Country Report on Terrorism 2016 - Chapter 2 - Austria

Overview: Austria demonstrated continued commitment to countering terrorism, and U.S.‑Austria law enforcement cooperation remained strong. Austria’s Office for State Protection and Counterterrorism (BVT), the key counterterrorism agency within the Ministry of the Interior, reported ongoing radicalization to violence efforts by violent Islamist extremist groups. The country’s traditional public perception that Austria is safe from terrorist attacks continued to be challenged by a large number of foreign terrorist fighters from Austria headed to Syria and Iraq. This number tapered off in the course of the year due to a combination of factors, including effective counterterrorism measures. The BVT charged or monitored those returning from Syria. The international terrorist threat environment prompted the government to establish an ad-hoc security cabinet and to give the armed forces a greater complementary counterterrorism role than previously mandated. Continued concerns over data privacy protection, amplified by public debate about suspected U.S. intelligence activities in Austria, slowed the implementation of some bilateral counterterrorism agreements.

Austria identified the fight against radicalization to violence and violent extremism as a key priority for its 2017 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairmanship. Austria is a member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, and a member of the Defeat-ISIS Working Groups on Foreign Terrorist Fighters and Stabilization. Throughout 2016, the Ministries of Interior, Justice, and Foreign Affairs increased efforts to counter incitement of terrorist acts motivated by violent extremism, and to counter the problem of foreign terrorist fighters. Law enforcement agencies focused on intelligence gathering and investigations, while integration officials engaged in public outreach to prevent radicalization to violence. In 2016, members of the Austrian parliament continued to meet with U.S. legislators within the Parliamentary Security Forum venue to discuss cooperation on counterterrorism and terrorist financing issues.

Legislation, Law Enforcement, and Border Security: Austria has an extensive legal structure to counter terrorism. Relevant statutes criminalize training in terrorist camps abroad and allow wiretapping of individual suspects or small groups with the permission of an independent judge or ombudsman. Specific regulations prohibit the use and distribution of symbols attributable to ISIS or al-Qa’ida. Regulations further allow border authorities to prevent minors from leaving Austria upon suspicion minors will participate in fighting activities abroad. Authorities are allowed to withdraw citizenship from an Austrian dual national who voluntarily and actively participates in fighting in an armed conflict.

Having taken effect July 1, 2016, Austria’s State Protection Law provides the BVT enhanced legal tools to counter terrorism, espionage, cyber-attacks, and WMD proliferation. The new law authorizes the agency to request information from internet service providers and telephone carriers regarding connectivity data, IP addresses, location, as well as request information from transport authorities. The maximum time for data storage by police in terrorism cases was expanded from nine months to six years. Any intrusive action by the BVT requires prior approval by a tripartite panel including an experienced judge and two additional experts, such as prosecutors or privacy ombudspersons. This panel is required to report to Parliament. Additionally, targeted individuals must be informed about the actions against them. The law grants greater authority for the BVT to share intelligence with other domestic intelligence agencies and foreign intelligence organizations.

Austrian law enforcement and BVT officials routinely cooperated in investigative areas with U.S. law enforcement, from the informal sharing of preliminary investigative information to joint, multilateral investigative projects and enforcement operations. Border security forces made effective use of security measures, including biographic and biometric screening capabilities at ports of entry and information sharing internally and with other European Union countries. Border security officials at ports of entry have discretion when determining documents and passengers subject to screening on arrival.

Austria has taken a whole-of-government approach to implement UN Security Council resolutions 2178 (2014) to counter foreign terrorist fighters, and 2199 (2015) to counter ISIS, as well as Global Counterterrorism Forum good practices on foreign terrorist fighters.

The BVT estimated the number of Austrians fighting in Syria and Iraq, or wanting to travel to the conflict zone, at 300 during the period of 2014 through December 2016. Fifty persons were prevented from leaving the country for conflict zones, including 22 women. According to Interior Ministry information, 44 people presumably died in Syria and Iraq, all of them men. BVT monitored an estimated 80 others who had returned to Austria by year’s end.

More than two-fifths of Austrian foreign terrorist fighters are of North Caucasus origin, and around 40 percent were persons with refugee status in Austria. Chechens who entered Austria as asylum seekers over the past decades represented the largest group. Radicalized ethnic Bosnians with direct links to cells in Bosnia were the second largest.

Throughout 2016, law enforcement officials continued surveillance and arrests of suspected terrorists, and prosecuted and sentenced ISIS sympathizers and would-be foreign terrorist fighters. Crime statistics (available for the first half of 2016) showed a marked decline in new arrests related to radicalization, from 139 in 2014 and 59 in 2015, to seven during the first six months in 2016. In comparison to the previous year, justice authorities in 2016 saw a reduction in their processed terrorism-related caseloads.

In July, Austria extradited to France two terrorism suspects implicated in the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. In December, a trial against two other defendants believed to be connected to the two extradited suspects began in Salzburg.

In a series of high-profile trials during 2016, Austrian courts handed down long prison terms on terrorist suspects. Austria’s most notorious foreign terrorist fighter, Mohamad Masoud, who in 2015 was filmed executing two individuals, was rumored to have died in a drone attack in Syria the same year.

  • In March, Turkish-born defendant Sevkret G. received a 10-year prison term for joining terrorists in Syria in 2012.
  • In March, a court sentenced an imam to a six-year prison term for recruiting fighters for ISIS; two other individuals were given five-year terms for fighting with the group.
  • In March, a woman received a 14-month prison sentence, with one month suspended, for plans to join ISIS in Syria with her three children.
  • In July, Mirsad Omerovic (aka Abu Tejma) was sentenced to 20 years in prison for recruiting foreign terrorist fighters.

Counterterrorism experts monitored domestic militia-like groups, known locally as Reichsbuerger, who reject the primacy of the state. They are considered a serious threat, particularly if trying to infiltrate the armed forces. The number of participants in these groups was estimated at 800.

Austria has extensive, high-quality processes in place to register and screen individuals applying for asylum, lawful residence, and citizenship. Applicants are fingerprinted and checked against the European Dactyloscopy system (EURODAC), which is the European fingerprint database for identifying asylum seekers and irregular border-crossers, and on a case-by-case basis against criminal databases. Individuals are again screened against national and international law enforcement databases before citizenship is approved. Due to restrictive Austrian citizenship laws that require the renunciation of second nationalities, and language requirements, the application process takes at least six years.

Countering the Financing of Terrorism: Austria is a member of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), and Austria’s financial intelligence unit (FIU) is a member of the Egmont Group of Financial Intelligence Units. Austria has a comprehensive legislative and regulatory framework for anti-money laundering/countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT), which was further strengthened in 2016 in line with recommendations from FATF. Recent legislative amendments include higher AML penalties, limiting banks’ ability to block access to information on customer accounts, and reforms of the FIU’s operational procedures and supervisory framework.

Austria criminalizes the financing of terrorism in line with international standards and freezes terrorist assets in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions implemented through EU legislation. EU regulations targeting terrorist financing, once adopted, are directly applicable in Austria. Money or Value Transfer Services, dealers in precious stones and metals, real estate agents, and exchange houses are monitored and regulated in Austria. Austria has successfully investigated and prosecuted terrorist financing cases, although criminal penalties imposed may not be dissuasive.

Austria implements the collection of Know Your Customer data for wire transfers through EU Regulation 1781/2006/EC. This regulation does not include requirements regarding information on the beneficiary of a wire transfer, and there is no respective national law in place. The Austrian government plans to comply with the new EU Regulation on information accompanying transfers of funds (Regulation 2015/847), however, which was passed May 20, 2015, and enters into force on June 26, 2017. While Austria has taken measures to require closer monitoring of non-profit organizations, this sector is still not required to file suspicious transaction reports.

Austria routinely distributes UN sanctions lists to financial institutions immediately upon receipt of new UN listing decisions.

For further information on money laundering and financial crimes, see the 2017 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), Volume II, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes:

Countering Violent Extremism: Austria continued efforts to counter violent extremism, largely in response to the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon. In addition, the Austrian government undertook or continued several other initiatives. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in cooperation with the Islamic Faith Community, continued its information campaign in mosques, Islamic organizations, and community centers. The initiative included education outreach to encourage Austrians to differentiate between Islam and what Austria describes as violent extremism. In an effort to counter radicalization to violence and improve integration in the newly arrived refugee population, the Integration Office within the Foreign Ministry developed an educational program focused on German language acquisition and education on Austrian ‘values’ such as gender equality and democratic principles. The Austrian government maintained a counseling center and a de-radicalization hotline aimed at friends and family members of potential violent extremists.

International and Regional Cooperation: Austria is a member of various international and regional security platforms, including the OSCE, the Salzburg Forum, and the Central European Initiative. Austria regularly leads law enforcement training programs with Salzburg Forum countries and the Balkan states.