ANALYSIS: Vienna terror attack was ‘only a matter of time’

Until the deadly shooting in the heart of the Austrian capital Vienna on Monday night, the country had in recent decades been spared the shock and mayhem wreaked by major terrorist attacks -- but experts say the horrific events shouldn't have come as a surprise.

ANALYSIS: Vienna terror attack was 'only a matter of time'
Army patrol the streets of Vienna along with the police. AFP

The country was on Tuesday mourning four civilians shot dead by a 20-year-old Islamic State sympathiser who attacked a popular nightlife area in the heart of Vienna on the last night before a second coronavirus shutdown.

Political scientist and Middle East expert Thomas Schmidinger told AFP that it had only been a matter of time before such an attack occurred in Austria.

“I am not surprised that this is happening in Vienna now. What can happen in Nice, in Berlin or Brussels can happen here as well,” Schmidinger said.

The fact that Austria prides itself on its reputation as a neutral country, not taking part in military alliances like Nato, has not saved it from being a target for extremists.

“The entire scene has been in Vienna for a while,” Schmidinger said, referring to hundreds of sympathisers he estimates the Islamic State (IS) group has in Vienna. 

READ ALSO: 'How was it possible?' Austrians left asking painful questions after Vienna shootings

The suspected killer held Austrian and Macedonian nationality and was shot dead in a firefight with police and special forces on Monday night.

On Tuesday, Austria's interior minister Karl Nehammer confirmed the arrest of 14 other suspects, but said that it was still unclear whether they had played a role in the attack.

'Homegrown terrorism'

As with other terrorists in attacks across Europe, Vienna's shooter had long lived among those he targeted when he armed himself with an automatic weapon, a handgun and a machete and strapped a fake explosives belt around his 

“What we can say for sure is that this is homegrown terrorism — terrorism by a person who grew up in Vienna and who lived in Vienna and who therefore attacked right here,” Schmidinger said.

The attacker was born in the commuter town of Moedling just to the south of Vienna.

While his exact links to terror group Isis were unclear, he was previously sentenced for attempting to travel to Syria in order to join the Islamic State extremist organisation.

Austria has seen a relatively high proportion of residents trying to make the same journey.

In 2018 the interior ministry said around 300 people had either left or been intercepted trying to leave Austria to fight in Syria or Iraq since 2011. 

Some 50 of them had died there while around 100 returned.

'Not spontaneous'

Monday's attack, according to Schmidinger, was conceived by “someone who wanted to cause as much harm as possible.”

“It was planned, it was definitely not a spontaneous rampage — even the timing on the eve of the big lockdown where many people were outside speaks to that,” Schmidinger said.

In a televised address to his compatriots on the morning after the atrocity, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that “often we in Austria see ourselves as an island of the blessed, where we only know about violence and terror from abroad”.

But the sad truth is even if we're lucky enough to live in an essentially safe country, sadly we don't live in a safe world.”

The last time a large terrorist attack rocked the small nation of fewer than 9 million people was a racist bomb attack on the Roma minority which killed four people in the Burgenland region in 1995.

In the 1980s there was a series of deadly attacks by Palestinian militants, including a hostage-taking attempt at the counter of the Israeli airline El Al at Vienna airport and attack on a bar mitzvah at the main synagogue.

In December 1975 there was the infamous attack by a commando group led by Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, alias Carlos the Jackal, in which 70 people were taken hostage, including 11 oil ministers, at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna. Three 
people were killed.

Austria has lax gun ownership laws, largely due to a high number of people who enjoy hunting, but violent attacks or murders are extremely rare.

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EXPLAINED: Will Austria ban horse-drawn carriages?

Vienna's Fiaker - the horse-drawn carriages seen across the city's streets for centuries - are popular with tourists, but animal rights advocates say the practice is cruel, particularly as temperatures rise.

EXPLAINED: Will Austria ban horse-drawn carriages?

The image of two horses carrying a carriage full of tourists mesmerised by beautiful Austrian sights is quite a common one, particularly in Vienna.

The Fiaker, which is the Austrian name (borrowed from French) for the set of two horses, plus a carriage and coachman, are quite popular and represent an important part of Viennese history.

The first license for a Fiaker was granted in the capital around 1700. They rose in popularity before the advent of cars in the 1900s.

“They are just as much a part of Vienna as St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the Giant Ferris Wheel: the fiakers”, according to the Vienna Tourist Board.

READ ALSO: One day in Vienna: How to spend 24 hours in the Austrian capital

Now, though, the symbol for the capital has become the target of controversy. For years, animal rights groups have protested against the overworking of the animals, the stressful conditions for the horses on busy Viennese roads and the extreme heat they face in summer. 

What are the main issues raised?

For years now, several animal rights groups have protested against exploiting the animals for touristic purposes.

By Vienna regulations, the horses need to be out of the streets once temperatures reach 35C. Many groups ask for the limit to be at least 30C instead.

Additionally, the temperature base is measured at the stables, in the mostly shaded areas from where the animals leave every morning to work in Vienna’s first district, where the blazing sun and scorching pavements could make temperatures higher by several degrees.

READ ALSO: Why Vienna is a haven for wild animals – and where you can find them

Another issue raised by groups is that the fiaker no longer fits in a busy 21st-century capital – with its busy roads and loud cars. They claim that walking among the many vehicles and tourists of the first district is unnecessarily stressful for the horses.

A traditional Fiaker in the Viennese first district. (photo: Amanda Previdelli / The Local)

What do the fiaker associations say?

Many representatives of the organisations reiterate that the animals are well-cared for and used to the heat.

A spokeswoman for the carriage companies asks for a round table with politicians as debates heat up, ORF reported. The veterinarian Isabella Copar, who works for two Fiaker farms, says there is no basis for the 30C regulation.

“I don’t understand that politicians make a judgment on animal welfare, even though they have no idea about the animals”, she told the broadcaster.

READ ALSO: How to explore the Austrian mountains in the summer like a local

Copar mentions a 2008 study by the Veterinary school of the University of Vienna saying that after nearly 400 measurements on the animals, not a single case of “heat stress” was found.

As for the infamous cases when horses have collapsed in the streets of Vienna during particularly hot days, she states that the collapses are usually due to a horse disease.

It was never possible to establish a connection with the heat. “If this happens in the stable, no one is interested,” the veterinarian said.

What is next?

The latest news in the controversy is a major one. The Health Minister, who is also Animal Protection Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens), has stated he would “welcome” a debate about a Fiaker ban.

“You should think about it, really for animal welfare reasons, whether you should expose a horse to this stress.

According to the minister, there is a question also as to whether the use of the carriages fits in the context of a large city at all. “I think that’s a bit outdated”, he said.

READ ALSO: Austria bans ‘senseless’ killing of chicks with new animal welfare rules

There is a particular tug of war between the City and the Federal Government regarding whose responsibility it is to act on a possible ban or even tighten the rules.

Both authorities are set to talk about the issue in June. They are set to also speak with the Fiaker associations.

Vienna is unlikely to see a total ban as early as that. Still, a 30C temperature limit after which the horses would need to be sent back to stables could be heading to the capital.