies where each act feeds on another’s aftermath, thus creating a virtual community of hatred. While it is one more battle won on the terrorists’ list, the attack in Vienna on 2 November 2020 reflects once again the flows in national, regional and EU counter-terrorism strategies: the lack of a deep understanding of the profile of the attacker and his choice of target; the tendency for preferring reactive measures instead of prevention means based on findings of the root causes; weak intelligence sharing from and with neighbouring countries; structural issues; and muddled responsibilities of security institutions.
On 2 November 2020, around 2000hrs local time, a terrorist attack took place in Vienna, close to the capital’s largest synagogue. A gunman armed with a rifle, a handgun, and a machete, wearing a fake explosive belt, opened fire in six locations: Seitenstettengasse, Morzinplatz, Salzgries, Fleischmarkt, Bauernmarkt and Graben. The attack ended when the gunman was shot and killed by police at 2009hrs near St. Rupert’s Church. In nine minutes, four civilians were killed, while 23 others were wounded, including a police officer.
Timing and Location
Described by analysts as important elements in the operation’s planning, the timing and location of the attack were not random, but rather a strategic factor aimed at maximising its chance of success. The terrorist operation was conducted on the last evening before the country’s second COVID-19 lockdown that included restrictions such as a curfew from 2000hrs to 0600hrs, the closure of sports halls, museums, theatres and hotels, the limitation to fast-food take-away services for shops, cafés and restaurants, in addition to a return to online education for high schools and universities. The so-called “Bermuda Triangle” of the Austrian capital, as it is known to the locals the locals, was expected to be crowded during the evening of the attack, since it was the last chance for the citizens to get together and socialise before the lockdown. Also, since the rise of Daesh and its first attacks in Europe, Vienna has been a strategic hub in terms of logistics and network, rather than a direct target for the organisation. Bearing in mind that Vienna has been a link between Western Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East, such an act shows that, if it was aware of the attacker’s plan, Daesh may be ready to accept the risk of harming its radical networks in the country.
The way in which the attack was carried out resembled the pattern of terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years. Analysing information gathered about the event and based on the methodological framework used to create the database of Daesh-related terrorist attacks that have hit Europe and Turkey since 2014, the Vienna attack can be summarised as follows: a complex attack using both “fire” weapons (an automatic rifle and a handgun) and “white” weapons (a machete), targeting civilians (and civilians of Jewish ethnicity, according to some of the evidence collected), conducted in public places (restaurants, bars and cafes) and places of worship (synagogue), inspired by Daesh (there is no proof of direct coordination with the central organisation regarding planning and conducting the attack) and undertaken by a single perpetrator, with a criminal background, who had spent time in prison for previous terrorism-related activity. All these elements are traits in the Daesh-related terrorist attacks that have hit EU countries since 2013/2014: of the sum of terrorist attacks, around 30 per cent are complex, eight per cent have been conducted using both fire weapons and white weapons, 68 per cent have targeted civilians (and ten per cent targeted ethnic Jews), 50 per cent took place in a public environment and 12 per cent in places of worship (mostly synagogues), 65 per cent were inspired by Daesh, 82 per cent were conducted by a single perpetrator, 64 per cent of the perpetrators had a criminal past and 42 per cent has spent time in prison. The fake explosive belt worn by the attacker, a trick used before in two Daesh-related terrorist attacks, in the United Kingdom and Spain. Comparison with previous terrorist activity in the target region strongly suggests that the profile of the attack fits the pattern of Daesh-related terrorist attacks in EU countries in the past six years.
That resemblance is not limited to the religiously motivated ideology, but also to other forms of terrorism present on European (and foreign) soil. The attack has many elements in common with the New Zealand incident, in which a right-wing ideologist used fire weapons targeting a place of worship – a mosque. In fact, the “trinity of terror” – salafi-jihadism, right-wing and left-wing terrorism – have proved to be feeding on each other’s propaganda, strategy and means, in a symbiotic relationship. Although they appear to be strategic enemies, the three become rhetorical allies through mutually reinforcing hate speech that uses fear in order to divide communities and gain new members. The terrorist threat for EU member states has evolved beyond a general ideological classification, creating the need for a new perspective in order to understand the generic and context-specific dynamics of violent radicalisation of individuals and groups in Europe.
Planning and Logistics
In a symbolic match with his Balkan background, the Viennese attacker used an AK-47, a weapon commonly used in the Yugoslav wars and still available for sale on the Balkan black markets. The weapon might have been obtained either during the frequent trips to North Macedonia by the dual-nationality perpetrator, or through pre-existing criminal connections, as happened in the case of Mehdi Memmouche, responsible for the attack at the Jewish Museum in Brussels in 2014. According to the Austrian authorities, the gunman travelled to neighbouring Slovakia few months before the date of the attack and tried to buy ammunition for an AK-47. That ammunition can only be bought with a firearms permit. As a result, the arms dealer notified the authorities in Bratislava, who in turn informed the relevant authorities in Austria. The attacker returned empty-handed from this trip, but eventually managed to equip himself with the necessary ammunition. Despite the reports that, while on parole, the perpetrator attempted to buy ammunition for an assault rifle, after a brief investigation by BVT, Austria’s domestic intelligence service, no further action was taken. Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer now admits the intelligence services failed to act adequately on the information received from Slovakia and has launched an internal investigation.
Just as the attack fits the pattern of Daesh-related terrorist incidents in the EU countries, the profile of the perpetrator includes many of the common characteristics observed through the database analysis, such as the young age, the immigrant origins, criminal background, physical and virtual community radicalisation, and travel connections to Syria. According to the information provided by the authorities, the attacker, identified as Kujtim Fejzulai, was born and grew up in Austria but his family originated from the Albanian community in North Macedonia. The fact that his family has origins in the Balkans might imply more difficult integration into Austrian society and easier integration into a jihadist micro-society that provided the attacker with a sense of belonging and a network.
In 2018, Fejzulai was prevented from going to Syria by the Turkish authorities and was sent back to Austria. His own mother had informed the Turkish consulate in Austria about his plan to join Daesh in Syria. He entered Turkey via Istanbul Airport on 1 September 2018 and was arrested while trying to cross the border through Yayladagi – Hatay on 18 September 2018. He was then to the Immigration Office the following day with the decision to be sent back to Austria on 10 January 2019; all this information was shared with the Austrian authorities. Kujtim Fejzulai was convicted and sentenced to twenty-two months imprisonment for membership of a terrorist organisation. At that time, under section 46a of the Juvenile Court Act, Fejzulai was considered a ‘young adult’ (age 18 to 21 years), which is a mitigating circumstance to be taken into consideration during sentencing, according to Austrian law. Having been in pre-trial detention in Austria since January 2019, in addition to four months spent in detention in Turkey, he was granted release on 5 December 2019, having served only two-thirds of his sentence. Upon release, Fejzulai was to be subject to parole conditions for three years, until December 2022.
Identifying the connection between Fejzulai and a wider network may explain how he radicalised, how he planned and committed the attack, and may even be an indicator as to whether more such attacks might occur. Daesh claimed responsibility for the terror assault the next day, calling the shooter “Abu Dujana Al-Albany” and claiming that he had used two guns, including one machine gun, and a knife, in the assault, according to a statement posted on the encrypted messaging app Telegram, which does not imply the organisation’s direct involvement. Following the terror assault, the police arrested 14 people linked to Kujtim Fejzulai. Initially, the police pointed at six different locations related to the attack but later concluded that he acted alone.
The Broader Context
The attack was the third in a series of terrorist incidents in European countries in less than a week, as well as marking increased hostility towards the French and France among some Islamic communities, although the terrorist operation in Vienna had no identified links to any of the recent activity in France. While some analysts argue that the attack might have been triggered by President Macron’s words following the beheading of the history teacher Samuel Paty, the trip of the attacker’s trip to Slovakia hints at longer-term planning.
Although not a direct target for the terrorist group, the Austrian Government had been able to successfully thwart several terrorist plots, most notably a plan to attack the Christmas market in Vienna in 2019. Austria is also known for having up to 300 nationals who traveled to Syria and Iraq with the status of foreign terrorist fighters, with between 50 and 90 nationals caught by the authorities before reaching their destination, just like Kujtim Fejzulai. This attack, which came at a time when most European countries, including Austria, were focussed on the (non-)repatriation of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), was perpetrated not by a returned FTF but by a person who had been radicalised in Austria. He was known to the Austrian authorities as having been convicted — and released — for membership of a terrorist organisation, after his failed attempt to travel to Syria to join Daesh. The profile of the gunman requires more answers from local authorities about the ‘invisible’ sample of prevented foreign fighters. While experts, journalists and security agencies had been entirely focussed 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 ones that wanted to be foreign fighters.
Main Lessons Drawn from The Attack
While the international focus has been concentrated on the ongoing pandemic, terrorist groups have been at least as active as before 2020, and Daesh used the Vienna attack to signal once again that the organisation is still present and capable of more coordinated attacks in Europe. With or without the logistic support of a terrorist cell, the attack in Vienna shows that there is an internal, not only an external threat to European societies, after several countries decided not to take back fighters from Syria and Iraq.
Furthermore, the recent attack points to an important trend of criminal record and imprisonment for terrorist activity among the perpetrators. Since 2014, more than 40% of the perpetrators have a prison-related element in their radicalisation path. Moreover, most of the attacks so far have been committed by Daesh supporters who either returned from Syria or were part of recruitment networks between 2012 and 2014. The waves of foreign terrorist fighters, returnees or simple sympathisers who were caught before or during their trip to Syria, are expected to show their terrorist potential in the coming years once they are released. This trend is further multiplied by the right-wing and left-wing patterns of travel to both Syria and Ukraine, as foreign terrorist fighters’ destinations. Bearing in mind that the consequences are yet to be seen, EU security agencies need to understand and address this issue, including the following questions: how do we keep record of the individuals that are subject to radicalisation and have a criminal past; what are the conditions for their release and how do we manage the post-release period in order to ensure the safety and security of society; what kind of de-radicalisation programmes are practised within the prisons and how do we evaluate their results?
The Vienna attack also shows the importance of truly understanding the profile of an attacker and the choice of target, based on the roots of the phenomenon, rather than the superficial consequential analysis. Anti-terror measures may become more commonplace in the coming years. These roots are the growing motivations that fuel and provide a common platform for different extremist ideologies and the exploitation of anger and community divisions in Europe to promote their hostile ideas to inflame domestic situations. Moreover, the authorities’ and media reactions to the attack support the perpetuation of the cycle, through a rhetoric of hatred and revenge.
Once again, the terrorist attack in Austria proved that, within the EU, the share of information between domestic intelligence agencies still has many flaws that stop local authorities from acting immediately to prevent such events. What Central European states should learn from the latest experience of Austria is not to overlook intelligence sharing with neighbours in the region and to reform their security agencies in such a way in which they can respond to terrorist threats adequately.
Responses to the Incident
As expected, the Vienna attack resonated throughout Europe, with border checks launched by Czech police, arrests in Poland and Switzerland, political statements in Hungary and a trace for the perpetrator’s network in Slovakia. The responses of countries in the region were impacted by the geographical proximity of the terror operation and the lack of information in the immediate hours afterwards. Onceagain, the aftermath of the attack which has seen new anti-terror measures introduced by the Austrian Government indicates that counter-terrorism legislation and policies are usually event-driven, lacking any 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. 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.
Each terrorist act that escapes the vigilance of EU countries harms civilian trust in the ability of their national security apparatus to counter the continuing terrorist threat. Even more worrying is the fact that, just like previous attacks in London in November 2019 and in February 2020, the threat is not external, but internal, posed by known violent extremists. As more convicted terrorists are expected to end their imprisonment period in the coming years, it is crucial to develop a complex chain strategy from the time of arrest or indictment, through the time served in prison, and especially to post-release supervision, to manage the risk to society in a rule-of-law-compliant manner. Nevertheless, further collaboration between security institutions and local communities should be enhanced in order to prevent radicalisation and also to ensure effective rehabilitation and reintegration of newly released individuals. At the same time, as emphasised previously by Europol, increased law enforcement cooperation and harmonisation of terrorism legislation and jurisprudence among EU member states together with better intelligence sharing between member countries are urgent tasks that will contribute to consolidating the EU’s area of freedom, security and justice.
Last, but not least, authorities and the media should be more careful with the words they use when they address such events, proving that they are aware of the roles they play in prolonging the life of the terrorism cycle. Unless we leave aside the hypocrisy and look deeper into the causes and patterns of the terrorist trend on European soil, incidents such as the one in Vienna will be repeated.
Andreea Stoian Karadeli