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Tom Clonan: Last night's attack in Vienna shows Islamic State is regrouping and shifting focus

Islamic State’s so-called ‘Caliphate’ took a beating last year, but the terror group has been revived from new bases in Africa, writes Tom Clonan.

Tom Clonan Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

INITIAL REPORTS FROM last night’s terror attack in Vienna suggest it was inspired by Islamic State. Austrian prosecutors have stated that the armed attacker shot dead by police on Monday night was convicted in April of 2019 for attempting to join Islamist extremists in Syria. He was released in December 2019.

Emerging reports indicate that the Vienna attack differed from last Thursday’s attack in Nice, France in a number of ways. The Nice attack had the hallmarks of a classic Islamic State-inspired ‘Lone Wolf’ attack. 

Such attacks were especially frequent across European Union member states from 2015 to 2017 – during the height of the Islamic State’s so-called ‘Caliphate’ in Syria and Iraq.  During this three-year period alone, 347 EU citizens were murdered by individuals and groups inspired and supported by the Islamic State.

‘Lone Wolf’ vs last night’s attack

In the case of ‘Lone Wolf’ attacks, the perpetrators acted alone and used simple and crude methods to kill their victims.

For example, in the Westminster Bridge attack in London of March 2017, the assailant, Khalid Masood simply drove into pedestrians in a rented Hyundai Tucson. He then began a marauding attack using a knife to stab and kill four pedestrians and a police officer – 49 were injured in this attack. 

In Thursday’s attack in Nice, the perpetrator seemingly acted alone, mounting a marauding attack with a knife, killing three.

In these attacks – and in the majority of over 100 separate Islamic State attacks in European Union cities since 2014 – most of the perpetrators were shot and either killed or apprehended by ordinary local police acting as first responders.

Last night’s attack in Vienna appears at the time of writing to have been a more sophisticated attack. The 20-year-old assailant who was shot dead had a previous criminal record and was on the security and intelligence radar.

He is reported to have been armed with at least two automatic firearms – a handgun and an automatic rifle. He is also reported to have been carrying a large amount of ammunition and to have been wearing a fake suicide vest.

Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz has stated that this was a ‘very professionally planned’ attack and ‘definitely a terror attack’. The Interior Minister Karl Nehammer has suggested that there may have been more than one attacker, stating that ‘We have brought several special forces units together that are now searching for the presumed terrorists … these are mobile perpetrators’.

Whether or not there was more than one assailant remains to be seen. However, reports from last night’s attack suggest that it was intended to be a mass casualty incident – not unlike the Paris attacks in November 2015 when 130 innocent civilians were killed by a number of gunmen carrying automatic rifles and handguns. 

The Vienna attacker is reported to have mounted a ‘hybrid’ marauding attack over six locations in the city centre.  Reports of shots fired range from ‘over 100’ to ‘about 50 shots’. 

Eyewitnesses are reported as saying that the attacker ‘fired wildly’ at people in outdoor restaurants. The attack appears to have started at 8 pm local time and to have ended when local police shot the perpetrator a short time later, near St. Rupert’s Church. 

It may be the case – given the eyewitness accounts thus far – that the gunman may not have had an opportunity to reload his weapon more than once, with a large amount of ammunition found on his person. If this is the case, Vienna had a very lucky escape last night. 

The death toll of four killed – so far – is relatively low compared to other gun attacks in European cities in recent years.  Though extremely tragic, the death toll in this cobbled area of Vienna’s First District – not unlike the greater Grafton Street area in Dublin – full of restaurants, bars and cafes, could have been much higher.

A new wave of IS?

In the aftermath of the Nice and Vienna attacks, concerned citizens will worry about a resurgence in Islamic State attacks across Europe. The destruction of Islamic State’s so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria certainly coincided with a dramatic drop in terrorist murders in Europe from a high of 150 in 2015 to just 13 deaths in 2018 and only 10 across the EU in 2019. 

However, during this period, the number of attempted and botched attacks by Islamist extremists remained high, with a total of over 50 terror operations in just the last three years.  

Despite the loss of their so-called ‘Caliphate’ in Iraq and Syria and the loss of their leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi – killed during an operation by US forces this time last year – Islamic State continues to adapt and evolve to its new operating environment. 

With a new leader, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al Qurayshi, Islamic State has re-located or shifted its centre of gravity of activities to new theatres of operation throughout Asia and Africa. 

IS has mounted operations in the Philippines this year, killing 11 Philippine Army soldiers in April of this year. IS continues to be very active in Afghanistan and are believed to be responsible for murdering 19 people in Kabul University this week. 

IS is also very active throughout West Africa, Central Africa, Egypt and Yemen.  According to the UN’s Counter-Terrorism Chief, Vladimir Voronkov, Islamic State is reorganising and is recruiting actively, with 10,000 active fighters in Syria and Iraq, and over 3,500 fighters in the newly configured ‘ISWAP’ – Islamic State West Africa Province. 

International defence and intelligence agencies believe that Islamic State has not ‘gone away’. Rather, it continues to be a threat. Some believe it has used the cover of Covid 19 to reorganise in Europe and to target and groom young men and women in a period of greater social isolation and unemployment.

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The new leader of Islamic State has aggressively called for a resurgence of attacks against western targets.

It is not clear if the Nice and Vienna attacks herald such a resurgence. In the last three years, EU police and intelligence agencies have demonstrated their ability to successfully identify and disrupt and prevent such attacks.    

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. You can follow him on Twitter

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About the author:

Tom Clonan  / Security specialist and columnist, TheJournal.ie

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