Austria and the Bosnian-Syrian Jihad Connection
For years, the most important center for Salafi radicalism and terrorism in Southeastern Europe has been Austria’s capital Vienna, which is not actually in the Balkans. Thanks to liberal asylum laws and a generally permissive attitude about radicalism – as long as the terrorism is directed elsewhere – the picturesque city of the waltz and the Blue Danube has become a preeminent hub for the Salafi jihad.
Austrian officials have tried to keep this story quiet, since it hardly helps the country’s image, but security officials have long been aware of the extent of the problem, and that it is growing. Indeed it’s hiding in plain sight. The country’s most notorious Salafi mosque sits directly across the street from a major Defense Ministry facility in downtown Vienna. On occasion, press stories have popped up that indicate that something’s going wrong in this prosperous country. In April, two Austrian teenage girls of Bosnian heritage ran off to Syria to marry jihadists, after undergoing sudden radicalization – there was a media sensation. Mevlid Jašarević, the young man who shot up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011, though born in Serbia, actually grew up in Vienna, and was radicalized much more there than anywhere in the Balkans. Going back to the 1990s, many major cases of terrorism and radicalism in Southeastern Europe actually have significant ties to Austria, particularly Vienna.
This fact now seems to be something that Austrian officials are no longer hiding from publicly. In its just-released annual report for 2013, Austria’s domestic intelligence agency, the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung – BVT for short), there is bureaucratic language but little mincing of words. Some choice quotes: “Religiously motivated extremism and terrorism – above all of Islamic character – as well as Salafi-jihadi groups continue to present a great potential threat…The number of young radicalized followers of violent Salafism continues to rise. In this context, the conflict in Syria is of urgent relevance for Austria, since systematic efforts are being made within [Austria] to radicalize and recruit people for the war in Syria…The conflict in Syria has become very popular among violent extremist Salafis. The spectrum of recruits to the conflict in Syria is broadly ethnically diverse. The motivation, however, seems to be uniformly jihadi.”
Moreover, the BVT’s report points a finger directly at the Western Balkans – meaning Bosnia, mostly – and its nexus to Austria as the critical connection in the rise of radicalism and the movement of young volunteers to Syria to join the jihad:
The Western Balkans security-related relevance for Austria is particularly due to the development of Islamism in the former Yugoslavian Republics and is nourished by a bad political and economic situation. In 2013, further radical-Islamist villages were founded, especially in Bosnia-Hercegovina, where the principles of a democratic and open society are strictly denied. During the past years it was found that people from various European countries, including Austria, were traveling to these villages. In this context, a potential threat is posed by the creation of subculture groups or strictly separate communities which could provoke indoctrination and the recruitment of new members. In 2013, it was established that Jihadist fighters from the Western Balkans travelled to Syria. The fact that activists on the Balkans are networking with and are concretely linked to groups in (Western) Europe, there is a significant reference to Austria. This reference becomes particularly evident in the recruitment and travelling of European or Austrian fighters going to Syria via the Western Balkans.
This unclassified statement leaves out any detail, but the plain fact is that years of playing insufficient attention to the problem have led to the situation today, where Salafi radicalism has been nurtured in Austria to cause serious problems in the Balkans, and now there is ample and dangerous cross-fertilization. Jihadi “villages,” whose members travel frequently between Bosnia and Austria, are a growing problem – the settlement near the Bosnian town of Gornja Maoča is the most notorious, but one of many – and represent a threat to peace and order in Europe and beyond. It is good to see Austrian authorities begin to openly state the extent of the problem they face.
(Note: the 2013 annual report focuses heavily on Salafi radicalism but also addresses a wide range of counterterrorism and counterintelligence issues that fall under the BVT’s purview, including left- and right-wing radicalism, espionage, including the Snowden-derived “NSA espionage affair,” as well as an executive summary in English.)