Overview: U.S.-Austrian law enforcement cooperation remained strong. Parliament ended its ad-hoc probe of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), Austria’s key counterterrorism agency within the Ministry of the Interior. The parliamentary inquiry exposed internal weaknesses and the need for restructuring, which an independent commission began in August 2019. Austria’s CT efforts focused on “Islamist extremism,” the potential for homegrown terrorism by “lone actors,” and REMT groups promoting anti-Muslim and anti-migrant violence (which Austria refers to as “New Right” groups). Austrian courts continued to impose strong sentences for convicted Islamist terrorists. Austria expanded its national action plan for the “prevention of extremism and deradicalization,” and legislators called for better staffing of the BVT’s extremism section.
The BVT monitors an estimated 94 persons who returned to Austria from conflict zones, and the Interior Ministry estimated at the end of 2018 more than 100 Austrian FTFs were still in Syria and Iraq. Overall, the BVT noted that terrorist mobilization substantially declined after 2015.
Austria is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS and a member of the Coalition’s Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Stabilization working groups. Law enforcement agencies focused on intelligence gathering and investigations, as well as on sharing information with international partners.
2019 Terrorist Incidents: There were no reported terrorist incidents in Austria in 2019.
Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Austria has an extensive legal structure to counter terrorism. Relevant statutes criminalize training in terrorist camps abroad and allow wiretapping of individual suspects or small groups with the permission of an independent judge or ombudsman. Specific regulations prohibit the use and distribution of symbols attributable to ISIS or al-Qa’ida. An amendment passed in December 2018 to the Symbol Act took effect in February 2019, criminalizing the display of symbols related to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the Grey Wolves, the PKK, and the Croatian Ustasha.
As of 2019, all mobile airtime cards must be registered. Additional legislation regulates use of International Mobile Subscriber Identity catchers – telephone eavesdropping devices that allow localization of mobile phones without contacting mobile operators. The Constitutional Court in 2019 declared a law on surveillance unconstitutional on privacy grounds before it took effect. The law would have allowed authorities to tap messenger services such as WhatsApp and Skype in cases of suspected terrorism with a court order.
Austrian law enforcement and BVT officials routinely cooperated with U.S. law enforcement in a range of areas, including joint investigative projects and enforcement operations.
Austria has taken a whole-of-government approach to implement UNSCRs related to CT and the GCTF’s Good Practices on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of FTFs. Austrian law criminalizes “travel for terrorism purposes” with sentences of six months to five years in prison, extends domestic jurisdiction to individuals in Austria who committed a crime abroad, and ensures legal counsel for terror victims. This law implements the EU Directive on Combating Terrorism and the UN’s International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.
In 2019, Austria extended temporary border checks with its Schengen neighbor countries, introduced in 2016, and continued to deploy more than 800 soldiers at its eastern borders. Regulations allow border authorities to prevent minors from leaving Austria upon suspicion they will participate in fighting activities abroad. Border security forces made effective use of security measures, including biographic and biometric screening capabilities at ports of entry and information sharing internally and with other EU countries. In 2019, the Austrian Army and the U.S. National Guard began exchanging best practices in border protection as part of a partnership that also includes training for Austrian and U.S. non-commissioned officers in both countries.
Austria has rigorous processes in place to register and screen individuals applying for asylum, lawful residence, and citizenship. Authorities are allowed to confiscate up to 840 euros from asylum seekers to cover costs related to the asylum proceedings and to analyze their phones and storage devices to obtain data on the routes traveled. Authorities check applicants’ fingerprints against the EU’s asylum fingerprint database (Eurodac) and, in select cases, against criminal databases. Authorities screen individuals against national and international law enforcement databases before citizenship is approved.
Vienna CT squads arrested and charged two suspects in December for planning terrorist attacks in Austria, Germany, and Luxembourg, together with an imprisoned ISIS sympathizer.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Austria is a member of the FATF. Its FIU, the Austrian Financial Intelligence Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group. There were no significant updates in 2019.
Countering Violent Extremism: Austria continued its CVE efforts largely in response to the FTF phenomenon. The Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) worked with the Islamic Faith Community to conduct an information campaign in mosques, Islamic organizations, community centers, and prisons. To counter “extremism” and improve integration among newly arrived refugees, the MFA’s Integration Office conducted an educational program to teach German language and Austrian values such as equality and democratic principles. In addition, the Austrian government expanded its draft action plan to implement terrorist prevention policies laid out in a national strategy. This includes a comprehensive “exit program” for radicalized youth. The Austrian government maintained a counseling center and a de-radicalization hotline aimed at friends and family members of potential terrorists. The Ministry of Justice presented measures aimed at “extremist prevention, deradicalization, and disengagement” among Austria’s prison population.
The U.S. Embassy to Austria and the Department of State’s Counterterrorism Bureau co-hosted a CVE workshop to exchange best practices across the region. CT Bureau sent a former white supremacist to Austria to provide authentic testimonials about the destructive nature of terrorism and hate.
International and Regional Cooperation: Austria is a member of international and regional security platforms, including the UN, the CoE, the EU, the OSCE, the Salzburg Forum, and the Central European Initiative. Austria remained active in the Western Balkans Counter Terrorism Initiative, a platform it initiated in 2015. Austria participates in Eurojust’s EU-wide terrorism register, which lists all ongoing terrorism investigations of individual EU member states.
In 2019 the European Commission initiated infringement proceedings against Austria (and Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary) for their 2018 agreement with Western Balkans countries to streamline certain information sharing, including in terrorism cases.