TEEMING WITH spooks and intrigue, Vienna is no stranger to political violence. “Carlos the Jackal” held OPEC’s oil ministers hostage there in 1975. Since then, assassinations in Austria’s capital have claimed the lives of Kurds and Chechens, among others. But until November 2nd Vienna had largely been spared the attacks on civilians that have menaced cities like London, Madrid or Paris. That night four people were killed and 22 injured, several of them seriously, during a gun and knife rampage in Vienna’s centre. Many were attacked as they took their last chance of a drink or a meal before Austria’s second coronavirus lockdown. Police urged people to stay indoors as they hunted for the gunmen in the city’s streets. “We will not give any space to this hatred,” said Sebastian Kurz, Austria’s chancellor.
Austrian authorities have identified Kujtim Fejzulai, a 20-year-old man with dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship, as a perpetrator. Further arrests were made on November 3rd, though it is still not clear if there was more than one actual attacker. Mr Fejzulai, who was killed during the attack, was born and raised in Vienna to Macedonian parents of Albanian extraction. Radicalised as a teenager, in April 2019 he was convicted of terrorist offences and handed a 22-month prison sentence after authorities thwarted his plan to join Islamic State (IS) fighters in Syria. But he was released in December under Austria’s lenient rules for young offenders. IS claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on Telegram, along with a picture of the supposed attacker, whom it called “Abu Dujana al-Albani”, posing with an assault rifle, a pistol and a long knife.
The attack follows a spate of terrorism in Europe. On October 4th a Syrian asylum-seeker stabbed two men, killing one, in the German city of Dresden in what may have been a homophobic attack. Twelve days later, on the outskirts of Paris, a teenage Chechen refugee beheaded Samuel Paty, a teacher who had shown his class controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine. On October 29th a Tunisian national who had arrived in France that month killed three people at a church in Nice. On the same day, French police shot dead a man claiming allegiance to a far-right anti-immigrant group near the French city of Avignon. In response, Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, deployed 4,000 extra troops to guard public sites, bringing the total to 7,000.
The flurry of attacks recalls the bloodshed of 2015-16, when Islamist terrorists killed 12 people at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in January 2015, 131 people at multiple sites in Paris in November and 86 people in Nice the following July. Since then, however, jihadism in Europe has declined markedly. The number of completed Islamist attacks fell every year from 2017 to 2019, while the number of foiled ones rose, according to Europol, the European Union’s law-enforcement agency (see chart). Ten people were killed in 2019, the last year for which figures are available.
Much of the violence has been associated with IS, which swept through Iraq and Syria in 2014 with the help of 5,000 or so European recruits (who made up over a tenth of all foreign fighters in the group). The IS “caliphate” was crushed in 2019—mostly by Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces backed by American special forces and air power. European security services feared that a flood of returning fighters would overwhelm their ability to monitor suspects back at home. In practice, IS veterans have not proven as numerous or violent as feared, even if the group’s ideology has remained potent.
Even so, the threat continues to dominate the work of security services. In a speech in October, Ken McCallum, director-general of MI5, Britain’s domestic-intelligence service, said that Islamist extremism remained the country’s largest threat by volume, with “tens of thousands” committed to the ideology, though he added that a growing share of plots came from right-wing extremists, like the attacker in Avignon. Mr McCallum said that tracking plots had become harder in recent years “as more terrorists have gone for basic attack methods requiring little preparation, meaning there are fewer clues for us to detect in advance”.
None of the attackers in Dresden, Paris, Nice or Vienna is thought to have reached Iraq or Syria. Though the Dresden suspect had been convicted of recruiting on behalf of IS and downloading terrorist manuals, he is believed to have been radicalised only after arriving in Germany from Syria five years ago. Mr Paty’s killer had contact with a jihadist in Syria, but he never fought there—he would have been 12 years old when IS first surged through Iraq—and was not known to the French authorities. The Nice attacker, who had crossed from Tunisia to Italy in late September, had been arrested in Tunisia for using a knife but was not otherwise on the radar of Tunisian, Italian or French authorities. The problem seems to be less about hardened combat veterans than those with looser ties to the jihadist ecosystem turning to violent action.
Propaganda remains a serious issue, too. Large caches of material inciting and glorifying terrorism continue to circulate freely online, says Julian King, who served as European commissioner for security until January. The European Parliament has been sitting on proposals for Europe-wide action to remove online propaganda for almost two years, he says.
The recent attacks also highlight another worrying pattern. Mr Fejzulai was let out of prison early; the Dresden suspect had been released only five days before his attack. That reflects a wider failure of counter-terrorism policy. “In many European countries the priority was to get people locked up,” says Peter Neumann of King’s College London, “and then to forget about them, with many becoming further radicalised in prison.”
Though Mr Fejzulai had completed a deradicalisation programme, it was evidently unsuccessful. Similarly, a British man who conducted an attack on London Bridge in November 2019 had also taken part in two rehabilitation schemes while in prison; neither had been evaluated for effectiveness. That problem is likely to get worse. In France, says Mr Neumann, almost half of the jihadists that were convicted in the past six years will be released within the next two. “Potentially hundreds of people across the continent will be let loose,” he warns, with insufficient preparation for surveillance and de-radicalisation.
The prospective release of more convicted extremists comes at a particularly sensitive time. Mr King points out that, although the jihadist violence of the mid-2010s caused far fewer deaths than previous waves of European terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s, it “felt different”, beause it was perceived as “foreign” and was “linked to a clash of religions and cultures”. In some ways, that clash is sharpening, even as deaths are falling.
Mr Macron’s aggressive defence of free speech and secularism, and criticism of non-violent Islamism, have prompted incendiary rhetoric from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, and other leaders of Muslim countries. On November 3rd Britain raised its own terror alert level from “substantial” to “severe”, in response to the French and Austrian attacks. “What we’re seeing is that a movement that was pretty demoralised after the loss of the caliphate is recharging itself with this conflict in France,” says Mr Neumann. “In some of the social-media channels there is a newfound sense of purpose.”