Vienna attack stirs memories of a Europe battered by terrorism

An injured person is evacuated outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris on Jan. 7, 2015.
An injured person is evacuated outside the office of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7, 2015, in Paris.
(Thibault Camus / Associated Press)

Five years ago, Europe was in the midst of a devastating wave of militant attacks. Many of those strikes, horrifying in their scope and ferocity, were inspired or carried out by Islamic State, the terrorist group that was then at the height of its powers.

Now a gunman’s rampage Monday night in Austria’s capital, Vienna, in which four people were shot dead and several others suffered serious injuries before the attacker was killed by police, has revived memories of high-profile attacks across Europe that crested between 2015 and 2017, leaving hundreds dead.

Austrian authorities identified the slain attacker — who opened fire on people in a district full of bars and cafés on the eve of new coronavirus restrictions — as a 20-year-old dual citizen of Austria and North Macedonia. He had previously been convicted on terror charges for trying to travel to Syria to join Islamic State.


Fears stirred by the Vienna attack were heightened because the carnage came so soon after a trio of attacks in France that were also blamed on Islamists, including a deadly knife assault in a church in the Mediterranean city of Nice, which followed the brazen beheading of a schoolteacher in the Paris suburbs.

Much has changed since Islamic State terrorized Europe with a series of staccato-paced carnage beginning with the January 2015 shooting at Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly that published cartoons considered offensive by many devout Muslims. Other deadly attacks followed, including sophisticated, coordinated assaults later that year on a Paris concert hall and other sites in the French capital.

The following year brought bloodshed at the Brussels airport, on a crowded promenade in Nice and at a Christmas market in Berlin, among many other venues. In 2017, Britain was hit by attacks that included a bombing in the northern city of Manchester that targeted crowds leaving an Ariana Grande concert.

Demonstrators in Paris carried banners representing Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, the slain editor of Charlie Hebdo.
Demonstrators in Paris carried banners representing Stephane Charbonnier, known as Charb, the slain editor of Charlie Hebdo.

(Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

In the years since, Islamic State has been vanquished as a territorial entity. Once wielding control of large parts of Iraq and Syria, the group’s fighters were driven from their last remaining redoubt in Syria by a U.S.-led coalition in 2019.

But the group’s ideology remains a potent threat, analysts said.

“It would be a mistake to think that ISIS has disappeared,” said Hans-Gerd Jaschke, a terrorism expert at the Berlin School of Economics and Law, using an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In an interview, he cited the presence of hundreds of potential terror suspects in Germany alone.

“The networks are still in place,” he said. “They haven’t disappeared. They’re still there.”

The Vienna attack drew expressions of sympathy and solidarity from around the world, particularly from elsewhere in Europe. Many leaders called the shooting an assault on Western values.

“This is our Europe,” French President Emmanuel Macron wrote in French and German on Twitter. “Our enemies must know who they’re dealing with. We will concede nothing.”

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz cast the shooting as a “repulsive terror attack.” But in a country where far-right groups have been bolstered by anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, he also sought to send a message of national unity.

“This is not a conflict between Christians and Muslims, or between Austrians and migrants,” Kurz said. “Our enemy — Islamist terrorism — not only wants to cause death and pain but wants to split our society.”

Over the past several years, many European nations have seen dramatic growth in the number of jihadists behind bars. Researchers warn that the role of prisons as incubators of radicalism has not been adequately addressed, and that many countries’ law enforcement systems are ill-equipped to determine who among those incarcerated poses a continuing threat.

Rajan Basra of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London pointed to the fact that the Vienna assailant had been granted early release less than a year ago from his terrorism sentence, with Austrian authorities seemingly believing he had been deradicalized.

“He tricked the authorities by falsely complying, like other attackers,” Basra wrote in a Twitter thread, pointing to similar cases in France and Britain of freed prisoners who went on to stage attacks. Austria, he said, has had to quickly develop expertise in making such assessments, and “countries across Europe are facing similar issues.”

While the last big wave of Islamic State-linked terror attacks primarily targeted France, Germany and Britain, leaving Austria more or less unscathed, the country should not consider itself immune from future attacks, Gudrun Harrer of the University of Vienna wrote in the newspaper Der Standard.

“For years, Austria was considered more of a transit or retreat for potential terrorists,” wrote Harrer, who lectures in Middle East history. “That might have changed.”

Even stripped of its territory and much of its revenue and organizational base, Islamic State strives to keep its online presence alive, sometimes through opportunistic claims of responsibility for strikes like the one in Vienna.

Via its media arm Amaq, the group on Tuesday claimed responsibility for the attack, calling the shooter, Kujtim Fejzula, a “soldier of the Caliphate.” It also released a video of Fejzula proclaiming loyalty to the group, though it was not clear when it was recorded.

The distress inflicted by the attack was magnified because Austria, like the rest of Europe, is bracing for a heavy new surge of coronavirus infections and deaths. As of Tuesday, COVID-19 had caused more than 1.2 million deaths worldwide, and the virus had infected more than 47 million people, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at Johns Hopkins University.

Coming on an unseasonably mild night just before a planned lockdown, the shooting rampage was timed to almost the last moment when large numbers of people could be found in a district dense with bars and restaurants.

“European societies are under a lot of pressure because of the pandemic — health policies, economics are all under pressure,” said Jaschke, the German analyst. “That’s obviously a good moment for terrorists to strike.”

And in a country of just 9 million people, the attack took on strikingly personal overtones. The Austrian chancellor, in his speech, carefully enumerated the four victims of “cold-blooded murder”: an elderly man and woman, a young passerby and a waitress.

In another gesture painfully familiar to cities hit by terrorism, the Viennese vowed that their hometown would not be daunted.

In Austria’s Kronen Zeitung newspaper, journalist Michaela Braune wrote of bearing witness to attacks in Paris, Brussels and London but “that something like that could happen in Vienna — in my beloved Vienna — was actually unthinkable.

“I know my city. We will not give in to fear. We will not let ourselves be driven by hate,” she wrote. “Because that is exactly what this cowardly terror is meant to achieve, and we Viennese are perhaps simply too stubborn for that.”

Special correspondent Kirschbaum reported from Berlin and staff writer King from Washington.