As Europe suffers under the weight of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is witnessing its second and more ferocious wave without a sign of relenting, several terrorist attacks have struck at the heart of France and Austria despite the lockdowns and heightened security measures implemented to contain the outbreak of the virus on the continent.
A few weeks after the brutal decapitation of French history teacher Samuel Paty outside Paris in response to his use of the controversial Prophet Mohamed cartoons in the classroom, Austria was horrified by another vile and orchestrated terrorist attack in the capital Vienna on 2 November when gunmen opened fire on civilians, killing at least four people and injuring 23, seven of whom have critical injuries from bullet or stab wounds.
Austria is a small central European country with a great historical and cultural importance impacting Europe and the world as a whole from the European Renaissance period onwards. It has a population of nearly nine million people, eight per cent of whom are Muslim, making up some 700,000 people and representing the largest religious minority in the country.
Austria was also among the first countries in Europe to recognise Islam, done through the Islam law issued in 1912 when Austria was still part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Austria as a country has had no feuds with any predominantly Muslim countries in its recent or modern history, and the country usually takes a neutral stance in international conflicts.
That fact alone strips out the false rhetoric used by Islamists against other Western countries, accused by Islamists and also sometimes by Arab nationalists of pursuing colonial and expansionist ambitions even if such developments ended decades if not centuries ago. Austria does not meet the criteria used by Islamists and jihadists across the world as an enemy. But as usual the jihadists do not really need a cause for committing atrocities such as the one in Vienna, apart from the evil nature of these groups and the individuals who are members of them.
Austria, as one of the successor states of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, kept the 1912 Islam law intact and modified it only last year to include articles that restrict mosques and Islamic centres in the country from receiving donations from foreign sources. The amendments were introduced as a measure against the growing Islamist radicalism and jihadist ideologies that have been sweeping Europe over the past two decades, exacerbated by the rise of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group in Syria and Iraq. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz adopted the amendments as part of a strategy to curb growing radicalism in his country, especially as Austria is also surrounded by a number of countries that have witnessed attacks by Islamists over recent years.
Austria has received thousands of immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries over the past decade, these having fled their homes and war-torn or failed countries and found shelter thanks to the Austrian authorities and citizens. Alas, what should have been a show of gratitude has now turned into an act of treachery and vileness by jihadists towards a country and a people who have hosted them and treated them as citizens. The barbaric nature of the attack, unprecedented in the modern history of Austria, has left a nation in a state of shock, and the Austrian authorities are now hunting down the remnants of the terrorists who orchestrated the 2 November attacks.
These attacks also represented a failure on the part of the Austrian security apparatus, which did not fully meet the challenges and even downplayed a Slovak intelligence warning that some terrorist elements were believed to be buying weapons to plan an attack in Austria. Despite the heightened state of alert sent out by Austrian Minister of the Interior Karl Nehammer to security forces all over the country, the terrorists still managed to hit the capital.
As a result, the Austrian authorities are now taking draconian measures to counter any further attacks, including the closure of mosques where the terrorists gathered and planned their heinous attacks. These measures have introduced a most unfortunate situation for mainstream Muslims in Austria, who now find themselves in the crossfire in the country’s struggle against the Islamists. The vast majority of Austrian Muslims lived peacefully for decades before the arrival of the Islamists with their radical ideologies that seek to harm others.
In France, the situation is also not very different, as many mosques and Islamic centres in the country have been raided by police in search of jihadist elements who have been hiding out in the country and have continued to plan and execute terrorist attacks against French citizens and places of worship, including churches and synagogues that have not been spared from the onslaught.
The situation in Austria is replicated in many Western European countries, though some have been more proactive than others in their fight against radicalism. For instance, France plans to deport over 250 radical Islamists back to their home countries after they were included on a watch list. These elements have ties to the IS and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups. Contacts with their home countries’ authorities have already been made, and Tunisian Minister of Interior Taoufik Charfeddine has expressed his country’s willingness to receive the deportees on condition that they receive fair trials in France.
Similarly, Germany, whose government has taken a softer stance on the immigration of refugees from the Middle East, particularly those who fled the Syrian Civil War, is also facing problems. German chancellor Angela Merkel has allowed over one million refugees to enter Germany over the past decade, and while the vast majority of these have abided by German laws, some have adopted jihadist ideologies or have joined terrorist organisations that have committed terrorist attacks on both German and other soil.
Germany has 200 returnees from Syria on its security watch list at present, and though these have not committed any acts of violence since their arrival in Germany, they represent a dilemma for the German security services as to whether to anticipate violence from them or not. These kinds of elements, who have joined militant and terrorist groups, could be sleeper cells awaiting orders to act. Between 2016 and 2019, nearly 90 radicals were deported from Germany back to their home countries amidst calls for the banning of the deportations by human-rights groups.
Similar cases are taking place all across Western Europe, where hundreds of individuals are either on watch lists or are awaiting trial on charges of joining terrorist groups or endorsing them. The numbers are growing. The terrorists find loopholes in European laws and do not abide by conditions of parole when released. For example, Kujtim Fejzulai, a 20-year-old with dual Austrian and Northern Macedonia citizenship and who was one of those carrying out the terrorist attacks in Vienna last week, was released from prison due to his young age despite initially receiving a 22-month sentence for endorsing IS and distributing materials supporting it.
Fejzulai was shot dead at the scene. Similar cases of freshly released terrorists committing terrorist attacks have taken place in other European countries including Britain.
While Europe is battling the coronavirus pandemic, there is another battle going on across the continent that requires the combined efforts of all Europeans. Despite the existence of European police tactical units from 27 countries, called ATLAS, further efforts must still be made in order to combat the growing terrorist threats that target all European countries and their citizens indiscriminately.
However, in order for this to be done effectively, these efforts must be endorsed by European politicians and decision-makers, who must acknowledge the existential threat to the continent represented by Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood. This operates freely on their soil and secretly endorses the vile work of active terrorists from Al-Qaeda and IS.
Without such acknowledgement and the identification of the main threats early on, the efforts made and lives taken in the ongoing war on terrorism will never be enough to stop the onslaught of jihadists on the European continent.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly