Threat from within

The most famous Austrian who has joined ISIS, Mohamed Mahmoud, destroys his Austrian passport. Credits: Youtube

The most famous Austrian who has joined ISIS, Mohamed Mahmoud, destroys his Austrian passport. Credits: Youtube

“Europe now faces a serious terrorist threat,” said Europol Director Rob Wainwright in an interview with the newspaper Neue Osnabruecker Zeitung. According to the organisation, from 3 to 5 thousand Europeans have trained in terrorist training camps and then returned home. At the same time, Wainwright stated that there are no direct links between an increasing number of terrorists and the wave of refugees flooding Europe.

However, it is far from everyone who shares this point of view. Many politicians and experts are convinced that those arriving to the EU under the guise of refugees are pursuing criminal agendas.

Last year, Austria accepted nearly 90 thousand refugees. This number has forced the country’s authorities to review its immigration policy and simultaneously ponder security issues.

Does Austria underestimate the threat of radicalisation?”

In 2015 the police investigated cases against 15,236 refugees. Meanwhile, special attention has been paid to manifestations of extremism. Over the past year, there have been nearly 1,000 phone calls alone on the “hot line” especially created for this purpose from relatives worried about their children’s aggressive views. The editorship of the Austrian online publication The Local poses the question of whether “Austria underestimates the threat of radicalisation”.

Last year the government started toughening its entry requirements and the first judicial proceedings began. Analyses of the dangers and sources of Islamic radicalism started regularly appearing in the press.

Currently in Graz hearings in the case of “Islamic State” preacher Mirsad Omerovic, a 34-year-old immigrant from Bosnia, are being held. This is the first time in the history of Austria that a Muslim has been accused of terrorism. He was arrested in November of last year. The prosecution claims he recruited two girls who were later killed in Syria. Prior to this, they posed with weapons in hand for propaganda purposes. Omerovic is also suspected of facilitating the dispatch of 166 young Europeans to war. The prosecutor stated that Omerovic toured Europe like a pop star. He is now facing up to 20 years in prison.

Last year in Austria, a 15-year-old ISIS devotee who admitted he wanted to blow up a railway station in Vienna was given a suspended sentence. This year he again found himself on the court bench – this time for disseminating propaganda for the Islamic State.

A total of about 20 youth have already been convicted in Austria for supporting the Islamic State.

The Koran is distributed for free in Wien. Credits: Bild

The Koran is distributed for free in Wien. Credits: Bild

University of Salzburg professor Reinhard Heinisch thinks that radicalisation takes on only a limited form in Austria, as such fanaticism is uncharacteristic for the country. “No subculture of neo-fascists or skinheads has developed here, unlike in Germany. Nevertheless, more than 100 Austrians, including teenagers of both sex have been radicalised via social media sites and were sent to Syria. Some of them were detained en route. Some were killed. Others have returned.”

University of Vienna professor Sieglinde Rosenberger rejects the idea that Austrian society is radicalised. But she does mention that a significant percentage of young men and women are sympathetic to ISIS ideology. “According to the empirical research, there are two types of fighters in Austria: converted Muslims and young men and women of Chechen background who had come to the country as refugees,” she told Europe Insight.

The topic of Chechen radicals is certainly on many lips these days. In a article on this subject, the newspaper Kurier notes that there are no exact numbers because Chechens are generally marked down as Russian citizens. However, the publication shares some indirectly obtained statistics: out of 3,111 Russians under suspicion for various crimes in 2014, 1,470 were refugees. And refugees are nearly always from Chechnya. The paper also reports that over half of those 260 persons under suspicion of ties to the Islamic terrorists are Chechens specifically.

However, ethnic identity is not considered by Austria as grounds for joining forces with other states to combat the threat of Islamic radicalisation – despite the fact that ISIS is itself considered an international threat. This conclusion may be drawn from comments made by the Austrian Ministry of the Interior’s spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck  to Europe Insight. In his opinion, cooperation with Russia “is not necessary” because the Chechens under discussion have lived in the country [Austria] for many years.

Why is it like this, and what should be done?

In his research on the reasons for radicalisation, European University Institute in Florence Olivier Roy writes that almost all radicals are second-generation Muslims born in Europe. A great many of them have legal offenses and drug use behind them. As a rule, the majority of radicals are young people. Few of them have military or religious experience. Many find very attractive the idea of becoming part of a small brotherhood of “superheroes” ready to take vengeance with the name of Allah upon their lips. The majority of them have no ties to Muslim communities in Europe.

According to Andreas Zembaty, press secretary for the organisation Neustart, which performs social and psychological rehabilitation, the process of radicalisation is not very different from what happens with neo-fascists. If a teenager feels a lack of belonging, he wants to do something to make people either adore or fear him. Zembaty thinks that someone with an education, job, girlfriend and a future is highly unlikely to become a radical.

In comments to Europe Insight, Reinhard Heinisch also submitted the idea that “the foundation of jihadism is young people’s attempts to overcome their alienation from society. The skilful propaganda and a certain cool guy image around this phenomenon are impacting its attraction for young people.”

Sieglinde Rosenberger thinks that the country’s government is well informed about Islamic radicalism. Moreover, according to Reinhard Heinisch, “Austria has implemented a number of measures, including education, dividing immigrants into small groups and settling them throughout the entire country, mandatory language courses and collaboration with Muslim communities. The purpose of all this is preventing the formation of a ghetto or parallel communities.”

The voices of those who consider these efforts insufficient are also heard. “Austria has had definite problems with integrating migrants, not only Muslims,” says Heinisch, citing the opinions of activists working to prevent radicalism.

The expert also notes that there are differences of opinion between the ruling parties – the Social Democratic Party and Austrian People’s Party – regarding what steps are necessary. The former would like to put the focus on secular measures while the latter prefers religious, Christian ones.

Meanwhile, however small the frictions may be, they will invariably affect the efficiency and timeliness of the implemented measures. Moreover, the potential explosiveness of the issue demands a response of the largest-scale and most decisive possible nature.


Additional contributing from Andrey Kulikov

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