There were just a few hours to go before a coronavirus curfew was due to go into effect in Austria.
And that was when the gunmen chose to strike in Vienna, unleashing a deadly rampage Monday that left four dead and at least 15 wounded in multiple locations in the city in what Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz labeled a “repulsive terror attack.”
Officials in the Austrian capital say they’re still unsure how many assailants were involved in an attack apparently planned to take advantage of people thronging bars and restaurants to enjoy a final night out before the lockdown.
Witnesses said they thought several men fired into bars and restaurants around Schwedenplatz on the Danube canal. One video posted online by a witness showed a gunman wearing a white tracksuit shooting at a man several times with an automatic weapon, before returning seconds later to shoot him with a handgun.
One suspected killer was shot dead by police. According to Interior Minister Karl Nehammer, he was Kujtim Fejzulai, a 20-year-old Islamic State sympathizer with dual Austrian and Macedonian nationality, who’d been convicted previously of a terror offense for trying to travel to Syria to join the group.
Later Tuesday the Austrian chancellor cast doubt on whether there was more than one gunman, saying, “We know there was at least one gunman, probably he was alone.” But he added that investigators are now trying to discover whether he had logistical support from others. “We are trying to find out if the attacker was part of a broader network,” he said. The Austrian leader did not explain why some people caught up in the shooting reported more than a single gunman was involved.
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ISIS officially claimed responsibility Tuesday for the attack, releasing via its Amaq News Agency a 44-second video of Fejzulai pledging allegiance to the terror group’s leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi. The assailant’s nom de guerre was given as Abu Dujana al-Albani.
Hours after the video was posted, police in Switzerland announced they had arrested two people in connection with the terror attack in Vienna, Austria — an 18-year-old and a 24-year-old. The arrests were made in Winterthur in a joint operation with Austrian authorities. Last month, Swiss police secured a successful prosecution against an ISIS recruiter based in Winterthur.
Fejzulai was sentenced to 22 months in April 2019 for trying to join IS but was freed last December. “He was equipped with a fake explosive belt, an automatic rifle, a handgun and a machete to commit this repugnant attack on innocent citizens,” Nehammer said.
Gerhard Pürstl, Vienna’s police chief, said Fejzulai was “neutralized” within nine minutes after starting the attack with seven police officers firing their weapons at him.
Police say they have launched a manhunt for at least one more assailant. On Monday, as the attack unfolded in six locations, starting near a synagogue, they had said there were “several suspects armed with rifles.” The discrepancy in numbers is yet to be explained. Austrian police arrested two people Tuesday near Vienna in their nationwide manhunt for possible accomplices.
Until Monday, Austria had been spared the kind of major attacks that have hit other European countries, notably Germany, Britain and France, which last week suffered a spate of attacks by Islamist militants.
“We often see Austria as an island of the blessed in which one only sees violence and terror from the reports on foreign countries,” Kurz said in a statement. “But the sad truth is that although we are lucky to live in a basically very safe country, our world is anything but safe,” he added.
The resurgence of jihadist-inspired terror attacks in Europe after a lull, first in France, now in Austria, is prompting rising alarm among European security officials that they are once again facing a coordinated terrorism wave, possibly managed by overseas plotters, or at least heavily inspired by them. They note last week’s attack on a church in Nice, like Monday’s in Vienna, unfolded on the eve of a national lockdown.
British counterterrorism expert Olivier Guitta tweeted within minutes of the shooting spree in the Austrian capital: “Important to note that the multiple terror attacks in #Vienna, #Austria happened on the last evening before Austria goes into lockdown. The #Nice attack at the church also took place the day before #France went into lockdown.”
Important to note that the multiple terror attacks in #Vienna, #Austria happened on the last evening before Austria goes into lockdown. The #Nice attack at the church also took place the day before #France went into lockdown...— Olivier Guitta (@OlivierGuitta) November 2, 2020
The first shots were heard at about 8 p.m. (Austrian time), ringing out right in the heart of the city near a synagogue and Vienna’s famous opera house. “It sounded like firecrackers, then we realized it was shots,” a shaken bystander told public broadcaster ORF.
He said a gunman “shot wildly with an automatic weapon” before police arrived. Another witness said he heard at least 50 shots being fired by the assailant. As the attack unfolded, police rushed into crowded restaurants and told diners to remain indoors. “At the beginning, I thought to myself that maybe we were making an American film or that they had drunk too much,” a waiter, Jimmy Eroglu, told reporters.
The president of Vienna's Jewish community, Oskar Deutsch, said the attack had begun with shots being fired in the vicinity of Stadttempel synagogue, but he added it wasn’t clear whether the synagogue was being targeted.
Schlomo Hofmeister, a rabbi living near the synagogue, told Vienna newspaper Kurier he saw a man open fire on people thronging a beer garden before moving away to shoot elsewhere. As the attack unfolded, the Austrian army mobilized the Jagdkommando, an elite special forces unit stationed just south of the capital.
Nehammer, the interior minister, told a press conference Tuesday that police had used explosives to blast their way into the apartment of the dead suspect. “All the signs make it clear it's a radicalized person and a person who feels closely connected to IS.”
Now security officials in Austria — as well as their counterparts in neighboring countries — are scrambling to work out how the suspects were connected. Speaking to public broadcaster ORF, Austrian Chancellor Kurz said the attackers “were very well-equipped with automatic weapons” and had clearly “prepared professionally.”
Most jihadist killings since 2016 have been carried out by so-called lone wolves. Security experts have hazarded that IS no longer is capable of actually organizing assaults by cells of gunmen in Europe. If Monday’s attack was not only inspired by IS but directed and managed, then it would mark an alarming shift, say analysts.
More than 300 Austrians are estimated to have traveled to Syria to fight alongside Islamist militants. About 100 of them — mainly second-generation migrants whose families come originally from Chechnya, Turkey or the Balkans — have returned.
France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, was quick to offer his help, telephoning Sebastian Kurz, to “express his total solidarity,” the Élysée Palace said. On Twitter, Macron said: “After France, it is a country with whom we are friends that is attacked. This is our Europe. Our enemies must know who they are dealing with. We will not give up.”