Vienna: Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was thrust into the forefront of Europe’s battle with radical Islam after a gunman went on a rampage through Vienna’s city center.
Authorities suspect a single supporter of Islamic State of carrying out the shootings, which killed at least four people. The attack started at 8 p.m. on Monday as many Viennese enjoyed the last balmy night before the country entered its second lockdown to contain the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
Austria’s deadliest terrorist attack will force Kurz to return to the theme that underpinned his rise to power, just as he was under pressure over his handling of the pandemic. But now, there’s more at stake than an election.
“This is not a struggle between Christians and Muslims, or between Austrians and migrants,” Kurz said in a televised speech to the nation, which will observe a three-day period of mourning. “It’s a struggle between the many who believe in peace, and the few who seek war — a struggle between civilization and barbarism.”
The attack follows an uptick in suspected Islamist violence in France, where President Emmanuel Macron has framed the killings as an assault on Western values. Like Macron, Kurz has taken a hard line, warning against the risks of immigration and the dangers of Islamic extremism.
But with Europeans already rattled by the coronavirus crisis and concerns that it hits some minorities harder, he now faces a struggle to formulate a response that won’t fan the flames.
Before the attacks, there was only minor tension in Vienna, where about a third of the population has immigrant roots. The city was the scene of street tussles between supporters of Turkish and Kurdish organizations earlier this year, while vandalism of the interior of a church last week was blamed on Islamist activists.
Kurz took action against Islamists in his coalition with the far-right Freedom Party which collapsed last year. His assertive stance didn’t stop when the 34-year-old chancellor teamed up with the environmentalist Greens. In July, his integration minister opened a new office to observe and document actions of “political Islam” in Austria.
The shooter — killed by police only 9 minutes after the attack started — was a 20-year-old Austrian and North Macedonian citizen who was born and raised in Austria. He presumably acted alone, the interior ministry said after reviewing about half of the roughly 20,000 videos uploaded by witnesses to a police website.
Authorities raided 18 apartments in Vienna and in two other cities and arrested 14 people linked to the perpetrator, who had posted images of himself with guns and a machete on Instagram before the attack.
Known to police for his sympathies for Islamic State, the shooter was sentenced to 22 months in jail in April 2019 for trying to travel to Syria and join the extremist group. He was released early in December after convincing officials in charge of de-radicalizing potential jihadists that he was ready to reenter society.
Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said the experience exposed a “fault line” in the system, which now needs to be reviewed.
Monday’s violence started near a synagogue, which was attacked by militant Palestinians with a bomb in 1979 and with guns and grenades in 1981, when two people were killed. In addition to the four fatalities, the Vienna shootings left at least 22 people injured at multiple scenes in the Austrian capital’s inner city.
In France last month, a jihadist killed three people in a church on the Cote d’Azur, and a teacher was beheaded in Paris after he showed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed to students during a discussion on the freedom of speech.
Macron, whose tough response has fueled anti-French protests in some Muslim countries and in nations across Europe with large Muslim communities, tweeted his support for Austria shortly after the first reports.
“This is our Europe,” Macron said in on Twitter. “Our enemies must know whom they are dealing with. We won’t yield.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent a similar message of support, saying in a statement that Islamic terror is “our joint enemy” and the “fight against these murderers is our joint battle.”
Before now, Austria had been spared major terrorist violence like those that hit France, Spain and Germany in recent decades. Carlos the Jackal’s attack on the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries’ Vienna headquarters in 1975 left three dead but remained confined to the site.
“We will defend our values, our way of living and our democracy,” Kurz said. “We will hunt the perpetrators, their backers and their supporters, and will bring them to justice.” – Bloomberg