Revisiting Austria’s counter-terrorism policies

Haitham Abdel-Samad , Tuesday 9 Nov 2021

One year after the November 2020 attacks, what has Austria learned from its first-ever encounter with Islamist terrorism, asks Haitham Abdel-Samad

Austria s counter-terrorism policies

Until last year, Austria had remained largely unscathed by the phenomenon of global terrorism. However, this month the country commemorates the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in Vienna in November 2020 that shocked the entire country. 

Even though the attacker, Kujtim Fejzulai, born in Austria to Albanian parents, was shot, there are no magic bullets against the jihadi ideology that radicalised him. To avoid hit-or-miss policies, any effective counter-terrorism strategy should incorporate a sensible balance between hard and soft-power measures. 

The Austrian case merits the international community’s attention as the country is trying to take on this very difficult challenge, one which is relevant to all countries and represents a chance to form stronger cooperation on countering terrorism and violent extremism.

When former Austrian president Franz Jonas came back from a visit to Roman Catholic pope Paul VI in 1971, he was eager to share his complementary words describing Austria as an “island of the fortunate”. Paul had used this expression, stemming from Greek mythology, to relay how countries all over the world perceived Austria as an idyllic place of peace and prosperity. 

This characterisation became Austria’s “formative social myth” in following decades, according to the Democracy Centre Vienna, until last year’s terror attack. This marked a significant shift in how the world viewed Austria and also in how the country began to see itself. 

Last week, nearly 50 years after Jonas’ visit to the Vatican, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg made a speech at the memorial service for the victims of the attacks in Vienna. In it, he proclaimed that Austria was no longer an “island of the fortunate” and acknowledged the sobering reality of global terrorism. It was a reminder that even countries who rank low in terms of terrorist attacks must be better prepared for such threats, he said.

The statement can also be seen as a display of courage. By admitting the country’s failure to take the threat of terrorism seriously, it was showing the world that Austria would now be playing a bigger role in cooperating on counter-terrorism. To prove this, the government has introduced measures intended to strengthen Austria’s preparedness.

Persons released from prison will now be more closely supervised in order not to repeat mistakes made when Fejzulai was released after being found guilty of attempting to join a foreign fighter movement. Convicted terrorists will now face harsher sentences made possible by introducing a new category of criminal offence called “religiously motivated crimes”.

The Austrian intelligence agency has been reformed after receiving blame for missing warnings that could have prevented the attacks. Mosques known to the authorities for being hotbeds of radicalisation were temporarily closed and are now subject to closer inspections.

Imams preaching Friday sermons in Austrian mosques have to be on a government registry and undergo formal religious training and certification. In a move analogous to Austria’s Prohibition Act of 1947, a law that banned the Nazi Party and laid the groundwork for denazifying Austria, a law has been introduced to ban Political Islam. 

Austria, a member of the EU, has also been working on strengthening its collaboration on counter-terrorism issues with other members. By pooling resources and collaborating more closely on intelligence and policing, Austria is trying to play a bigger role in the EU’s fight against terrorism.  

These measures have the purpose of rebuilding trust both on a national and an international level. But there are still open questions and significant room for criticisms regarding the steps that Austria has taken in the year since the terror attacks. 


MEASURES TAKEN: Will the longer supervision of persons released from prison help in the fight against terrorism, for example. What happens when this supervision ends? Who decides when a person is effectively deradicalised? 

There needs to be a larger discussion between practitioners and academics from around the world about the issue of deradicalisation to assess its merits and exchange experiences. If an individual decides to leave his homeland and go to fight in a foreign war, this must signify his rejection of everything his country stands for. 

In particular, it is common knowledge that harsher prison sentences may have little effect on criminal behaviour, of which terrorism is an example. While intelligence agencies are often treated as scapegoats after terrorist attacks, casting the blame on them is often unfounded. Such arguments tend to overlook the complex nature of intelligence work when it comes to warning failures and surprise attacks.

Closing places of worship also cannot be a sustainable counter-terrorism step. Even if some mosques do attract radical Islamists, the danger of alienating the majority of those seeking out these places for prayer overshadows the desired benefits. Besides, terrorist recruiters and like-minded extremists will always be able to find other places to meet — be it in person or via the Internet. Off-the-cuff measures like these might be comprehensible, but a long-term strategy should start with prevention so that such a situation does not occur in the first place. 

While having properly educated preachers is a step in the right direction, those who hold radical viewpoints (or are susceptible to them) are unlikely to be swayed from their path towards (violent) extremism. By labelling the crime of terrorism “Political Islam”, the Muslim population in Austria may be alienated and see their faith being associated with the Nazi Party. 

While Austria has been working with other EU members on countering terrorism, it has not gone beyond that. Since terrorism is a global phenomenon, non-EU countries should also be involved. While the EU has been working on strengthening its “external action to counter terrorism” with regions such as the Middle East by working on capacity building and coordinating efforts, there remains a lot that has not yet been realised.

All these criticisms and missed chances pertain not only to Austria, but also to other countries engaged in countering terrorism. This goes to show an unfortunate reality: whatever the policy, there will always be risks. Merely highlighting Austria’s shortcomings in its fight against terrorism and violent extremism would be to paint an incomplete picture. 

After a terrorist attack, governments may tend to overreact, the media is usually tempted by sensationalism, and societies often fall into the trap of divisiveness and antagonism. While examples of such negative trends can be pointed out in the Austrian case, they are also overshadowed by more positive developments. Despite being faced with its first Islamist terror attack, Austria’s first impulses were commendable and praiseworthy. 

On the day of the attacks, the Austrian government made sure to communicate to the public the difference between jihadism and moderate Islam, for example, emphasising that the latter is very distant from the jihadi ideology. By doing so, it displayed a significant amount of level-headedness. 

As Gabriel Rubin, a US expert in the study of terrorism, has put it, governments historically calibrate the terrorist threat by over- or underselling it to the public for their own political gains. Typically, after a crisis like a terrorist attack, people turn to their government for reassurance, information, and direction. Therefore, the way in which government leaders communicate colours how the public will view such events. The Austrian government seemed to be aware of this responsibility, and it was able to provide clear information while refraining from overreaction. 

The same can be said for the Austrian media. Events like terrorist attacks are of high interest to the public. While keeping the public informed and up to date about the events, the media by and large refrained from sensationalism. The only two media outlets that did not do so were sued and frowned upon by their colleagues and the larger population. When the Austrian government asked people in possession of recordings pertaining to the terrorist attack to send them to the ministry of the interior instead of posting them online, they cooperated. 

Overall, Austrian society showed solidarity, cohesiveness, and resilience. Most Muslims living in Austria can attest to how little or no difference there was in their lives after the terror attacks. While incidents of hate-crime and racism were recorded in the aftermath of the attacks, they remained small: just as Fejzulai did not represent all Muslims, such incidents do not reflect the overall Austrian society. 

Institutional, legal, and structural reforms, while not being the only solution, are a major step towards successfully countering terrorism. Austria responded to its citizen’s calls for reform. It appointed as the head of its reformed intelligence agency Omar Haijawi-Pirchner, who was born in Austria as the son of Jordanian refugees.

While this can be dismissed as a cosmetic step, this would be to overlook its underlying message of hope and solidarity: Austria is still and will always remain a home for everyone who regards it as his or her home. It sent a strong signal to anyone who might be tempted to use Fejzulai’s “migration background” as an excuse to rally against immigrants. 


CONTINUING THE FIGHT: Austria has done well in balancing a rather complex equation: countering terrorism while not letting itself be defined by it. 

The fight against terrorism is moving along without becoming part of Austrian identity. It is to be hoped that Austria will not sway from this course in the years and decades to come. Most importantly, it should not fall into the trap of “hard power”, focusing solely on surveillance, prohibition, and policing, as well as the use of economic incentives, to achieve its goals. 

Austria is also a neutral country, and it should use this delicate position to act as a role model for the rest of the world. By making use of its “soft power”, a term coined by US academic Joseph S. Nye, it can illustrate that such measures can have a measurable impact. When Fejzulai attacked Vienna, he attacked with “hard power” and was met with “hard power,” too. However, there might have been a long process of radicalisation that occurred before he decided to attack that could have been countered by “soft power.”

No one is born a terrorist, and terrorism is not innate. It is, most scholars agree, a type of criminal behaviour that is the result of various complex and non-linear processes, such as “radicalisation leading to extremism”.

While it is true that sometimes terrorist attacks represent pragmatic tactics that seek political goals, many times they are the result of convictions that are characterised by an exclusionary, intolerant, and anti-democratic worldview. Here, radicalisation refers to the process whereby such worldviews are cultivated, sustained, and strengthened over a period and then combined with the ability and willingness to use violence to communicate and enforce them.

When a radicalised person holding extremist views loses the inhibition to use illegitimate force as a means of achieving his or her goals, it becomes violent extremism and can manifest in terrorist attacks. 

Such processes cannot be scanned by a detector, overheard by an intelligence officer, filtered out by software, or deterred by harsh laws. Rather, they often occur deep in the mind, in the confines of various organisations, and/or in the abyss of the “dark web”. So, how can these areas be incorporated into an effective counter-terrorism strategy? Most states tend to refrain from or fail at “soft power” measures in doing so.

Only when expectations are adjusted and the public is educated on the reality of the complexity of counter-terrorism, can governments begin to think about long-term approaches. Nearly 20 years ago, Nye recognised that regardless of whether terrorism is motivated by conviction or guided by pragmatic goals, soft power remains a necessary tool in combating it.

 “We can kill and deter any number of terrorists, but if the terrorists are continually able to recruit from the moderates, to replenish themselves, particularly in increasing numbers, then we lose in the long run,” he said.

To succeed in the long run, Austria should make use of its strategic positioning at the heart of Europe. Using “soft power” means resorting to diplomacy, dialogue, culture, and history. Unlike “hard power” measures, however, these are only effective when they have meaning. Austria enjoys a relative pristine reputation worldwide. It can certainly do a lot more to make full use of this, notably through cooperation with other countries. 


WORKING TOGETHER: Take Egypt, for example, a country that ranks 14 in the Global Terrorism Index. Despite the occasional official visit and joint declaration, there is little cooperation between Austria and Egypt when it comes to counter-terrorism even as there is more that Austria could get from Egypt than merely stopping or curbing illegal immigration (which many Western countries tend to link with “importing terrorism”). 

Austria could benefit from Egypt’s experience in religious education, reforming religious discourse, and strengthening moderation. Egypt’s successes could be a learning experience for Austria, a country that is new to taking on such tasks, albeit on a much smaller scale. 

There need to be institutional frameworks for dialogue and cooperation between the two countries. For a long time, Middle Eastern countries have been calling on the West to assist them in their fight against terrorism. However, these calls have either been ignored or viewed only as how they relate to the West. Counter-terrorism needs to be decoupled from political agendas. Only then can the international community stand up to the global rise in terrorism, which thrives when peace talks stop, partnerships are halted, and propaganda is disseminated.  

Taking alliances, partnerships, and institutions more seriously should be Austria’s top priority. In Egypt it could have an important partner in its fight against terrorism and one that is not only a strategic diplomatic asset, but also one that has a vast history and rich culture. Joining efforts in preventing violent extremism and curbing radicalisation could yield very promising results. 

However, the Austrian government is beholden to its citizens when it comes to taking major decisions. If potential partners, in this case the Egyptian government, are viewed in a bad light by the Austrian public, any kind of official or long-term joint counter-terrorism effort will be doomed.  

For decades, academics and intellectuals have warned that extremism is on the rise in Western countries, but their calls have either fallen on deaf ears or been met with accusations of “Islamophobia”. Up until last year’s terrorist attacks, Austria could somehow afford to stay out of this debate. Now, its society is divided along a spectrum between two camps: those who have no problem tolerating intolerance (the “extreme left”) and those who see an enemy in anyone foreign (the “extreme right”). Voices in the middle are in dangerous territory. However, they are needed now more than ever — both for the sake of Austria and its international partners.

When the Austrian government tried to close the mosques where Fejzulai was radicalised, it was met with accusations of anti-Muslim bigotry. When the Austrian police raided the homes of known members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had been proven to have received foreign financial backing to promote their extremist views, these members sued and won using loopholes in laws not up to date with the complexity of terrorist organisations and their financial flows. 

When the Austrian government made Political Islam a criminal offence, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists quickly lobbied to present this as a form of “authoritarianism” and an “unacceptable instance of anti-Islamic ideology.” Some of the suspects investigated, such as Farid Hafez, an academic, went so far as to compare the raids to the “Kristallnacht” — a pogrom against Jews conducted by the Nazis in November 1938. Nothing can excuse this comparison, which is a prime example for the Brotherhood’s efforts at painting itself as the victim of often fabricated injustices.

Austria has been slowly realising the extent to which the Brotherhood has infiltrated its society. To counter its influence and that of Islamist ideology conducive to violent extremism in general, it is on the right track in uncovering Islamist propaganda. 

Perhaps it will start questioning the narrative that persists for some people on other countries such as Egypt and ask to what extent this has been shaped by Islamists who use it as a cover to gain sympathy. Only when such a process starts can there be hope for better counter-terrorism efforts that are not only accepted, but also welcomed, by both the Arab and Western public. 

The Islamist infiltration of the West, whose ideology produced the likes of the Vienna attacker, did not occur by just relying on “hard power”, such as weapons and finances, but also by using “soft power”, such as ideas and narratives. Only when those engaged in preventing and countering terrorism are just as skillful as those advocating the use of it can there be hope for things to improve. 

For that to happen, obstacles for dialogue should be dismantled and cooperation encouraged. When it comes to global terrorism, there is no other way.  

* The writer is the general secretary of the IISES, a Vienna-based think tank for social and economic studies.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 11 November, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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