The jihadi motivated terrorist attack in Vienna on 2 November 2020 took even researchers and analysts of jihadi extremism by surprise. Violent jihadism in Austria has only received little attention from experts so far although the country has a long history of jihadi activities and one of the highest numbers of foreign terrorist fighters per capita in Europe. Analyzing the dynamic development of jihadi networks in Austria during the last two decades helps us to contextualize the recent attack and to understand its roots better. Additionally, such historical analysis informs the debate about whether we are dealing with a new generation of violent jihadis.
The formation and consolidation of jihadi networks in Austria
Already during the early 1990s, Vienna served as an important logistics hub for Islamist charities that channeled fighters, funds, and equipment to the foreign mujahideen fighting alongside regular Bosnian army units. After the Bosnian War (1992-1995), Bosnian Salafis who once immigrated as foreign workers or refugees to Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, played a crucial role in establishing Salafi enclave communities in the Bosnian countryside such as the infamous Donja Bocinja and Gornja Maoca. Commuting between the Balkans and Western Europe, they collected money among fellow brethren in the diaspora, facilitated the purchase of property and often chose these enclaves as secondary residency.
In the context of these early homeland-diaspora connections, it is not surprising that preachers of Bosnian origins such as Muhamed Porca and Nedzad Balkan (Ebu Muhamed) were among the most prominent religious authorities within the early 2000s’ Salafi milieu of Austria. In contrast to Germany, for instance, the formation and consolidation phase of Salafism in Austria was dominated by more radical preachers, including Balkan and the Afghan brothers Farhad and Jamaluddin Qarar who had a major stake in popularizing Takfirism (the Takfiri ideology declares every Muslim who does not follow the strict Salafi doctrine as apostate and unbeliever) in Austria and Germany. These early adherents of Takfirism influenced a new generation of radicals such as Mohamed Mahmoud and Mirsad Omerovic (Ebu Tejma).
While the Qarar brothers soon renounced al-Qaida and its leader Osama Bin Laden, Balkan, Mahmoud, and Omerovic continued sympathizing with violent jihadi ideologues such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. By the end of the 2000s, radical Salafis established their mosque communities in Vienna and Graz. Besides shared ethnicity, in some communities high cohesion was caused by extensive family ties among members in the form of fraternity, marriage, and parentship. As soon the Syrian War broke out in 2012, radical mosques, such as Omerovic’s Altun Alem mosque in Vienna and the Taqwa mosque in Graz became recruitment groups for mujahideen willing to fight against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The departure of Austrian foreign terrorist fighters
According to official reports, more than 320 jihadi foreign terrorist fighters left Austria for Syria and Iraq, at least another 60 tried to do so. Most departures took place in a relatively early phase of the Syrian War, showing that many Austrian foreign terrorist fighters radicalized before the founding of the Daesh caliphate. Independently from Bosnian networks and driven by the decades-long conflict in the North-Caucasus region, especially Austrian foreign terrorist fighters with Chechen origin joined the Chechen-led insurgent groups Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JAMWA) and Junud al-Sham (JAS) to fight the Syrian government, an ally of their archenemy Russia.
The second wave of Austrian jihadis leaving after the founding of the Daesh caliphate in summer 2014 differed in several aspects. In addition to individuals of Chechen origin, departing jihadis predominantly had a Bosnian background. As in the case of the Taqwa mosque in Graz from where at least five couples and sixteen children left, entire families and mosque communities joined Daesh. At the same time, teenagers, including many young women, increasingly tried to reach Syria and Iraq.
Like their fellow brethren in other European countries, Austrian radicals had to rely on logistics networks that facilitated the journey to Syria and joining Daesh and other jihadi rebel groups. Homeland-diaspora ties influenced travel patterns from Austria via the Balkans to Turkey to some degree because many Bosnian foreign terrorist fighters previously lived in Gornja Maoca (and other Salafi enclaves) and were linked to the Bosnian diaspora in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland.
These connections were particularly important for the recruitment and facilitation network linked to Mirsad Omerovic whom authorities accused of having incited the departure of at least fifty of his young followers. The network provided funds, transportation, contacts in the Balkans and Turkey as well as recommendation letters for willing emigrants to Syria. As one of the most influential religious authorities of the German-speaking jihadi movement, his Vienna-based network served as a departure hub not only for his followers from Vienna but other cities in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, too. These transnational networks continued to exist in Daesh. Despite the unsuccessful attempt to establish German-speaking units, German-speaking jihadis continued to congregate and some reported, for instance, having met the "Ebu Tejma" group from Vienna.
Besides the looming collapse of and the disillusionment with the Daesh caliphate, one possible factor for the decline of departures to Syria/Iraq by 2015 was that Austrian authorities started arresting leaders and disrupting recruitment and facilitation networks, most importantly the one associated with Mirsad Omerovic. Between 2012 and 2016, around 50 Austrian foreign terrorist fighters were killed, and one-third returned. The fate of the remaining persons is mostly unknown although some are reportedly held captive in Northern Syria or Iraq.
The significant decrease in departures was accompanied by the increasing threat of domestic terrorism since Daesh incited its followers to attack their homeland instead of traveling to the crumbling caliphate. Already in November 2014, 14-year old Merkan G. from St Pölten who failed to immigrate to the Daesh-held territory was arrested for plotting a bomb attack on a railway station. One year later, other radical teenagers from the small Austrian town near Vienna who supported Daesh planned to rob a gun shop and attack a police station.
In 2016, Lorenz K. and two like-minded peers from Germany plotted in 2016 similar attacks in Germany and Austria. The trio already acquired explosives and tested their self-made bombs. An attack on a Ludwigshafen Christmas market only failed due to a malfunctioning bomb. After the arrest of his conspirators, authorities accused Lorenz K. to have continued his plan to attack the Vienna metro system. Investigations revealed that he was in touch with Daesh supporters and eventually did send Mohamed Mahmoud a video pledging loyalty to Daesh.
June 2017 marked probably the first jihadi-motivated attack in Austria when a Daesh sympathizer from Linz murdered an acquainted senior couple, suspecting their family being involved with the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria. Due to the affiliation of the perpetrator to the Salafi milieu, the March 2018 stabbing attack on a soldier guarding the Iranian embassy in Vienna probably constituted another jihadi-inspired attack in Austria although the exact circumstances of the incident remain unclear until today.
The Vienna attacker and his network
These unsuccessful and low-profile attacks are probably one reason why Austria never received the same attention as other European states and why many seem to be surprised about the attack taking place in Vienna. However, Kujtim F., the Vienna attacker, fits well into the profile of terrorist perpetrators in recent years: individuals who failed to join Daesh abroad, loosely connected to its members who provide instructions and publish claims of responsibility in the name of the organization.
F. did not radicalize recently but had tried to reach Daesh in Syria and Afghanistan before. The acquisition of firearms and his attempt to buy ammunition in Slovakia in July are additional indicators that the attack was the consequence of a longer radicalization process and preparations he made beforehand. Emerging information on the specific characteristics of his connections to other radicals in Austria and abroad are still vague but allow us to get a general idea about his social environment as they show that even “lone wolves” usually do not radicalize and act in social isolation.
According to media reports, F. frequented two Salafi mosques in Vienna. While Muhamed Porca’s Tewhid mosque repeatedly made headlines in the last decade, most experts knew little about the Melit-Ibrahim mosque. The latter hosted Nedzad Balkan as a preacher and was also frequented by Lorenz K. and Mohamed Mahmoud (although this does not necessarily mean that F. knew Lorenz K. or Mohammed Mahmoud). In January 2017, Austrian authorities arrested Balkan for inciting dozens of members of the Taqwa mosque in Graz to join Daesh.
After the attack, Austrian police arrested twelve young fellow radicals from Vienna. All were previously known to the authorities due to their radical worldview and most frequented the beforementioned mosques. One of the suspects, for example, had been already imprisoned for his involvement in the 2015 St Pölten police station plot but was released from prison after a few months. In addition, security agencies in Germany and Switzerland launched investigations into six individuals who visited F. in July in Vienna and were known to authorities and members of local Salafi and jihadi milieus for few years, too. The two Swiss suspects, for instance, belong to a radical youth group that was once active at Winterthur’s An-Nur mosque. Between 2013 and 2015, almost a dozen members joined the Daesh caliphate. The recent trial of their leader revealed that Omerovic became their religious authority and circumstantial evidence suggests that some used his smuggling and facilitation network.
Leaders such as Omerovic play a crucial role as brokers by facilitating networking and disseminating doctrines. Some of the abovementioned connections are probably not directly relevant for the Vienna attack but shared ties to prominent preachers such as Omerovic and Balkan illustrate that members of different local radical clusters often interact and belong to transnational networks. Such connections made years earlier most probably also help to explain F.’s transnational ties and jihadi peers. This circumstance should make us more careful in immediately proclaiming a new generation of violent jihadis. Although the public and authorities might have lost interest in jihadi radicals due to declining attacks and departures of foreign terrorist fighters in recent years, it does not necessarily mean they disappeared and do not pose a danger to Western democracies.
Dr des Johannes Saal is a sociologist of religion and political scientist at the University of Lucerne, Switzerland. He studied religious studies, Jewish studies, sociology, political science, and economics at the University of Potsdam, Fatih University Istanbul and the Universities of Lucerne, Basel and Zurich. His research focus includes jihadi radicalization and extremism, religious fundamentalism, religion and politics in German-speaking Europe. Saal's PhD thesis "The Dark Social Capital of Religious Radicals. Jihadi Networks and Mobilization in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, 1998-2018" will soon be published at Springer VS.
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