Anti-terror chief suspended after Austria attack failures

The head of anti-terror operations in the Austrian capital Vienna was suspended on Friday as details emerged of further security lapses in the run up to this week's jihadist attack which left four people dead.

Anti-terror chief suspended after Austria attack failures
Police officers patrol near the site of the terrorist attack in Vienna, Austria on November 4, 2020. JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Erich Zwettler, the head of Vienna's anti-terror agency, had “asked to be suspended from his functions”, Vienna police chief Gerhard Puerstl told a press conference, as further embarrassing revelations came to light of missed opportunities to prevent the bloodshed.

During Monday night's rampage, the first major terror attack in decades in Austria, a 20-year-old man who had previously been jailed in Austria for a terror offence opened fire on passersby with a Kalashnikov in central Vienna, causing shock and anger.

People attend a candlelight vigil remembering the victims of the terrorist attack in Vienna, Austria on November 5, 2020.  JOE KLAMAR / AFP

Zwettler's position became untenable in the light of “obvious and intolerable” failures, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said, after revealing that gunman Kujtim Fejzulai had been in contact with people who had been on the radar of the German intelligence agencies.

A tip-off from German intelligence about these meetings had apparently not led to increased surveillance of Fejzulai, who at the time was following an Austrian de-radicalisation programme having been released early from jail.

Earlier this week, it came to light Austrian intelligence officials had also been warned by their counterparts in neighbouring Slovakia that Fejzulai had attempted to buy ammunition earlier this year.

Nehammer himself has come under pressure in the days since the attack with sharp criticism coming from opposition parties that the failures had taken place under his watch.

On Friday, the government ordered the closure of two mosques frequented by Fejzulai which had allegedly furthered his radicalisation.

READ ALSO: Half of those arrested after Vienna attack ‘had violent crime convictions’

'Radical' mosques

The dual Austrian-Macedonian, who was shot dead by police, had been convicted in April 2019 for trying to join the Islamic State group in Syria, but released early in December on probation.

Nehammer said earlier this week that Fejzulai had managed to “fool” the de-radicalisation programme, attendance of which had been a condition of his release.

Integration Minister Susanne Raab said on Friday that the government's religious affairs office “was informed by the interior ministry that Monday's attacker, since his release from prison, had repeatedly visited two Vienna mosques”.

The two institutions are in Vienna's western suburbs, one called the Melit Ibrahim mosque in the Ottakring district, and the other being the Tewhid mosque in the Meidling area.

The BVT domestic intelligence agency “told us that the visits to these mosques furthered the attacker's radicalisation,” Raab said.

Only one of the mosques was officially registered as such, Raab said.

A statement from the Islamic Religious Community of Austria (IGGOe) said one officially registered mosque was being shut because it had broken rules over “religious doctrine and its constitution”, as well as national legislation governing Islamic institutions.

“Religious freedom is something precious in our country that we must and will protect – including from those within our own ranks,” said IGGOe President Umit Vural.

Peter Huber (C), Austrian ambassador to Germany, lays flowers during a vigil remembering the victims of the terrorist attack in Vienna, outside the Austrian embassy in Berlin on November 6, 2020. OMER MESSINGER / AFP

Also on Friday, the Vienna prosecutor's department said that of the 16 people arrested in the wake of the attack, eight of them aged between 16 and 24, were suspected of “supporting the perpetrator in the run-up to attack” while another six had been released.

The probe into the attacker's circle has spread to Austria's neighbours, with investigations ongoing in Switzerland and Germany.

On Friday, German police said they had raided apartments and offices in the north-east of the country used by four people who might have had links to Fejzulai.

“Two of the individuals are believed to have met the suspected assailant in July 2020 in Vienna,” Germany's federal criminal agency said.

Prosecutors in Switzerland have confirmed that two Swiss men aged 18 and 24 who were arrested on Wednesday had already been the targets of criminal cases over terrorism offences.


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EXPLAINED: What to do if you experience online abuse in Austria

Following the suicide of an Austrian doctor who received threats from Covid-19 anti-vaccination activists, the government has now launched a new campaign to help victims of online abuse.

EXPLAINED: What to do if you experience online abuse in Austria

The Austrian medical community was left in shock in July when Lisa-Maria Kellermayr, a local doctor in Seewalchen am Attersee in Upper Austria, took her own life following months of online abuse.

Kellermayr, 36, had been targeted by anti-vaccination activists and Covid-19 conspiracy theorists for her out-spoken support of vaccines, and the abuse even included death threats. 

Her death prompted candlelight vigils and demonstrations in Vienna and the tragic story was picked up by news outlets around the world.

READ MORE: How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

This led to calls for tighter laws against online bullying and the ability for perpetrators to be prosecuted in other EU countries – particularly as at least two of the people who are believed to have targeted Kellermayr are based in Germany, according to the Guardian.

The Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has even called for the creation of a special public prosecutor’s office to deal with “hate-on-the-net”, but this has been rejected by prosecutors and other political parties, as reported by ORF.

Instead, the Federal Justice Department has launched a new information campaign, website and hotline to help people dealing with online abuse.

FOR MEMBERS: What happens if you get arrested in Austria?

What is in the new campaign?

Austria’s Justice Minister Alma Zadic (Greens) said they have launched the campaign to raise awareness about the issue and to inform victims about the support available.

Zadic said: “It is important to me that those affected know that they are not alone in this situation and that the judiciary supports them with free psychological and legal process support.”

“You don’t have to cope alone with the extraordinary burdens that criminal proceedings can entail, for example through confrontation with the perpetrators.”

READ ALSO: Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Part of the support package is the new website Hilfe bei Gewalt (Help with Violence), which details how to access help from the authorities, as well as secure free legal advice and representation from a lawyer.

The website states the service is for victims of bullying and/or hate online, defamation, stalking, terrorism, incitement, sexual violence and robbery.

The service is designed to be anonymous with options to contact the Justice Department by phone or via a chat box. The website also lists contact details for regional support services in all provinces across Austria. 

The free (kostenlos) hotline for Hilfe bei Gewalt is 0800 112 112.

Useful links

Hilfe bei Gewalt

Austrian Federal Justice Department