The possible motivation behind the Vienna terrorist attack

On the night of November 2nd in Vienna, an individual of ethnic Albanian origin with dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship, identified as 20-year-old Kujtim Fejzullai, opened fire in the streets of Vienna’s historical center and against the Stadttempel synagogue. In the attack, four people were killed and 23 injured.

The perpetrator, was heavily armed with an AK-47 rifle, a Tokarev handgun, a machete, and a fake suicide vest; this could indicate that he would have continued to kill if he hadn’t been taken down by police 9 minutes after the attack had begun.

The shooting took place four hours before the midnight start of a nationwide lockdown as new COVID-19 restrictions came into force in Austria, including a curfew from 8 pm to 6 am.

The following day, ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack and released a video of Fejzullai pledging allegiance to the jihadist Organization with the “nom de guerre” Abu Dujana al-Albani.

The individual had been sentenced to 22 months of prison in April 2019, after he had tried to cross the Turkish border into Syria to join ISIS; however, he was paroled in December 2019, eight months into the sentence. Fejzullai had also taken part in a deradicalization program managed by the DERAD association and which obviously did not succeed. (For further information on the attacker and a risk assessment perspective, we invite you to read Jorg Peschak’s article for the Italian Team for Security, Terroristic Issues and Managing Emergencies).

On November 13th a spokeswoman for the Vienna prosecutor’s office, Nina Bussek, stated that 21 people between the ages of 16 and 28 were under investigation, with 10 of them in custody. Following the attack, Austrian authorities shut down the Tewhid Mosque and the Melit Ibrahim Association, both apparently attended by the 20-year-old terrorist.

Investigations revealed that in July 2020, Fejzulai had tried to buy ammunition in Slovakia, and had also met with known Islamists from Germany and Switzerland that same month in Vienna.

Shooting instructor and weapon expert Giacomo Tisi, contacted by Sec-Ter, indicated how the AK-47 and the Tokarev pistol used by Fejzulai are “a classic of the black market”; an observation which raises a further question: when, where and how did the terrorist manage to obtain these firearms?

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz claimed that the Austrian authorities were ready to outlaw political Islam in order to intervene against those who are not necessarily terrorists but who are active in creating fertile ground for them by fueling Islamist ideology that consequently leads to terror attacks.

As a consequence, mosques and Islamic centers that spread Islamist ideology will be closed while authorities will also be cutting financial channels that bring in funds to such groups. In the following days, several places linked to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood were also raided by Austria police.

The weapons used in the attack

Why Austria?

Researcher Asya Metodieva from the Institute of International Relations Prague is correct when she explains that since the rise of the Islamic State, Austria has never been a target of a major terror attack. She also indicates that there is an understanding among experts who follow jihadism in Europe that Vienna has been utilized by jihadists as a strategic hub in terms of logistics and networks, due to the fact that Vienna is a connector between Western Europe, the Balkans and the Middle East.

Metodieva also points out that there are legitimate doubts about the fact that the attack was a response to Charlie Hebdo’s new publication of satirical cartoons depicting the Muslim prophet Muhammad, considering that Fejzulai had been preparing for the attack months before.

Then why Vienna? In order to answer this question, it is necessary to scroll back to the summer of 2018, when Austrian authorities had taken strong measures against seven mosques belonging to the Turkish-Austrian Islamic Union (Atib) and expelled forty imams. The move came after the website “Clarion Project” had published an article by the title “Erdogan grooming child martyrs”, exposing shocking images published by the AKP watch Twitter account, taken inside Turkish mosques on Austrian soil, that portrayed minors in military clothes who improvised themselves as martyrs with Turkish flags.

Such horrifying images came after Turkish president Erdogan had glorified child-martyrs and told a six-year-old girl how she would have been covered in a Turkish flag if she had died as a martyr, as reported by the New York Times.

Erdogan had defined the measures taken by the Austrian government as “racist and Islamophobic”, exactly as he did in response to the new measures taken by the Austrian government. Additionally, it is important to notice how Austrian authorities explained that the raids on sites linked to Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood were not linked to the November 2nd attack as investigations had been ongoing for more than a year.

It is therefore possible to suppose that the terror attack in Vienna could be a retaliation to the stronger measures taken by Austrian authorities against Islamism.

Additionally, the first target hit by Fejzulai was the Stadttempel synagogue, already hit on August 29th ,1981 by two terrorists belonging to the Abu Nidal organization. [1]

This could be linked to the September normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a move that enraged the Islamist world. Of course, this is only speculation, but at this stage all elements must be kept into consideration.


[1] In the attack, which occurred during a Bar Mitzvah, two people were killed and eighteen wounded.

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