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)
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)
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)
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)