The dark night when terror came to Vienna

Blood on the streets: Austria’s government condemned “an attack on freedom and democracy.” © Getty

Is ISIS back? Monday night’s murderous attacks in the Austrian capital have increased fears that the Islamic terror group is starting to regroup after the crushing defeat of its caliphate.

It was a mild evening in Vienna’s city centre. The bars and restaurants in the network of narrow lanes known as the “Bermuda triangle” were busy. People sat relaxing at outside tables. The city was about to enter a month-long coronavirus lockdown and it was their last chance for a night out. But it was also the last chance for at least one callous terrorist to find some easy victims.

The attack began at 8pm on Seitenstettengasse, a cobbled street close to the Danube Canal. “It sounded like firecrackers”, said one witness. “Then we realised it was shots.” A man armed with an automatic rifle, a pistol and a machete was firing “wildly” at the drinkers and diners. Chaos broke out as people stumbled over tables and chairs to flee down the surrounding streets.

It took only minutes for armed police to arrive. By 8:09 the gunman had been “neutralised” – but not before he had claimed several victims.

Shooting was reported in five other locations nearby – but whether more than one terrorist was involved is still unclear.

As the violence unfolded, restaurants barricaded their doors and police sealed off streets. Audiences in theatres, cinemas and the State Opera House were told that it was too dangerous for them to leave.

By the time it was all over, four innocent people had died and 22 were wounded, some seriously. A gunman also lay dead, shot outside St Rupert’s Church.

Because the first attack happened close to a synagogue, there is speculation that the attack was mainly aimed at Jewish people. If this was the plan, however, it was deeply flawed as the synagogue was closed at the time.

The dead terrorist has been identified as a 20-year-old immigrant from North Macedonia. He had served time in prison for trying to travel to Syria to join ISIS, but been shown leniency because of his young age and released early from his 22-month sentence.

The attack fuels anxiety that ISIS is on a war footing once again, despite the loss of all its territory, the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the elimination of tens of thousands of its fighters who have been killed or imprisoned.

According to Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, “ISIS is still very much intact. Yes, they have lost much of their leadership. They have lost many of their capable men. But they’ve also managed to gain more experience and to recruit more people around them. So they should not be taken lightly.”

The terrorists, he believes, have been emboldened by disagreements between the US and other members of the coalition which defeated the “caliphate”. But the main problem is that the chaotic situation in the Middle East which first helped ISIS recruit followers still persists.

“If people are jobless, if people are hopeless, if people have no security, if people have no opportunity, if there is no political stability”, Barzani continued, “there will always be either ISIS or something similar to ISIS”.

Is ISIS back?

Caliphate of hate

Some say, no. What made ISIS different from other terrorist organisations was that it wanted to establish its own territory. Its defeat last year showed that this was impossible because it gave the countries opposing it a definite target to attack. Small groups of fighters murdering people in Europe are harder to track down, but are not in any way going to help ISIS achieve its ambitions.

Others argue that it never really went away. The Pentagon estimates that ISIS still has up to 18,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria, while a recent UN report says that its funds amount to at least $100m. It also has pockets of fighters in African countries, though these have been hampered by violent confrontations with other Islamic terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.

You Decide

  1. Since the aim of terrorists is to terrorise people, the last thing they want is to be laughed at. Are jokes about ISIS a useful weapon against it?
  2. It is clear that the Austrian authorities made a mistake in releasing the gunman who was killed from prison. Should all terrorists be made to serve life sentences?


  1. Vienna is a celebrated centre of European culture, whose treasures include Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Hunters in the Snow. Paint a picture in the same style.
  2. Design a memorial to the victims of terrorism.

Some People Say...

“The more equality women have, the fairer… society will be. Sexual equality is a lot more effective against terrorism than military strength.”

José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (1960-), Spanish politician

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that muddled American policy since the defeat of ISIS has made life easier for the terrorists. President Trump announced that he was withdrawing US troops from Syria, which encouraged Turkish forces to invade, threatening America’s Kurdish allies, who turned to Russia for help. Though Trump changed his mind, the anti-ISIS coalition had been undermined. Trump then added to local tensions by ordering the assassination of an Iranian general who was visiting Baghdad.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether Islamic terrorists have a clear idea of whom they are fighting. The man who killed three people in a church in Nice last week appeared to be taking revenge on Christians for President Macron’s defence of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. But Macron had been championing secularism, which is the opposite of Christianity. ISIS’s battles with al-Qaeda in Africa suggest that it is simply at war with anyone who does not join it.

Word Watch

Bermuda triangle
The party district is named after an area of sea between Bermuda, Florida and Puerto Rico in which many ships and aircraft have vanished without a trace.
Unfeeling. As a noun it means an area of hardened skin.
Danube Canal
Now regulated as a water channel, this is a former arm of the river Danube, the second longest river in Europe. It flows 1,770 miles from Germany to Romania; Budapest and Belgrade are two of the other cities built on it.
North Macedonia
A country in southeast Europe which gained independence after the collapse of Yugoslavia. Its capital is Skopje.
Iraqi Kurdistan
An area of northern Iraq inhabited by Kurdish people. In a referendum in 2017, 93% of voters favoured independence from Iraq, but the Iraqi government refused to recognise the result.
A region under an Islamic leader. The term dates from the 7th Century.
The headquarters of the US Defence Department in Virginia. It is so named because it is situated in a five-sided building.

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