On January 26, 2017, Austrian authorities arrested 14 suspects with purported links to ISIS in a series of counterterrorism raids. Approximately 800 officers were involved in the raids, which took place in the capital, Vienna, and the southern city of Graz. According to media reports, the raids focused on the network of Islamic extremist preacher Mirsad Omerovic, a.k.a. Ebu Tejma, who was convicted of recruiting young people to ISIS. Earlier that month on January 20, Austrian police arrested an alleged ISIS member, believed to be plotting an attack in the country’s capital. (Sources: Newsweek, The Local, Deutsche Welle, BBC News)

In late December 2015, Austrian police heightened security measures after they received a warning about a high possibility of terror attacks between Christmas and New Year’s Day. On March 31, 2015, an Austrian court charged a 14-year-old boy known as “Merkan G.” with terror offenses. Authorities discovered that Merkan had researched bomb-building techniques and had made contact with Syrian-based ISIS militants. They had reportedly offered Merkan $25,000 to detonate a series of bombs in Vienna. Merkan told police that he had planned to target Vienna’s Westbahnhof train station. (Source: Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Local)

Overview

Far-right groups and Islamic extremists are active in Austria. During the European Union’s May 2014 parliamentary election, the Austrian far-right anti-immigrant Freedom Party won eight out of 14 seats, coming in third place. Its leader Heinz-Christian Strache has called women in burqas “female ninjas” and campaigned with slogans such as “too much EU is dumb.” (Sources: BBC News, TIME)

Islamic extremism is an increasing problem in Austria. In June 2014, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung or “BVT”) warned that “Religiously motivated extremism and terrorism, above all of Islamic character… present a great potential threat [to Austria].” An August 2014 report in the Austrian daily Der Standard referred to Vienna as a “hub” for European jihadists, alleging that radicalized Europeans use Vienna as a stopping point before traveling through the Western Balkans to Syria. As of October 2015, approximately 300 Austrian citizens have gone to fight alongside extremists in Iraq and Syria, with 70 having returned to Austria. (Sources: BVT, Vice News, Daily Mail, Der Standard)

Religiously motivated extremism and terrorism, above all of Islamic character… present a great potential threat [to Austria].Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism

Following ISIS’s March 2016 terror attacks in Brussels, Belgium, Austrian counterterrorism adviser Nicolas Stockhammer stated that a terror attack in Austria was “quite likely.” (Source: The Local)

Individuals with links to ISIS have been responsible for recent extremist incidents inside Austria. In March 2015, an Austrian court charged a 14-year-old Austrian boy known as “Merkan G.” with terror offenses, including attempted bomb-making and contact with ISIS militants. In December 2014, Austrian police arrested Bosnian-Austrian Mirsad Omerovic (a.k.a. Ebu Tejma) on the grounds that he had recruited over a hundred European youth to join ISIS and helped to fundraise for the terror group. Local newspapers in Bosnia and Herzegovina reported that Tejma had led a so-called “Bosnian [terror] cell” in Vienna that was “one of the most important logistic and financial support centers for jihadist activities in Europe.” Tejma had allegedly maintained a direct line of communication with ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In July 2016, Tejma was convicted of membership in a terrorist organization and promoting terrorist activities, and handed a 20-year prison sentence. (Sources: Reuters, The Local, Daily Mail, The Local, NY Daily News, The Mirror, Deutsche Welle)

In the wake of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Austrian government announced the allocation of $335 million to fight terrorism over the next four years. On February 25, 2015, Austria’s parliament passed revisions to the country’s century-old “Islam law.” The revisions banned the foreign funding of Muslim organizations and required each Austrian Muslim organization to have “have a positive attitude toward society and state.” (Sources: The Local, New York Times, BBC News)

Austria fulfills a humanitarian role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, providing humanitarian aid to ethnic minorities in Iraq and Syria. Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz has stressed that Austria’s function would remain strictly humanitarian and not military. (Sources: Foreign Policy, The Local)

Polling data released by the Austrian OGM Institute in February 2015 found that 58 percent of Austrians “[felt] radicalization of the nation’s Muslims was underway.” (Source: Telegraph)

Radicalization and Foreign Fighters

Homegrown Radicalization

In June 2014, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung or “BVT”) warned that “Religiously motivated extremism and terrorism, above all of Islamic character… present a great potential threat [to Austria].” In August 2014, Former NSA intelligence analyst John Schindler alleged that there were “thousands of radicals in Austria, some of them extreme enough to wage jihad abroad, and possibly worse.” (Sources: BVT, Vice News, Daily Mail, The XX Committee)

In August 2014, Austrian news sources reported that a group of Austrian Muslims had set up an ISIS “fan club.”

While there is no prominent homegrown Islamist group in Austria, international groups such as Hamas and ISIS have received support from some Austrian Muslims. In June 2014, several Austrian ISIS sympathizers posted photos of messages of support to social media. One message reportedly read, “one billion Muslims support the Islamic State.” (Sources: Gatestone Institute, Heute, Profil)

In August 2014, Austrian news sources reported that a group of Austrian Muslims had set up an ISIS “fan club” that was likely operating out of a Viennese apartment. The fan club consisted of youth from the Viennese districts of Floridsdorf and Donaustadt and also had an online presence. The fan club’s Facebook page had 288 “friends” with some members from Chechnya or Afghanistan. The club offered T-shirts with “terrorist messages” in Arabic, as well as camouflage hats embellished with ISIS’s logo. (Sources: The Local, Gatestone Institute, Kurier)

Until his arrest in December 2014 by Austrian authorities, the Bosnian-Austrian terrorist Mirsad Omerovic (a.k.a. Ebu Tejma) reportedly kept a direct line of communication with ISIS caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Within Austria, Tejma reportedly led what Bosnian newspapers described as a “Bosnian [terror] cell” in Vienna that was one of the most important logistic and financial support centers for jihadist activities in Europe.” Through the cell, Tejma is believed to have raised money for ISIS and radicalized and recruited at least 166 youth who left Austria to fight in Syria. (Sources: The Local, NY Daily News, The Mirror)

A report by the Long War Journal in November 2014 described Austria as a “hub of extremism” that includes popular support for ISIS and Hamas. In June 2010, the Austrian Social Democratic Councilman Omar al-Rawi led a series of pro-Hamas rallies in Vienna in which signs read “Hitler, wake up.” Other posters reportedly compared Israel to Nazi Germany. Following the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident in which nine anti-Israel activists were killed, al-Rawi called for the “continuation of the struggle” against Israel during a rally.

In February 2015, Austria’s parliament passed a law that, among other tenets, disallows the foreign funding of Austrian Muslim organizations. Before the law was finalized, Austria’s integration minister Sebastian Kurz told the BBC that the law would disallow certain Muslim countries from exporting their “political influence” to Austria. Kurz said, “What we want is to reduce the political influence and control from abroad and we want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values.” (Sources: Newsweek, BBC News)

Foreign Fighters

As of October 2015, approximately 300 Austrian citizens have gone to fight alongside extremists in Iraq and Syria. Approximately 70 of those have returned. More than half of Austria’s foreign fighters originate from the Caucasus region. The rest are largely Bosnian and Turkish-born. (Source: The Local)

According to a December 2016 survey conducted by Austria’s Green Party, more than 280 people revealed that they either planned or had already traveled to ISIS territory in Syria and Iraq. Of those surveyed, 59 were female and 221 were male. (Source: The Local

In its 2014 annual report, Austria’s domestic intelligence service the BVT warned about the rise of Austrian foreign fighters. “The conflict in Syria is of urgent relevance for Austria, since systematic efforts are being made within [Austria] to radicalize and recruit people for the war in Syria…The conflict in Syria has become very popular among violent extremist Salafis,” the report stated. (Sources: Vice News, Daily Mail)

In 2015, Austrian law enforcement launched criminal investigations against 192 suspected terrorists, which resulted in 50 criminal charges and 27 convictions. (Source: U.S. Department of State

Austrian authorities are concerned that foreign fighters will be able to influence violence within Austria. According to an August 2014 article in the Austrian news outlet Heute, Austrian foreign fighters in Syria have called for Austrian Muslims to murder Yazidis and Kurdish non-Muslims inside Austria. (Source: Heute)

Foreign Fighter Cases

One of Austria’s most notorious jihadists, Firas Houidi (a.k.a. Firas Abdullah II), left for Syria in early 2014. Before departing, he wrote on his Facebook profile: “To the intelligence agent who may be reading this: Either you kill us or we continue, until the heads fly.” After joining ISIS, Houidi posted on Facebook a photo of an artillery shell in a box ready to be shipped to the Austrian secret service. In another online post, Houidi wrote that Austrian Muslims should “wage jihad” in Austria if they are unable to come to Syria to fight. Numerous Austrian media outlets reported that Interpol had issued an international arrest warrant for Houidi. However, the listing now appears defunct. (Sources: The Local, Heute, Gatestone)

In April 2014, Austrian teenagers Sabina Selimovic, 15, and Samra Kesinovic, 16, traveled to Syria to join and marry ISIS fighters. Both of Bosnian descent, the girls were recruited through a cell in Austria led by Ebu Tejma. After joining ISIS, the girls posted photos of themselves holding Kalashnikov rifles. In some photos, the girls are surrounded by armed men. Rumors surfaced that they were pregnant. Reports in December 2015 allege that Kesinovic was forced into sexual slavery before being beaten to death for attempting to leave ISIS. The girls were dubbed “ISIS poster girls” as they had previously used social media to advertise enrollment in terror group.

Sabina Selimovic conducted an interview via text message with French magazine Paris Match in October 2014. Sabina told Paris Match that she felt “free” in the so-called Islamic State. “[Here] I can practice my religion… In Vienna I couldn’t.” Austrian authorities believe Sabina was held at gun-point throughout the interview. Sabina was reportedly killed during fighting in Raqqa in late-2014. (Sources: Daily News, Daily News, Mirror UK, International Business Times, Daily News, Mirror UK, Al Arabiya, Haaretz, Modern Diplomacy, News.co.au)

Austrian jihadist Mohamed Mahmoud (a.k.a. Abu Usama al-Gharib) was jailed in Austria between 2007 and 2011 for his membership in the Global Islamic Media Forum (GIMF), a propaganda arm that disseminates al-Qaeda multimedia content. He was arrested in Turkey in March 2014, most likely on his way to Syria. Mahmoud was eventually released, a move that German jihadism pundit Guido Steinberg called “completely irresponsible.” In November 2014, Mahmoud appeared in a photograph posing in front of decapitated, half-naked corpses. The photo was purportedly taken in Raqqa, Syria. He reportedly married ISIS propagandist Ahlam al-Nasr known as the “poet of the Islamic State.” (Sources: Combating Terrorism Center, The Local)

Major Extremist and Terrorist Incidents

Compared to other European countries such as France and Britain, Austria has experienced relatively few extremist or terrorist attacks. Recent extremist incidents inside Austria have been carried out by individuals with connections to ISIS.

On March 31, 2015, an Austrian court charged a 14-year-old boy known as “Merkan G.” with terror offenses. Merkan had reportedly researched how to build a bomb and had made contact with Syrian-based ISIS militants. According to a report in The Local, ISIS militants had offered Merkan $25,000 to detonate a series of bombs in Vienna. Austrian authorities charged Merkan with evidence pulled from his PlayStation game console which included bomb-building instructions. In May 2015, an Austrian court sentenced him to eight months in prison for terrorist offences. (Sources: Reuters, The Local, Telegraph)

 

Domestic Counter-Extremism

In the wake of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Austrian government announced the allocation of $335 million to combat terrorism over the next four years. The funding will be used to hire new personnel trained in cyber security, crime fighting, and forensics, as well as purchase equipment such as helmets, weapons, body armor, and armored vehicles for special forces. Some funding will help purchase IT upgrades, “evidence collection software,” and possible helicopter upgrades. (Source: The Local)

In the wake of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, the Austrian government announced the allocation of $335 million to combat terrorism over the next four years.

A portion of the funding will be spent on de-radicalization efforts. However, former head of the Federal Agency for State Protection and Counter Terrorism Gert-René Polli has stated that the funding is “mainly designed for the furnishing of special forces and less on the prevention of terrorism.” (Source: The Local)

In August 2014, Minister of the Interior Johanna Mikl-Leitner announced the plan to hire 20 specialists to investigate jihadist activity. (Source: Salzburger Nachrichten)

Legislation

Austria’s legal counterterrorism framework is broad and comprehensive. In July 2013, the Austrian parliament passed revisions to the National Security Strategy, which emphasized international cooperation in the areas of counterterrorism and the fight against cybercrime. The strategy also included the “successful integration of immigrants” as a necessary requirement to prevent radicalization and extremism. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

On December 10, 2014, Austria’s parliament passed an anti-terrorism law banning the symbols of ISIS and al-Qaeda. The law allowed the government to issue travel bans on minors suspected of planning to fight alongside extremist groups in the Middle East. It also authorized the government to strip dual-nationality Austrians of their citizenship if they joined foreign conflicts. (Sources: The Local, Associated Press)

In October 2017, the government banned full face coverings in public places, including the niqab, the Islamic partial face covering, and the burqa, the full face and body covering. Under the law, a person’s face must be visible from the hairline to the chin when in public places. The Austrian government defended the law as necessary to protect Austrian values, while Muslim groups in said it unfairly targeted their religion. According to media reports, only 150 Austrian Muslim women wear the full face veil, or burqa. However, Austrian police reported in March 2018 that they had issued only 29 citations since the passage of the ban, only four of which were related to an Islamic face veil—and all in relation to the same woman. The other charges were for animal costumes, ski masks, and smog masks. (Sources: Guardian, BBC News)

Austria’s “Islam Law”

On February 25, 2015, Austria’s parliament passed revisions to the country’s “Islam law” (Islamgesetz), originally implemented in 1912. The 1912 law made Islam an official religion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as it sought to assimilate thousands of Muslims in the recently annexed territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It also lent state protection to Islamic institutions, doctrines, and customs. In February 2015, after years of lobbying by Muslim activists, the parliament passed new legislation granting Austrian Muslims time off from work for Islamic holidays, as well as halal meals in the army, prisons, and hospitals. The law also re-confirmed Islam as an official state religion.

The “Islam law” also tackles issues related to extremism. In an attempt to curb Islamic extremism, the law bans the foreign funding of Muslim organizations and requires that all imams speak German, “[barring] foreign clerics from leadership positions in Austrian mosques.” The law also requires that Muslim clergy prove “professional suitability” by completing either a theological program at the University of Vienna (which espouses “European social values”), a program of equal merit, or by demonstrating similar training. The Austrian government noted that the law could serve as a model for the rest of Europe.

The law imposed an employment ban on foreign clerics starting in March 2016. The ban affected the 60 Turkish civil servants working as clerics who are paid by the Turkish government’s religious affairs directorate. 

The law also states that Austrian Muslim Organizations will be shut down if they do not “have a positive attitude toward society and state.” The law does not define a “positive attitude” nor how the government intends to measure it. Many Muslim groups inside Austria reportedly find the law unfair, claiming that it casts a shadow of suspicion over the entire Muslim community.

The ban on foreign funding to Austrian Islamic organizations is reportedly intended to curb the political and religious influence from countries such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Turkish head of religious affairs Mehmet Gormez told Turkey’s state-owned Anadolu news agency, “Austria will go back 100 years in freedom with its Islam bill,” and that “Countries cannot have their own version of Islam. Islam is universal and its sources are clear.” (Sources: New York Times, BBC News, Reuters, Gatestone Institute)

In June 2018, the Austrian government announced plans to close seven mosques suspected of promoting radical Islam, and potentially deport up to 60 Turkish imams accused of accepting funding from abroad in violation of the Islam law. The groups targeted include an organization called the Arab Cultural and Religious Community and the six mosques the group maintains across the country. Austrian Islamic authorities had previously declared the seventh mosque, operated by a group called the Grey Wolves, to be illegal. Approximately 150 people faced the prospect of losing their Austrian citizenship, as the expulsions would include the imams’ families as well. In announcing the closings and expulsions, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the country could no longer tolerate “parallel societies, political Islam and” radicalization. Turkey condemned the decision as racist and discriminatory. (Sources: Washington Post, Guardian, New York Times, Wall Street Journal)

Security Agencies

The Federal Agency for State Protection and Counter Terrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung or “BVT”) is Austria’s domestic intelligence agency. It is responsible for “combating extremist and terrorist phenomena” inside Austria, according to Europol’s website. Established in 2002, the BVT partners with Interpol, Europol, and the EU Joint Situation Centre (SITCEN). (Source: Europol)

The Federal Ministry of the Interior controls the “EKO Cobra,” Austria’s leading counterterrorism special operations unit. The EKO Cobra acts on of information collected by the BVT. (Source: BMI

Government Programs

In 2013, the Austrian Interior Ministry disseminated an “education handbook” (Wertefibel) to new immigrants, which introduced the tenets of Austrian society including “social, political, and humanitarian values.” In 2015, the Integration Office within the Foreign Ministry developed an educational program to teach new refugees the German language and Austrian “values” such as gender equality and democracy.  The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also worked with the Islamic Faith Community to develop information and outreach campaigns in mosques, Islamic organizations, and community centers. (Source: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State)

According to an August 2014 report in Der Standard, Austria has been thus far unsuccessful at implementing de-radicalization programs for returning foreign fighters. The government introduced a plan for a possible “telephone hotline” for people wanting to exit terrorist groups. However, the launch of such a plan has been delayed. Nonetheless, according to the U.S. State Department, the Austrian government maintains a counseling center and deradicalization hotline for friends and family of potential violent extremists. (Sources: The Local, Der Standard, U.S. Department of State)

In March 2015, the Austrian Ministry of the Interior launched an initiative to allow its citizens to report Islamist content on the Internet to the Austrian authorities via email. (Source: BMI)

Combatting Terrorist Financing

Austria is a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental organization that works to combat the financing of terrorism. The FATF has recommended the adoption of various measures including the criminalization of terrorist financing, the freezing of terrorist assets, and policies designed to ensure that terrorists cannot exploit non-governmental organizations. (Source: Financial Action Task Force)

According to a February 2014 FATF report, Austria passed “the Sanctions Act” in July 2010, which “facilitates asset seizure, forfeiture, and other counterterrorism measures; and asset freezes pursuant to UN and EU sanctions.” Austria also organized and hosted a series of combating the financing of terrorism (CFT) events. (Source: Financial Action Task Force

Austria’s Financial Intelligence Unit (A-FIU) is a police unit responsible for collecting and flagging unusual or suspicious financial activity. However, all terrorism financing cases fall under the purview of the BVT which investigates each case with local authorities. According to a 2009 report by the International Monetary Fund, “BVT [terrorism financing] investigations can be initiated on the basis of information received from the private sector…other national or foreign security authorities, or internal sources.” All terrorism financing concerns are automatically forwarded to the BVT. (Source: Austrian Financial Market Authority)

International Counter-Extremism

Foreign Military Engagements

The Austrian Armed Forces have taken part in multiple peacekeeping missions around the globe, including the U.N.’s peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights and the NATO-led mission in Kosovo. According to the Austrian Armed Force’s website, Austria has “established a very close cooperation with Germany, Switzerland and Slovakia, as these four countries have deployed soldiers to the same areas of operations.” (Source: Bundesheer)

As of April 2015, the Austrian Armed Forces deployed a total of 508 troops in Kosovo and 331 troops in Bosnia. Smaller deployments included Croatia, Georgia, Cyprus, Afghanistan, Moldova, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Ukraine, Lebanon, Mali, West Africa, the Western Sahara, and the Middle East. Many of these deployments were U.N., EU, or regional missions. (Sources: Bundesheer, Bundesheer)

Diplomatic Endeavors

Austria joined the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in September 2014 in a strictly humanitarian capacity. Austria announced its provision of humanitarian assistance to religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz stated that the alliance against ISIS was fighting “a struggle against extremists who are mostly killing Muslims.” As of November 2014, the Austrian government has sent approximately $1.3 million in humanitarian aid to northern Iraq. (Sources: Foreign Policy, The Local)

As of November 2014, the Austrian government has sent approximately $1.3 million in humanitarian aid to northern Iraq.

In June 2015, an Austrian delegation including foreign minister Sebastian Kurz visited the Kurdistan region in Iraq and reaffirmed Austria’s commitment to humanitarian aid. The delegation announced it would establish an honorary consulate in the region. (Source: Shafaq News)

According to the U.S. Department of State, Austria deploys counterterrorism liaison officers in numerous embassies throughout southeastern Europe. In addition, Austria partakes in a number of regional security initiatives, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the Salzburg Forum. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Vienna is the Secretariat of the OSCE, an initiative that seeks to combat terrorism through conflict prevention, early warning, and crisis management. It also helps to train police and monitor borders. In May 2015, Vienna hosted an OSCE forum on preventing radicalization and violent extremism. (Source: Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe)

In 2000, Austria founded the Salzburg Forum, a regional cooperation of the Ministries of Interior of eight central European countries. The Forum serves to coordinate functions of terrorism prevention, police cooperation, border management, illegal and legal migration, crisis management, and various other tenets. The Forum meets biannually, but Austria often organizes additional ministerial meetings to increase cooperation on internal security issues. (Source: Salzburg Forum)

Public Opinion

There is little publicly available data on Austrian public opinion concerning extremism and terrorism. Polling data released by the Vienna-based market and opinion research firm OGM in February 2015 found that 58 percent of Austrians “[felt] radicalization of the nation’s Muslims was underway.” Following the November 2015 Paris attacks, OGM surveyed Austrians’ concerns regarding possible terrorist attacks in Austria. Approximately 55 percent feared similar terror attacks in Austria, and 49 percent said they would support imposing a state of emergency in response. Approximately 52 percent said they would support border controls. A majority, 70 percent, indicated support for collecting and retaining phone and Internet data of citizens with connections to terror suspects. (Source: Telegraph, OGM)

In the same month, the Unique Research for the Heute tabloid paper found that out of 500 Austrians polled, 42 percent responded “definitely not” to the phrase “Islam is part of Austria,” while only seven percent agreed with the statement. About three out of four of those polled by Heute believed Austrians who went to the Middle East to fight alongside extremist groups should have their citizenship retracted. In addition, 40 percent of those polled felt that Islam was a threat to Austria. (Source: The Local)