Overview: U.S.-Austrian law enforcement cooperation remained strong. Leaders thanked the FBI for cooperation in investigating the November 2 terrorist attack in Vienna in which a lone attacker killed 4 and injured 23. The government submitted draft counterterrorism legislation to Parliament in December. Reform of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (BVT), Austria’s key counterterrorism agency within the Ministry of the Interior, continued in 2020, including plans for better staffing of the agency’s violent extremism section and overall hiring of more qualified personnel. Austria’s counterterrorism efforts focused on “Islamist extremism,” members of the Muslim Brotherhood, “radical right-wing” networks, and REMVE 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 terrorists.
The BVT monitors an estimated 90 persons who returned to Austria from conflict zones, and the Interior Ministry estimated at the end of 2019 that 100 Austrian FTFs were still in Syria and Iraq. Overall, the BVT noted that terrorist mobilization to conflict zones 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.
2020 Terrorist Incident
A 20-year-old Austrian of North Macedonia origin shot and killed 4 persons and seriously injured 23 others in downtown Vienna on November 2. Police killed the attacker and in the days after the attack made 15 arrests and conducted 18 house searches. Authorities worked with counterparts in Switzerland, Germany, and other countries to identify and arrest the attacker’s associates. While police did not verify a claim of responsibility by ISIS, Austrian officials noted the gunman had previously been convicted of trying to travel to Syria to join ISIS.
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 as well as symbols related to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the Grey Wolves, the PKK, and the Croatian Ustasha. Austria’s Parliament unanimously adopted a resolution on May 29 calling for a stronger EU policy on Hizballah and stronger action against Hizballah’s activities in Austria.
In response to the November attack in Vienna, the government submitted to Parliament changes to strengthen existing counterterrorism legislation on associations, weapons, and terrorism financing. The changes would criminalize “religiously motivated extremist associations,” establish a registry of those convicted of terrorism offenses to block them from jobs in infrastructure, expand the existing ban of symbols to additional violent extremist groups, and better monitor violent extremist mosques and their financing.
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 counterterrorism as well as the Global Counterterrorism Forum’s (the GCTF’s) Good Practices on Addressing the Challenge of Returning Families of FTFs. Austrian law criminalizes “travel for terrorism purposes” with prison sentences of six months to five years, 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 United Nations’ International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism.
In 2020, Austria extended temporary border checks with its Schengen neighbor countries, introduced in 2016, and continued to deploy up to 1,000 soldiers at its eastern borders, in addition to those deployed to implement COVID-19 related restrictions. 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 at ports of entry and information sharing internally and with other EU countries.
Justice authorities conducted raids in November against 229 prison inmates detained on terrorism or “radicalization” charges. Special police also raided 60 sites nationwide associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or Hamas, charged 70 individuals with money laundering or membership in a terrorist organization, and took 30 of them into custody. Authorities coordinated with Austria’s Islamic faith community to close two Islamic centers believed to promote radicalization to violence.
Austria has rigorous processes in place to register and screen individuals applying for asylum, lawful residence, and citizenship. Authorities can analyze asylum seekers’ 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. Officials welcomed cooperation on counterterrorism but have cited EU and Austrian privacy statutes as one of the factors limiting their ability to utilize tools available through international cooperation beyond the EU.
Austrian leaders thanked the FBI and others for supporting investigators after the November attack in Vienna. Chancellor Kurz said it was a “mistake” the attacker received early release in 2019 after being convicted for a failed attempt to travel to Syria to join ISIS. Justice Minister Zadic pledged a full review of judicial processes and “deradicalization programs.” An independent panel is reviewing actions by law enforcement related to the attack.
Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Austria is a member of FATF. Its FIU, the Austrian Financial Intelligence Unit, is a member of the Egmont Group. There were no significant updates in 2020.
Countering Violent Extremism: Austria reexamined its CVE efforts in response to the November attack in Vienna. In addition to proposed legislation, the Justice Ministry pledged €8 ($9.5) million for post-prison programs to prevent re-radicalization to violence. The Ministry of European and International Affairs continued its cooperation with the Islamic faith community to conduct information campaigns in mosques, Islamic organizations, community centers, and prisons.
International and Regional Cooperation: Following the November attack in Vienna, Austria and France jointly proposed expanding counterterrorism cooperation at the EU level, including use of EU-wide information systems and cooperation with non-EU countries on border protection, review and exchange of data, and preventing radicalization to violence. Austria participates in Eurojust’s EU-wide terrorism register, which lists ongoing terrorism investigations by EU member states.
- The United Nations
- The Council of Europe
- The EU
- The OSCE
- The Salzburg Forum
- The Central European Initiative
- The Western Balkans Counter-Terrorism Initiative