Berlin — The small Central European country of Austria has recently made headlines because of its jihadi teenagers who have gone to fight in Syria. But Austria’s radical Islam problem stretches beyond the Islamic State’s recruitment of young Austrian men and women. The Alpine state has become a hub of extremism that includes not only Islamic State terrorism but also Iranian nuclear proliferation activities as well as active support for Hamas.
Islamic State activity in Austria
“ISIS: Austria is terror hotspot,” ran the headline of an interview published in September by the Österreich newspaper’s online news outlet.
In April, Samra Kesinovic, 17, and Sabina Selimovic, 15, two Austrian girls who had been radicalized by a local mosque, departed to join the Islamic State in Syria. The girls left notes in their bedrooms that said “Don’t look for us. We will serve Allah–and we will die for him,” according to Austrian police.
Regretting their decision, the girls sought in October to return to Vienna. The girls, of Bosnian background, are now believed to be in Raqqah, the Islamic State’s so-called capital, in Syria. “Jihadi brides” is the term some reports have used to describe the girls’ alleged status as wives of Islamic State combatants.
Then in late October, Sabina denied that she wanted to return to Austria, telling the French magazine Paris Match that she wished to stay in Syria because she feels “free” there. “[Here] I can practice my religion,” and, “in Vienna I couldn’t,” she said.
Austrian security experts believe she was strong-armed into denying that she is being held against her will.
The Austrian radical Islamic preacher Mohammed Mahmoud, who has been a key figure in creating the Central European jihadist movement, is also believed to have played a crucial role in the establishment of the Islamic State. “Mohammed M. from Vienna is IS co-founder,” the Vienna-based Kurier daily titled its mid-October report. The paper based its piece on a new book by Behnam Said, an expert on Islam, who noted that Mahmoud’s name appears on a document urging support for the Islamic State.
The Turkish government reportedly released Mahmoud from custody in August in exchange for Turkish hostages held by the Islamic State. After returning to Raqqah, Mahmoud married Ahlam Al-Nasr, the so-called “poet of Islamic State.” Mahmoud had burned his Austrian passport in a public display, which was filmed and then posted on the Internet.
In an email response to a Long War Journal media query, Karl-Heinz Grundböck, a spokesman for Austria’s interior ministry, said that “according to current information there are approximately 150 Austrians” fighting as foreign combatants in Syria. “More than 60” Austrian fighters have returned from Syria, he said. Grundböck flatly denied that Austria is a hub of jihadist activity.
In a separate case of adolescent jihadism in Vienna in late October, the Islamic State offered $25,000 to Mertkan G., a 14-year-old boy, to detonate a series of bombs in Vienna. According to Austria’s largest mass circulation daily, Kronen Zeitung, Mertkan, the son of Turkish immigrants who lived in Austria for eight years, planned to bomb the Westbahnhof train station, and had downloaded instructions from the Internet on how to assemble explosives.
“An attack of this kind would have ended bloodily and caused many casualties,” an Austrian terrorism expert said. Mertkan, who had planned to travel to Syria to join Islamic State, is currently incarcerated.
In August, Austrian authorities arrested nine Chechens, who had been granted asylum, for attempting to engage in jihad for the Islamic State in Syria. Two of the nine Chechens had tried twice to enter Syria. A 17-year-old boy and a woman are among the members of the Chechen group.
“Vienna has served as the de facto base for Islamist extremists from southeastern Europe, a place to recruit, raise and hide funds, and radicalize, thanks to Austria’s permissive laws and weak enforcement mechanisms,” wrote former NSA intelligence analyst John Schindler, who has a deep expertise in jihadist activity in the Balkans and Austria. “It’s an exceptional terrorist or Salafi radical in Bosnia who has not spent some time in Austria. It says something that the most notorious Salafi mosque in Vienna is located directly across the street from a major military base,” Schindler continued.
Significant support for Hamas
The Austrian capital has also seen significant activity over the years by Hamas, a radical Islamist organization designated as a terrorist entity by both the European Union and the United States. In 2010, Omar al Rawi, a Social Democrat member of the Vienna City Council, spoke at an fiercely anti-Israel rally in the city, calling for the “continuation of the struggle” of the nine anti-Israel activists killed on the ship Mavi Marmara. Israel had intercepted the ship for its attempt to break a legal naval blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The anti-Israel rally, which attracted 10,000 people, including many Islamists, featured a sign calling for “Hitler to wake up.”
In mid-October, the online Vienna news and analysis website Die Jüdische published an article titled “Fighting Islamic State, Ignoring Hamas.” According to the report by Die Jüdische‘s editor-in-chief Samuel Laster, Austria’s interior ministry conducted a workshop against “hate and agitation.” The event covered preventative efforts in the areas of online radicalization, countering foreign fighters, and hate crimes.
Muslim preacher Adnan Ibrahim has criticized the Islamic State for killing Muslims, but praised Hamas for murdering “non-believers” and Israelis. Despite this, Carla Amina Baghajati, spokeswoman of the Islamic community in Austria, termed him a “liberal,” Die Jüdische reported.
Strong Iranian presence in Vienna
Iran’s regime maintains a strong presence in Vienna, largely because it is the headquarters of OPEC and the IAEA. Porous counterterrorism laws make it easy for Iranian agents to continue work on evading nuclear sanctions.
In 2012, The Telegraph reported: “At least two visits this year to Vienna by a senior departmental director have been used to carry out transactions worth millions of euros, according to sources. Western officials confirmed the official is a regular visitor to the Austrian capital and has traveled for extended stays each year since 2007.”
The senior departmental director is from Iran’s Center for Innovation and Technology Cooperation. The US Treasury Department designated both the agent and the Center for Innovation and Technology Cooperation for illegal nuclear proliferation activity.
According to The Telegraph, the agent’s network brought into Europe funds that were “handed to money lenders in Austria, Germany and Italy. Payments from the network have been documented as transfers to accounts as far as Russia and China to pay for goods that are subsequently sent to Iran.” Austria’s interior ministry said there was “no criminal investigation” in connection with Tehran allegedly using its financial system to launder money.
Austria’s 2012 domestic agency report stated: “In the period under review, concrete proliferation-relevant activities were observed in connection with North Korea and Iran.”
Challenging counterterrorism environment
The mushrooming recruitment by Islamic State, and the presence of a large pocket of support for Hamas, pose major challenges for Austria’s struggling counterterrorism establishment. Even so, Iranian intelligence’s extensive network, including agents who have previously carried out a 1989 terrorist attack with impunity in Vienna, will remain Austria’s greatest terror threat for the foreseeable future. The interrelationship among the three jihadist movements — Hamas, Iran’s regime, and the Islamic State — playing out in Austria helps to explain why critics view the relatively small Central European country as a danger zone.
Benjamin Weinthal reports on European affairs for The Jerusalem Post and is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter@BenWeinthal