(CN) — European leaders are vowing to fight Islamic extremism after a gunman described as an Islamic State sympathizer opened fire in Vienna on Monday night, killing four people and wounding many others before he was shot dead by police.
The attack in central Vienna brutally casts Europe back into its fight against Islamic extremists at a moment of rising tensions between the European Union and Turkey, a NATO ally whose authoritarian leader is becoming more aggressive militarily in the Mediterranean region while also styling himself as a defender of Islam against Europeans.
The assault in Vienna and two deadly knife assaults in October in France also risk inflaming Islamophobia and far-right political forces in Europe. Far-right political parties have gained support across Europe in recent years following a dramatic rise in refugees, illegal immigrants and asylum seekers seeking entry to Europe. The rise of far-right nationalism is seen as potentially undermining the EU experiment with open borders and economic union.
“We must be aware that this is not a conflict between Christians and Muslims nor between Austrians and migrants,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Tuesday in a televised speech. “This is a fight between the many people who believe in peace and those few who want war. It is a fight between civilization and barbarism, and we will fight this fight with all our determination.”
Leaders from around Europe echoed his sentiment and vowed to fight extremism.
“Islamist terrorism is our common enemy. The fight against these murderers and their instigators is our common fight,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a statement tweeted by her spokesman.
Austrian authorities and news reports identified the dead attacker as Kujtim Fejzulai, a 20-year-old man with both Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. In April 2019, he was sentenced to 22 months in Austrian prison after he tried to travel to Syria to join Islamic State, an extremist group. He was released early last December because he was deemed to not pose a threat, according to news reports.
He was armed with an automatic long-barreled assault rifle, a pistol and a machete when he started shooting at people outside Vienna's main synagogue at about 8 p.m. Over the course of nine minutes, Fejzulai randomly shot at people in streets and a canal-side park and at restaurants and bars before he was killed in a shootout with police on a main boulevard in the Austrian capital.
Two men and two women were killed in the assault and 22 others, including a police officer, were wounded. Seven people were in critical, life-threatening condition on Tuesday, according to news reports. An elderly man and woman, a young male walking down a street and a waitress were killed, news reports said.
It was a warm evening and the last night for bars and restaurants to remain open before a curfew was set to be imposed in Austria as part of restrictions to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In video taken by witnesses that flooded social media, Fejzulai was seen running through Vienna and shooting. Initially, police believed there was more than one attacker but by Tuesday afternoon investigators were ruling out other attackers. Numerous people were arrested in connection with the attack.
Fejzulai posted a photo of himself with his weapons on his Instagram account, according to Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer. He also wore a fake explosive vest.
The rampage sent Europe into high alert amid warnings that other attacks might follow. The United Kingdom raised its threat level to “severe” as it warned that a terror attack was highly likely.
Monday's killing spree follows two knife attacks in France that have shaken Europe and caused tensions to dangerously flare up between Turkey and France. On Oct. 16, a 47-year-old middle school teacher was beheaded by an Islamic extremist on his way home after he showed his pupils cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Images of Mohammed and God are seen as an insult to many Muslims.
Following that attack, French President Emmanuel Macron said he supported the right to publish the images and said Islam around the world was “in crisis” because of Islamic extremism. His government is seeking to clamp down on extremism, but many Muslims in France accuse Macron of fueling Islamophobia and racism in his nation.
Macron's words and deeds also sparked outrage in the wider Muslim world, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan calling for a boycott of French goods. Erdogan accuses Europe of Islamophobia.
Then last week, a knife-wielding attacker described as an Islamic extremist from Tunisia killed three people at a church in Nice, the southern French city, sending shockwaves through Europe.
On Tuesday, Erdogan condemned the attack in Vienna. But in the same speech following a cabinet meeting, the Turkish president also accused Europeans of racism and double standards.
He said that any attack involving a Muslim is immediately labeled as a terrorist attack by an Islamic extremist but that non-Muslims who commit atrocities are described in the West as mentally ill.
In the speech, he said the number of Muslims around the world is growing and that this is something non-Muslims are afraid of.
Without referring directly to Europeans or Christians, he said “some fear their ivory towers will collapse" and added that “the spread of Islam cannot be prevented.”
“This development is taking place in an era when Muslims are oppressed, aggrieved, their resources are exploited and they are isolated,” he said, according to a translation provided by TRT World, a state-run Turkish broadcaster. He vowed that Turkey will continue looking after its interests.
In recent years, under Erdogan's leadership, Turkey has gone from being an ally of the EU and a potential new member state to a rival and major source of concern.
Turkey has angered EU leaders by getting involved in the civil wars in Libya and Syria and sending gas exploration ships into Mediterranean waters that legally belong to Cyprus and Greece. Macron also has accused Turkey of helping foment a war that broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in September. That war continues to rage. Turkey is a NATO ally and that makes the relationship between the EU and Turkey even more complicated.
In a video clip aired by TRT World, Erdogan was seen talking with two Turkish migrants living in Austria who were on the scene when the shooting erupted. The men reportedly saved a wounded police officer and helped others.
In praising the men as heroes, Erdogan also is heard saying that Muslims are mistreated in Europe.
“They may not understand us, but we understand them,” the Turkish president said, according to a translation provided by TRT World. He said Muslims “love everyone … regardless of their religion or sect.”
“I know you have suffered from serious issues in Austria,” he said. “And your only fault is the fact that you are Muslim. But for us being Muslim is something to be proud of.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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