The Islamist militant who killed four people and wounded more than a dozen during a shooting rampage Monday in Vienna had told officials he had been deradicalized, which helped secure him an early release from prison and lighter surveillance.
Fejzulai Kujtim had been jailed for trying to travel to Syria to join Islamic State, but he served less than half of his 22-month sentence after agreeing to participate in a deradicalization program. He was shot and killed by police after the attack.
He “deceived” authorities and masked his real aims, said Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer.
Speaking Wednesday at a news conference, Nehammer admitted to a string of errors by authorities. He also acknowledged that a prior warning from Slovak intelligence services about the gunman and a possible attack had been mishandled by Austria’s Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, the country’s security agency.
“Something obviously went wrong in communication,” he said.
Kujtim had attempted to buy ammunition in neighboring Slovakia. The failure to identify him as an immediate threat, as well as the 20-year-old’s brush with a deradicalization program, are being seen by some analysts as a blow to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s crafted approach to issues of integration and immigration.
Some say it likely will reignite an intense debate in the country about Islamization, deradicalization and the efficiency of the country’s security services.
Kurz has dismissed arguments from the populist right that Islam has no part to play in Austria, though authorities have cracked down on manifestations of Islamism. In 2018, half-a-dozen mosques were shuttered for political militancy. Austria is home to 600,000 Muslims, most descendants of Turkish guest workers who migrated to the country after World War II and largely assimilated.
Until Monday’s shootings, 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. Monday’s attack was the worst terrorist incident in Austria since 1985, when three Palestinian militants killed two people and wounded 39 others in a gun and grenade assault at the Vienna airport.
Kujtim, who was armed with an assault rifle, a pistol and a machete, struck hours before Austria was due to go under a coronavirus lockdown. His four victims included an elderly man and woman, a young male passerby and a waitress. A police officer was among the wounded. He was dragged to safety by two Austrian citizens “with migrant backgrounds,” according to officials.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack and released a 44-second video of the gunman swearing allegiance to the group’s leader. It remains unclear if Kujtim was directed by IS to carry out the assault.
Kujtim was sentenced to 22 months in prison in April 2019 for attempting to travel to Syria, Nehammer told Austrian news agency APA. He was released on early probation the following December.
Austria's deradicalization association, DERAD, issued a statement Wednesday saying he would have been released anyway from prison in July 2020, even if he had not entered the deradicalization program, making the “terrible bloody act” still possible.
With criticism mounting, the association said better cooperation was needed between different arms of government and the judiciary, rather than blame.
Authorities did not deem Kujtim capable of carrying out an attack. Nehammer said Kujtim may have lulled his judicial handlers and the country’s intelligence service into a false sense of security by enrolling in the deradicalization course.
Earlier moves to strip him of Austrian citizenship — he also held a passport from North Macedonia, his parents’ homeland — failed because the local authority in Vienna said there was not enough evidence of subversive activities.
Austrian officials now have determined that Kujtim acted alone in the shooting but appear convinced he was connected to a network. One security official told VOA that investigators have determined that Kujtim did not arrive in central Vienna by public transportation and that he may have been driven by an accomplice.
Police arrested two men Tuesday from Kujtim's hometown of St. Poelten, 33 miles west of Vienna, Austrian public broadcaster ORF reported. The two men, between ages 20 and 25, live with relatives, according to ORF. One has North Macedonian family roots, the other Chechen. A dozen other people have been taken into custody after 18 police raids in Vienna.
Those arrested are all in their 20s and have migrant backgrounds, Vienna Police President Gerhard Pürstl told reporters in the Austrian capital. He said police also are investigating a possible connection to recent Islamist violence in France.
Police in Switzerland announced Tuesday they arrested two people in connection with the terror attack in Vienna — 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 IS recruiter based in Winterthur.