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Vienna Attacked, Sending Shockwaves Across Europe

Europe was thrust into a state of shock and even veered toward a war footing on Monday night after a gunman opened fire in central Vienna, killing at least one person and wounding up to 15 others.

(CN) — Europe was thrust into a state of shock and even veered toward a war footing on Monday night after a gunman opened fire in central Vienna, killing at least one person and wounding up to 15 others.

The attack began at about 8 p.m. local time near Vienna's main synagogue, the Stadttempel, and then advanced into a central part of the Austrian capital where bars and cafes were busy on the last night before a national lockdown is to take effect with the closing of nightlife venues.

It was all over in nine minutes. After police shot and killed the gunman at the scene, news reports identified him as a 20-year-old Islamic State sympathizer with both Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. He was released from an Austrian prison last December.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called it a terrorist attack that was “professionally” orchestrated.

Austrian authorities said the assailant killed four people and injured 22 more, including one police officer, leaving some in serious condition. When the attack began, the synagogue was closed and there were no reports of injuries among its congregation.

Social media was flooded with videos of the shootings. They show the shooter dressed in white, carrying a rifle as he jogs through the streets in an apparent search for targets. One video shows him shooting a man on an empty street several times. He was also reportedly wearing a belt with fake explosives.

Police said they were investigating six crime scenes. Austrian authorities called it an apparent terrorist attack. The assailants were not immediately identified, but it was believed the attacks were linked to Islamic extremism.

In this image made from video, police at the scene after gunshots were heard, in Vienna, Monday, Nov. 2, 2020. Austrian police say several people have been injured and officers are out in force following gunfire in the capital Vienna. Initial reports that a synagogue was the target of an attack couldn’t immediately be confirmed. Austrian news agency APA quoted the country’s Interior Ministry saying one attacker has been killed and another could be on the run. (AP Photo)

This brazen assault in Vienna comes at a volatile moment in Europe and follows gruesome attacks in France. Last week, an 18-year-old Tunisian man killed three people with a knife at a church in Nice, a southern French city. Prior to that, outside Paris on Oct. 16, an Islamic extremist beheaded Samuel Paty, a middle school history teacher, in the street after some Muslim families complained online that Paty had organized a lesson on the freedom of expression where he displayed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

The cartoons were originally published in 2015 by the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, the leading to a terrorist attack that left 12 people dead. A trial over that attack was underway but suspended this week because one of the defendants contracted Covid-19.

At the center of the volatility is French President Emmanuel Macron and his increasingly aggressive stance against Islamic extremism. France is waging a multipronged effort to push back against Islamic extremism both at home and within the wider region, most significantly in the sub-Saharan Sahel region of Africa, which was part of France's colonial empire.

After Paty's murder, Macron vowed to step up his government's efforts to rein in Islamic extremism in France. French authorities are targeting Muslim groups deemed to be extremist and vowing to expel nonnationals considered dangerous.

France has the European Union's largest Muslim population, largely due to France's extensive colonial territorial possessions in Africa, such as in Algeria, Senegal and Sudan. But Muslims in France suffer racism and poverty, and they accuse Macron of enacting anti-Muslim policies for political gain. Macron, like many other centrist leaders in Europe, is under pressure from far-right, anti-Muslim politicians to clamp down on Muslim immigration and extremism.

On Monday, Macron likened the attack on Vienna to an assault on Europe.

“We French share the shock and grief of the Austrian people struck this evening by an attack in the heart of their capital, Vienna,” the French president said on Twitter. “After France, a friendly country is attacked. This is our Europe. Our enemies must know who they are dealing with. We will not give up.”

The attack in Vienna also takes place amid an intensifying conflict between Turkey and Europe.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the boycott of French products after Macron announced a clampdown on Islamic extremism. At the same time, Turkey has become increasingly assertive in North Africa and the Mediterranean Sea region by sending troops to intervene in the civil wars in Libya and Syria and by asserting mineral rights in the offshore waters claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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