VIENNA—Four people were killed and 22 more injured in Vienna on Monday night in a wave of terror the likes of which the city has never seen before. Speaking to the nation on Tuesday morning, encapsulating the country’s collective shock and disbelief, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the attacks brought home what Austrians had only ever previously read about in the papers or seen on television.
At around 8 p.m. on Monday, shots were reportedly fired in or near Seitenstettengasse, a narrow street on which Vienna’s main synagogue, the Stadttempel, is located. The attacker is believed to have rampaged through the streets around the area, opening fire on random civilians and patrons at pubs and bars located in the vicinity. Bodies were found at multiple locations. The four people killed, whose names have not been published, include an older man, an older woman, a passerby, and a waitress, Kurz said.
The Austrian investigative weekly Falter has its offices nearby. Its editor, Florian Klenk, described this morning how two of his colleagues at the paper were outside taking a cigarette break when the first shots rang out, after which they ran upstairs and pounded on the high security door behind which his staff works. His team remained locked in the newspaper’s offices as of 4:00 a.m. Tuesday morning with the lights out, as armed police guarded their building. Klenk reported that one victim had lain in his own blood outside the restaurant Salzamt, located opposite St. Rupert’s Church, just north of Seitenstettengasse.
In an exchange of fire with police, the gunman was killed on Monday night in front of St. Rupert’s Church. He was armed with an automatic assault weapon, a handgun, and a machete knife, Austria’s Interior Minister Karl Nehammer confirmed to reporters. He was also wearing a suicide vest, which turned out to be a dummy. The assailant, Nehammer said, posted a picture of himself on his Instagram page armed before carrying out the attack. Police suspect an Islamist motive behind his terror. The president of Vienna’s Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, said Tuesday morning that an anti-Semitic motive “stands to reason”—given anti-Semitism is “inherent” to Islamism—but has not been confirmed.
It has subsequently emerged that the assailant, aged 20, was born in Austria but possessed both Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. He was known to the police as someone who sympathized with the Islamic State terror group. He had been sentenced to 22 months’ imprisonment in April 2019 for attempting to travel to Syria in order to join up with ISIS. One of the other defendants in that case had expressed their desire to give their “life and blood for [their] religion.” He was released in December 2019.
Police conducted a raid on the dead assailant’s apartment on Monday night and carried out a further 18 house searches in connection with their investigation, during which 14 people were arrested. Early on Tuesday, two apartments in St. Pölten, a city of 55,000 people half an hour away by train due west of Vienna, were searched by police, the local ORF affiliate reported, with further searches planned in the vicinity. The army is assisting the police in their task of guarding high-risk institutions and buildings in the city, Defense Minister Klaudia Tanner confirmed Tuesday morning.
Police have retreated from initial reports of six separate shooting incidents taking place in Vienna on Monday night. Rather, having analyzed about half of the available video evidence, they now suspect this attack constituted a single spree committed by one person in one area of the city, one described by Nehammer as an “evident act of terror.” Characterizing the events as an “Islamist terror attack,” Kurz said the attacks were “born out of hatred: hatred of our fundamental values, hatred of our way of life, hatred of our democracy in which all are entitled to dignity and equal rights.”
“We will not allow ourselves to be intimidated by terrorists. We will defend our fundamental values, our way of life, and our democracy with all our might, with determination, and without compromise,” Kurz continued. Kurz has favored a hard-line immigration policy but on Monday, cautioned Austrians not to turn events into a schism between Muslims and Christians or Austrians and immigrants. “This is a struggle between those who wish to live in peace and those who desire for war,” the chancellor concluded.
Church bells rang out across Vienna at noon Tuesday in remembrance of the dead. For Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn, who spoke Tuesday morning to the state broadcaster ORF, Monday night’s shooting recalled the August 1981 attack, perpetrated by two members of the Abu Nidal terror organization, against Vienna’s Stadttempel, during which two civilians were killed and 18 more injured including three children. Deutsch, the Jewish community president, was unable to confirm whether a direct attack on the synagogue constituted a goal of the now-dead assailant and reported no deaths or injuries inside the community.
The Jewish community has urged all members to stay home Tuesday and closed all synagogues, Jewish schools, kosher grocery stores, restaurants, and other communal institutions as a matter of precaution. For the population of Vienna at large, the government advice remains to stay off the streets, avoid public transport, and remain at home. That the shooting rampage involved more than one assailant, as was initially reported Monday night in the fog of the incident, appears unlikely.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, Vienna has not seen the kinds of major terrorist incidents that have afflicted other European cities like London, Paris, and Berlin, as Kurz alluded to in his address to the nation Tuesday morning. Aside from the aforementioned attack on the Stadttempel in 1981 and an assault on Vienna’s airport in 1985 by the same Abu Nidal group, the last incident that could be classed as terrorism occurred in 2009 when six fundamentalist Sikhs attacked two preachers in a Sikh temple in Vienna, killing one and injuring the other.
This attack, of course, comes in the context of a series of brutal terror attacks, which began with the beheading of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, by Abdullakh Anzorov, 18, on Oct. 16 in the Parisian suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine. Anzorov, a Chechen refugee, was shot dead by police following his attack. Paty was targeted by Anzorov for showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo to his students during a lesson on the freedom of expression.
After the murder of Paty came a stabbing attack in a church in Nice, which claimed the lives of Nadine Devillers, Vincent Loquès, and Simone Barreto Silva. Six people have since been taken in for questioning over the attack including Brahim Aouissaoui, a 29-year-old Tunisian male who arrived in Nice from Italy between 24 and 48 hours before the incident.
Monday night, French President Emmanuel Macron declared his solidarity with Austria, tweeting that a “friend of France” had been attacked, adding: “We must not give in.”
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