A week ago, a young jihadist terrorized Vienna’s 1st district, opening fire on café guests, killing four and injuring 23 more, including one policeman. That night, Austrian officials acted swiftly and professionally, managing to kill the perpetrator just eight minutes after he fired his first shots. It was almost too good to be true.
But behind the skilled intervention of a brutal incident lies a darker truth: a series of missed red flags and poor communication that might have prevented the entire incident. In an attempt to right their wrongs, politicians have launched a campaign against extremism in the country.
A Familiar Name
The 20-year old gunman, a Vienna-born ethnic Albanian, was no stranger to the Austrian authorities. In April 2019, he was sentenced to 22 months in prison for attempting to join ISIS and become a “foreign terrorist fighter” in Syria. On Oct. 3, 2019, a judge in Krems in Lower Austria ordered him released on Dec. 5, advised by counselors he had changed his ways.
In a ZIB interview on ORF, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz criticized the move and said the early release had “definitely [been] wrong.” If the perpetrator had served his full sentence, “a terror attack like this would not have taken place.”
However, as Justice Minister Alma Zadić clarified in a ZIB-2 interview, the perpetrator’s release was legal. According to Der Standard, Austrian law provides an exemption from penalties if the convict is deemed no more susceptible to further crime than if he served his full sentence. This also has its upside: with an early release, the judiciary can continue monitoring the convict.
Tricked the System
This was the case with the 20-year old Islamist. Following his release, he was put on a three-year probation, during which Derad, the Austrian deradicalization program, would supervise him. Derad told Profil that they had begun working with him since shortly after his conviction in April 2019. Over the course of a year and a half, specialists met with him bi-weekly for 90-minute sessions. Their last meeting on Oct. 29 had been just four days before the attack.
He had been cooperative and had not stood out. However, the specialists were aware of his strong link to radical beliefs. “He appeared less conspicuous, no distinctive beard, no rolled up trouser legs,” an educator recalls. “There had been positive signals, but it was clear to us that he would remain problematic.”
His supervisor’s suspicions were not wrong; the ethnic Albanian was a problem. According to Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (ÖVP), he had managed to “perfectly trick” Derad, continuing to immerse himself in the radical Islamist scene. In July, he organized an Islamic meet-up with two German Jihadists, known to authorities, at his apartment in Vienna. Two more joined online. Austrian officials were aware of this gathering and notified their colleagues in Germany.
Then on July 21, the gunman reportedly traveled to Slovakia to buy ammunition for his AK-47 assault rifle, the one he used during the attack. However, he was turned down as he did not possess a permit. The shop owner notified the Slovak authorities, who passed the license plate number and low-quality photos taken by the store’s video camera onto the Austrian Bundesamt für Verfassungschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung (Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counter-Terrorism, BVT) via Europol on July 23. According to Falter, the BVT alerted the Viennese state office (LVT) on Aug. 24, which led to a back-and-forth between the Austrian and Slovak authorities to identify the man. This ultimately occurred in mid-October, after which, on Oct. 20, the BVT initiated a risk evaluation. However, they neglected to inform the court in Krems, who could have revoked their decision and locked him back up.
In a Nov. 6 roundtable discussion on ORF III, Hubert Patterrer, editor-in-chief of Die Kleine Zeitung, described the BVT-LVT affair as a “Schlamperei” (sloppy business) and a “failure of the authorities.” Nehammer spoke of “inexcusable mistakes,” admitting that something went wrong in communication. He dismissed the head of the Viennese LVT Erich Zwettler and announced a long-awaited reform to the BVT. Along with Justice Minister Alma Zadić, Nehammer also promised to launch an independent task force to investigate the mistakes.
The bureaucratic mess has unleashed a petty fight between the ÖVP and the former Interior Minister Herbert Kickl (FPÖ), who blames the attack on Nehammer and demands his resignation. Kickl, who was himself once involved in a shady BVT affair, then released a secret police plan to the public.
In spilling the beans, Kickl nearly jeopardized one of the largest joint raids in Austrian history: a crackdown on money laundering and terrorist financing by the Austrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Following 21,000 hours of investigation, 930 policemen searched apartments, associations, companies, and foundations early on Monday, Nov. 9. Officials froze bank accounts and confiscated 25 million Euro in cash. More than 70 people were arraigned and 30 more brought in for questioning. Initially dubbed “Ramses,” the operation had originally been scheduled for 3 a.m. on Nov. 3, early Tuesday morning following the attack. Numerous Wega, Cobra, and other officers had already been prepared on Monday night, which helps explain why they could get to the inner city so quickly. As reported by the APA and ORF,there is speculation that the gunman found out about the plan through an interpreter, which triggered his attack. Nehammer, however, rejected this claim.
The operation was part of a large-scale crackdown on Austria’s radical scene. With the consent of the Islamic Religious and Cultural Association (Islamische Glaubensgemeinschaft Österreich, IGGÖ), the government has closed down two radical mosques in Vienna, both frequented by the perpetrator. Furthermore, BVT conducted an Austrian-wide raid on 40 right-wing extremists. In seven federal states, officials conducted 11 house searches and confiscated cell phones, data carriers, and objects related to alleged crimes, such as Nazi devotional items. 14 out of the 40 accused have gun permits, two are prohibited from owning a gun, four belong to a radical scene or have a relevant criminal record.
On Sunday morning, in a related action, a former spokesman of the anti-Islam and xenophobic PEGIDA movement drove through the 8th district, playing machine gun sounds, Islamic muezzin prayers, and anti-Islam slogans over the loudspeakers from his car. The police escorted him but have since apologized. An anti-France and anti-Mohammed caricatures in front of the French embassy was also planned but ultimately banned by the government.
Europe to Fight Terrorism
Since the attack, European leaders have called for a joint action plan against terrorism. On Nov. 10, European Union Council President Charles Michel visited Vienna to offer his condolences and outline a common preliminary agenda. In a press conference, Kurz spoke of a need to handle foreign terrorist fighters, or “ticking time bombs,” to fight against “political Islam” and radicalization, and to strengthen the protection of external borders. Michel proposed creating a European training institute for imams, who could spread values of “openness and tolerance.” He also called for an end to outside financing of Islamist organizations and eliminating extremist content and hate messages from online platforms. On Tuesday, Kurz traveled to Paris for a meeting on the subject with the French President Emmanuel Macron.
Additionally, Kurz attended a joint video conference with Michel, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister of the Netherlands Mark Rutte, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Proposals include better supervising of Schengen borders, securing outer borders, engaging in dialogue with Islamic states about fighting radicalization, and introducing imam training in all member states. The EU interior ministers will discuss further measures on Friday, and the commission will present its anti-terrorism agenda on Dec. 9.
The Austrian federal government has also presented a new anti-terror package on Nov. 11, which includes electronic surveillance, detention (“preventive prison”), creation of an anti-terror public prosecutor, stricter gun laws, and withdrawal of Austrian citizenship and driver’s license following a conviction. New criminal offenses will be announced to strengthen the fight against “political Islam.”