Jihadist Terror Attack in Vienna’s First District

On Monday evening, at least one ISIS “sympathizer” attacked diners sitting outside in the inner city. Four civilians and one gunman were killed, and 23 others injured, some severely. Police are still looking for possible accomplices. This is a developing story.

On Monday night, Nov 2, a Jihadist terror attack occurred at six locations near Schwedenplatz in the 1st district. The police killed one perpetrator, a 20-year old Vienna-born ethnic Albanian and follower of the militant Islamist group calling themselves the Islamic State (ISIS), which has claimed responsibility for the incident. Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) assumes that he acted alone.  

The first shots were fired at around 20:00 in Seitenstettengasse near the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (IKG), Vienna’s Central Synagogue and its affiliated restaurant, both of which were closed at the time. A video filmed on-site showed dramatic scenes of a man armed with a machine gun, running along the alley and shooting at a man standing in front of a restaurant, who then collapsed. Shortly after, the perpetrator returned and shot a second time at the man the ground with a pistol from a close range. According to eyewitnesses, the perpetrator shot in all directions, killing one passerby and injuring a middle-aged woman, who later died in the hospital.

Soon after, in “timely connection,” according to the police – probably less than 10 minutes – five other attacks occurred. According to Harald Sörös, spokesman of the Interior Ministry, these took place on the Morzinplatz, Salzgries, Bauernmarkt, and Graben. During the night, the police deployed 150 Cobra and 100 Wega officers, 100 police officers, the Bundesheer (army), and parts of the Jagdkommando, according to the Bundeskanzleramt.

Many people had been in the 1st district that night, celebrating the last evening before the second lockdown. Restaurants and bars, filled with people, were ordered to shut immediately and keep guests inside. People outside were ordered to find shelter indoors, inside restaurants and hotels. Some hotels reportedly allowed individuals to stay overnight for free. 

Many cultural institutions, like the Vienna State Opera, were giving their last performances before the lockdown. Director Bodgan Roscic informed the 1,000 guests about the attack after the final applause. Initially directed to stay put, one eyewitness told Der Standard that the first audience members were let out at 23:45 and then took the U-Bahn home. According to APA, public transport was closed in the inner city at some point in the night. 

During the attacks, four civilians were killed and 23 were injured – mainly by gunshot but some with knife wounds. 11 people are currently in the hospital, fighting for their lives. The majority of the injured are Austrians, but there are also German, Slovakian, Luxembourg, Afghan, and Bosnian nationals among the casualties. In a press conference on Tuesday morning, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz confirmed that the victims include a 39-year Austrian man, a 44-year Austrian woman, a 21-year old North Macedonian and a 24-year old German waitress.

In the initial encounter, the police confronted the perpetrator, a 20-year old ISIS follower and Austrian and North Macedonian citizen, near the Ruprechtskirche at 20:09. According to Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (ÖVP), “He was equipped with a dummy explosive belt and an automatic machine gun, a handgun and a machete.” Nehammer confirmed that the man posted a photo of himself with two weapons on his Instagram account prior to the attack. It is assumed that these were the weapons he used. While unconfirmed, the man is thought to have also published an oath of allegiance to ISIS just hours before the crime and sent videos of the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to his acquaintances. 

During the night the police searched his apartment, located in a Gemeindebau (municipal housing) in the 22nd district. On April 25, 2019, he had been sentenced to 22 months in prison for attempting to travel to Syria to join ISIS. He was released early on Dec. 5, 2019.  As a young adult, he fell under the Jugendgerichtsgesetzes (youth law). Following his release, as Justice Minister Alma Zadic stated in a ZIB 2 interview on Wednesday night, the man took part in the de-radicalization program and was subject to a three-year probation. He was required to attend meetings on Thursday, five days before the attack.

According to the Süddeutsche Zeitung, NDR, and WDR, the perpetrator traveled to Slovakia in July to buy ammunition for the AK-47 assault rifle that he used during the attack. But as reported by the Slovakian newspaper Denník N, he was unable to make the purchase, as he did not have a gun permit. As reported by APA, an internal document written by the Slovakian government confirmed that they had passed this information onto the Austrian Federal Service and the State Service for the Protection of the Constitution and Counter-Terrorism (BVT and LVT) via the European Police (Europol) on July 23. A speaker for the Ministry of Justice told the Ö1 lunch journal that the LVT would have been obliged to “inform the public prosecutor immediately if observations revealed a suspected criminal offense.” However, the LVT failed to do so and the information only reached the Vienna public prosecutor’s office on the evening of the attack. As Nehammer said in a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, something went wrong in communication.

Nehammer told the Austria Presse Agentur (APA) that the police are conducting a large-scale operation to track down any accomplices. They have searched 18 homes and arrested 15 people who are believed to be connected to the attack. Two arrests and house searches occurred in St. Pölten in Lower Austria. Two more took place in Upper Austria and two in Switzerland.

On Tuesday morning, Nehammer said that he had never before experienced anything like this in Austria. Late Monday, Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig spoke to reporters: “I am deeply affected by this terrible crime,” staying involved in the ongoing investigations throughout the night.

In a press conference on Tuesday morning, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz described the attack as fueled by a “hatred of fundamental values, hatred of democracy and hatred of our way of life,” warning that terrorists threaten Austrian society. 

“The enemy, Islamist terror, wants to divide our society, We will not give any space to this hatred.” It is “not a fight between Christians and Muslims or Austrians and migrants, but a fight between civilization and barbarism,” Kurz said.  

Politicians and leaders from around the world have voiced their support for Austria on social media. One of the first to respond was French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country has been rocked by multiple Islamist terrorist attacks in the past few months, and on Tuesday early afternoon, Macron made an unpublicized visit to the Austrian Embassy in Paris where he met with Austrian Ambassador Thomas Schnöll and signed a book of condolences. It is unclear at this point whether the attack in Vienna has any direct connection to Charlie Hebdo or other incidents in France. 

During the night, two young Turkish men carried a severely wounded police officer to safety. They found him lying on the ground and carried him together to an ambulance and may well have saved his life. In a video message, one of the young men, named Mikail, related what had happened and offered his get-well wishes. 

“We Turkish Muslims abhor any kind of terror. We stand for Austria; we stand for Vienna; we respect Austria,” Mikail said. “No matter what it is, no matter what happens, we are ready to help at any time, day, and second; It doesn’t matter. We are there for Austria, we stand for Austria, and we call an end to all kinds of terror.”

The government called for a “moment of silence” on Tuesday at noon for the victims of the attack. The event was deemed a Staatstrauer, an occasion of National Mourning, with flags at half mast and the great Pummerin bell in Stephansdom sounding its deep, melancholy tones, while church bells chimed in across the city. National Mourning is usually announced to commemorate the death of a Federal President, as with Thomas Klestil in 2004 or Parliamentary President Barbara Prammer in 2014. This was the only civilian exception since 1945. Additionally, the Stephansdom hosted a memorial service on Tuesday night.

On Wednesday, schools were instructed to hold a moment of silence at the beginning of class. The government also decided to mourn for three days following the attack. Until and including Thursday, flags will be at half mast on all public buildings. 

The government resolution states, “The Republic of Austria was, is and will always be a nation of diversity, dialogue and respect for one another, all the more for the events of November, 2, 2020, which have shaken and affected our country.” 

The State Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Combating Terrorism Vienna (LVT) has established a hotline and email address and urges civilians to submit any information they have that is related to the terror act.

Amina Frassl
Amina is Metropole's online content manager. She writes about news and news analysis and commutes between Vienna and Berlin as she completes her studies in journalism and politics at NYU.

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