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Terror attack in Vienna: Setting the record straight

The shooting wasn't an anti-Semitic attack, there was only one shooter (not 6), and the people of the city rallied heroically to help each other
Vienna mourns. In the aftermath of the shooting on November 2, 2020, that killed at least 4, and injured 24. (courtesy, Edward Serotta)
Vienna mourns. In the aftermath of the shooting on November 2, 2020, that killed at least 4, and injured 24. (courtesy, Edward Serotta)

Now that it is Thursday, November 5, we have a clearer picture of the terrorist attack in Vienna on Monday evening, November 2.

Several news sources, on social media and elsewhere, got the story wrong that night and it seemed to me some were trying to fit the Vienna attack into the same slot as what has happened in France and Germany. This is understandable. First, everyone is still jumpy after the two horrific attacks in France, and after all, the shooter was running past Vienna’s main synagogue, the site of a Palestinian terror attack in 1981 that killed two people and wounded 30.

And although some facts still haven’t surfaced, let’s pick this apart.

Starting at 8:00 p.m. on Monday, November 2, a single shooter, 20-year-old Kujtim Fejzulai, ran amok through the heart of Vienna’s old quarter, shooting with an AK-47, and with a pistol, and slashing with his machete.

So quick was he that police were sure there were several attackers; indeed, the first news reports said that there were six perpetrators. Even 24 hours later, police were hunting for at least one other shooter. They now believe there was just the one.

Fejzulai’s killing spree ended nine minutes after it started, when a policeman shot him. By then, four people lay dead, and a policeman lay wounded, along with 23 others.

Fejzulai lay on the pavement for a while, since he was wearing a suicide vest. Police then approached it and saw that it was something he had rigged up — without dynamite. That means, at least to me, that Fejzulai was looking for fame as well as death when he left his house that night.

He certainly knew when to go and where. Monday night wasn’t just unseasonably mild, it was also the last night before all of Austria went back into lockdown to help protect against the coronavirus.

As of Tuesday, all restaurants, concert halls, sports clubs, public pools, and museums were to close for one month. Elementary and middle schools would stay open, but all university classes were going online.

To set the stage: The cobbled alleys of Vienna’s first district are chock-a-block with bars and restaurants burrowed into fine old baroque buildings. Locals call the neighborhood the Bermuda Triangle, since, after a few drinks, you’re not sure where you are.

Vienna mourns. In the aftermath of the shooting on November 2, 2020, that killed at least 4, and injured 24. (courtesy, Edward Serotta)

Seitenstettengasse runs through it; this is where Vienna’s main synagogue is, as is the office of the Jewish community.

Kujtim Fejzulai was born in Austria, his family was from North Macedonia, and he hailed from the Albanian Muslim community. It seems that he became radicalized as a teenager, and at 18, he tried to make his way to Syria to join ISIS. Turkish police arrested and jailed him, and then sent him to Austria, where he was sentenced to 22 months in prison.

We now know that Fejzulai went through the Derad program run by group of Muslims in Austria who deprogram and mentor young radicals. It seems that Fejzulai was clever enough to repent and recant convincingly, and did not serve his full sentence.

The interior ministry has already started a deep dive to better understand how Fejzulai fooled his mentors, who are lauded for the work they do, and how he was able to arm himself.

Austria may be the country where Glock pistols are made, but it is genuinely difficult to buy one there. In fact, if you did try to buy a Glock, you would soon be visited by the police, who would want to know why. You would then be required to register and take courses and pay quite a sum for that license. Private ownership of automatic weapons is practically unheard of. We’ll learn more about this soon.

Vienna mourns. In the aftermath of the shooting on November 2, 2020, that killed at least 4, and injured 24. (courtesy, Edward Serotta)

More than a dozen people have been arrested in Vienna since Tuesday and the Swiss police have rounded up people in their country who knew Fejzulai.

While many people first thought this was an anti-Semitic attack, questions surfaced immediately: why would Fejzulai go to a synagogue well after hours, when no one was in it?

Further, we now have video showing him walking along Seitenstettengasse with his back to the synagogue, as he looked for people to shoot. Rabbi Schlomo Hofmeister, who lives above the synagogue, looked out during the shooting and stated Fejzulai was not shooting at anything Jewish.

Sebastian Kurz, chancellor of Austria, praised the police and first responders, who went rushing toward the gunfire, not knowing how many shooters there were or how they were armed.

The police did not act alone. Two young Austrian weightlifters, Recep Gultekin and Mikail Özen, both ethnic Turks, jumped out of hiding during the shooting to bring an old woman to safety. They then saw a policeman lying on the ground, whose wounds were being tended by a Palestinian restaurant worker, Osama Joda. The three of them helped bring the policeman to an ambulance.

As a former journalist who covered wars sieges and revolutions, it isn’t hard to find examples of civil courage in times of great stress. It may be surprising, but it is human nature. Monday night in Vienna was no different.

Because the entire first district was sealed off so people could not get home, strangers simply yelled out from windows and offered shelter in their flats.

In a symphony hall, while guests were not allowed onto the streets, the musicians decided to launch into another performance to soothe jangled nerves. In a nearby theatre, the actors came back on stage after the performance to have a chat about the play, while the manager opened up the bar.

Several taxi drivers, already in bed for the night, donned their clothes and rode around so they could scoop up panicked passengers and bring them home, often waiving away fares.

Some of the most expensive hotels offered free rooms for the night.

Vienna mourns. In the aftermath of the shooting on November 2, 2020, that killed at least 4, and injured 24. (courtesy, Edward Serotta)

Best of all, perhaps, is that as Fejzulai was shooting his way along the street, someone in a classically twangy Viennese dialect yelled down at him,  “Schleich di, du Oarschloch!” (“Get outta here, you asshole!” And this would be the nice way to translate it.

So popular has this become that t-shirts are already on sale, and a hashtag created and a German newspaper made it the front page.

The city of Vienna, which has rated as the single best city in the world to live in for the past 10 years, has been unnerved by the attack on Monday night and people are still in shock. Most businesses and schools did not reopen until Wednesday. Heavily armed police units are patrolling the streets, and all Jewish institutions have remained closed.

All the top politicians — the mayor of Vienna, the president of the republic, and the speaker of the Parliament — laid wreaths where people were murdered, and Chancellor Kurz was clear when he spoke, “The enemy, the Islamist terror, wants to split our society, but we will give no space to this hatred.”

“Our enemies are not the members of a religious community; these are terrorists. This is not a fight between Christians and Muslims, or Austrians and migrants, but a fight between civilization and barbarity.”

About the Author
The author is director of a Jewish historical institute, www.centropa.org.
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