The brutal murder this week of American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State (IS) has focused Western minds, at long last, on the serious nature of the jihadist threat emanating from the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Syria. No longer are top officials mincing words. Yesterday U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dispensed with euphemism, describing IS as “whole new dynamic … as sophisticated and well-funded as any organization we’ve seen.” When asked if IS represents a “9/11-level threat” to America, Hagel explained that this group “is beyond anything we’ve seen.”
Westerners seem particularly concerned that the butcher of James Foley is a Briton named “John” who is part of a group of jihadists from the United Kingdom who are fighting for the IS, where they are termed “The Beatles” by fellow fighters. In truth, the British capital has been known as Londonistan for nearly twenty years among counterterrorism professionals, due to its notorious status as a major hub of the global jihad, thanks to lax British laws that have long permitted extremists to find sanctuary there. If the tragic murder of James Foley causes the Western public to finally wake up to the extent of the threat they face at home, which is growing acute thanks to the unprecedented numbers of Westerners who have gone to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad, his death may not have been in vain.
However, it is good to keep in mind that this problem is hardly confined to the United Kingdom. France and Germany in particular have serious troubles with extremists. While London deserves its reputation as a jihadist’s playground, Vienna is running in second place, and has been for some time, though this is seldom realized outside Central and Eastern Europe. For years, as I’ve written about extensively, Vienna has served as the de facto base for Islamist extremists from Southeastern Europe, a place to recruit, raise and hide funds, and radicalize, thanks to Austria’s permissive laws and weak enforcement mechanisms. It’s an exceptional terrorist or Salafi radical in Bosnia who has not spent some time in Austria. It says something that the most notorious Salafi mosque in Vienna is located directly across the street from a major military base.
Yet a series of arrests this week is causing a new look at this serious problem, which is long overdue. Two days ago, Austria police arrested nine Chechens, ranging in age from 17 to 32; eight men and one woman, all were in the country legally as refugees and asylum seekers. They were planning to wage jihad with IS in Syria but, as is rarely the case, were stopped by authorities before they left. Four suspects were arrested in Vienna, while the other five were picked up in Klagenfurt, the capital of the Alpine state of Carinthia. Yesterday the Vienna group was placed in pre-trial detention, due to flight risk, and proceedings were instituted to withdraw their asylum status; a similar decision is expected from a Klagenfurt court today.
As I reported last month, Austrian officials have been warning the public about the extent of the problem, with the country’s domestic intelligence agency, the mouthful Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism (Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz und Terrorismusbekämpfung – BVT for short), has grown unusually blunt by the standards of tight-lipped Viennese functionaries in its choice of words:
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.
The BVT’s latest unclassifed terrorism assessment explicitly noted that people from the Western Balkans — especially Bosnia but also Kosovo, from families who came as refugees during the war-torn 1990s — constitute a high percentage of Austria’s would-be jihadists. According to the BVT, about a quarter of the foreign fighters traveling from Austria to Syria hold Austrian citizenship: “their families come from Southeast Europe and the Western Balkans.” The BVT assesses that more than one hundred Muslims left Austria last year to go to Syria; about sixty of them are believed to be in the war zone now. The rough figure for Germany for the same period is estimated at 320 (which, given that Germany has ten times Austria’s population, indicates the gravity of the domestic extremism problem facing Vienna).
Moreover, a new report in the Viennese daily Der Standard clarifies why Austria is having such a difficult time getting a handle on this worrisome issue. In particular, the BVT faces tight legal restrictions on intelligence collection. The agency is not permitted to search profiles in social networks for clues, despite the fact that Facebook and Twitter are the most important source of information about what foreign fighters are doing: it may only do so based on a direct suspicion and with a court order. If the BVT finds nothing that would require further investigation, everything must be deleted after six months. “When someone blows himself up, then we are the ones to be blamed: we should have known,” rues an anonymous Austrian security official.
Determining what possible foreign fighters are doing is difficult and Turkey is easy to get to from Vienna, a short flight away. A holiday and a jihad mission to southeastern Turkey look similar in many cases. As Der Standard notes, “Occasionally, someone boasts on his Facebook profile, sometimes clues come from foreign intelligence services — but in many cases no one knows before.” Austrian laws define terrorism and the support of it very narrowly. In a typical case, a Turkish citizen who is said to have been the middleman for the arrested Chechens, a jihad facilitator who was helping them get to Turkey, has been reported to the police, but is still free.
There is a large Chechen community in Austria and more than half of the foreign fighters with an Austrian connection in Syria come from the Caucasus region, usually possessing legal residence in Austria; the rest of the jihadists are of Bosnian or Turkish origin.
Vienna’s biggest concern now is the challenge of returnees from Syria and Iraq. In the words of the BVT: “When fighters return from the crisis zone, their practical combat skills, traumatic experience, and behavioral changes plus, potentially, radicalization brought to perfection represent a considerable security risk for Austria” Although historically only five to ten percent of jihad returnees get directly involved in terrorism once they return home, many of them serve as proselytizers and founders of new radical centers. “Even a small number of fiercely determined former Syria fighters pose a risk,” says Gilles de Kechove, the EU’s Counterterrorism Coordinator. “Lone wolves” are a perennial concern, based on recent terrorist incidents in Europe, while the ominous threat of organized groups of experienced jihadists perpetrating terrorism worries the BVT and every security service in Western and Central Europe.
The report ends on a downbeat note, reflecting the reality that Austria remains far from entirely serious in its attitudes towards the rising radicalism in its midst:
Deradicalization strategies in Austria are anything but fully developed. A telephone hotline for dropouts and their relatives has long since been announced — and shelved. Apart from the prospects of success of such an idea — Islamism experts in Germany are critical of a similar project there — there are not enough civilian organizations that are able to carry out such an opt-out program together with the ministry. Now, hopes are that the go-ahead will be given in the fall.
For decades, Austria has taken a laissez-faire attitude towards spying and worse conducted on its soil. Not for nothing has Vienna been regarded as the world capital of espionage, a status it retains with literally thousands of spies working in the city on the Danube. As long as such espionage is directed at third countries, i.e. not Austria, the BVT and other Austrian security agencies have tended to look the other way. Even Islamists have long had a surprisingly free hand in Austria, as long as their nefarious activities were directed elsewhere.
Now there are thousands of radicals in Austria, some of them extreme enough to wage jihad abroad, and possibly worse. What they will do when they return home is something that should cause deep concern in Vienna. The option of looking the other way and avoiding the issue, which has been the customary Austrian approach, is defunct. It would be wise of Austrian politicians to recognize this, as continuing to avoid it will only worsen this serious problem.