Vienna terror night – The forgotten victims

At just before 8:00 a.m., the detective called: Qiang Li is dead. Seven bullets hit him while trying to lock the glass door to his restaurant. The family is supposed to collect the deceased’s keys and wallet and organize a funeral until the body is released.

With Qiang Li, the Islamist Kujtim F. took a family out of its existence: the 39-year-old father’s Bin Ramen restaurant provided the income. The widow hardly speaks German, both daughters are studying. Actually, the bereaved should have mourned in the following months, they needed therapy and quick emergency aid from the state.

But since the call the morning after the attack, the Li-Xia family had hardly heard from the Austrian Republic: there was no condolence letter from the Chancellor, no apology from the interior minister, no money for the funeral, no indication of where the bereaved could get help.

“They forgot us”, says the younger daughter Kewen and describes her difficult life between filling-out documents and lack of money. Her father’s funeral in the Kagran cemetery was nice, he knew many Chinese exiles, but the family has not refunded with the 7,000 euros for the funeral to this day. When she called the tax office to get a dead man’s tax returns, she only received surprised reactions by the officials.

Kewen spent months in bed on the cell phone and just passed the most important study exams. Half a year later, the story of the Li-Xia family raises the question of the state’s responsibility for this attack again.

The first act of terrorism in the name of the Islamic pseudo-state on Austrian soil left five dead and 22 injured. For the authorities, the attack consists of three phases: the before, the overlooked warnings, the underestimated danger. The act itself, the police operation and the search for helpers. And afterwards: How does the state want to prevent further attacks and deal with the victims?

The Austrian authorities excelled in one of the three phases. Only in one.

The night of terror

When the police officer I. sped from the nearby Rossau erpolice barracks in the direction of Morzinplatz on November 2nd at 8:09 p.m., he had no idea that the worst was already over. On the radio, screaming colleagues reported from several shooters in the city center. At the foot of Ruprechtskirche, I. sees an attacker lying, shot by colleagues from the Wega special unit. The murderer was only able to kill for twelve minutes.

At 7:58 p.m., on the last evening of open Viennese gastronomy so far, people drink in guest gardens, smoke in passages, have one more fun before a long winter in the local party mile of the “Bermuda Triangle”. A 20-year-old man stands out in the images from the surveillance cameras, nervously rubbing his thighs in front of the Hotel Mercure. He wears a full beard, a bonnet, free ankles and a shopping bag.

Kujtim F. takes a semi-automatic assault rifle out of his pocket and starts running. His first shots hit two Lower Austrians who linger on the middle plateau of the Jerusalem staircase. The 21-year-old painter and house painter Nedzip V., who smokes on the staircase wall on the evening before his first day at work, dies.

On the way to the Ruprechtskirche, the assassin fires into the guest gardens, stops in front of the Salzamt restaurant and shoots three times at a woman. The 24-year-old waitress and art student Vanessa P., who stayed after her appraisal interview, dies.

After 13 seconds, two people are dead. The city center is in a panic, people are storming into bars, and soon the first police officers are drawing fire on them. Kujtim F. will kill two more people in the next few minutes: Gudrun S. in Seitenstettengasse and Qiang Li at the door of his ramen bar. Kujtim F. dies at 8.10 p.m. For an entire city, the night of horror is only just beginning.

Police officer Colonel I. roams the streets, looking for injuries, and has all bars secured by police officers. In operational tactics, it is called “chaos phase”, when danger lurks everywhere, all structures are missing “and every injured person can also be a perpetrator”.

The officers will give over 10,000 radio messages that night, hundreds of Viennese report suspicious things. Austria is not used to terror: “When a police officer in Israel says ‘Perpetrator, get away from the alley!’, everyone disappears. In Kärntner Strasse, people wanted to drink up and pay,” says I.

The Castelletto ice cream shop on Schwedenplatz becomes an operations center, I. hangs up a city map, has a medical station set up for the injured and neuralgic points such as train stations are occupied. The Burgtheater and the State Opera need protection, hundreds are still listening to the performances there, in the concert hall the percussionist Martin Grubinger plays encore after encore so that the guests would stay in the hall.

Police officers search the streets for cartridges and pieces of evidence, Cobra officers stand on roofs with sniper rifles. The defusing robots Telemax and Theodor soon reveal the dead assassin’s explosive belt as a dummy.

1200 police officers, who were actually free, are said to have been on duty that evening and driven from home to their offices or the city. I. speaks proudly of his colleagues. Since then, he has thought so much about the mission that little has gone wrong.

At five in the morning it is clear: There are no other perpetrators in the city center, the air is clean. I. will remain on duty until 11 p.m., overseeing the laying of the wreath at the crime scene and the memorial service in St. Stephen’s Cathedral. “I couldn’t have slept anyway.”

The Islamist cell

At that point, the whole country already knew the name of the terrorist. Shortly after the attack, a former IS supporter from Vienna reported to his supervisor at the Derad deradicalization association: he recognized his old friend Kujtim F. in the circulating videos of the assassin. At 10:57 p.m., the Derad employee alerted the Office for the Protection of the Constitution. By the next morning, police had arrested 15 suspects and ransacked their homes.

There were threatening reasons why the search for accomplices went so quickly: the authorities knew the killer Kujtim F. and his IS clique very well. Most of those arrested were convicted terrorist supporters or officially known threats. This is where the inglorious part of the agency work begins in this case.

At the age of 18, Kujtim F. was arrested in a “smuggler’s house” on the Turkish-Syrian border because he wanted to join the Islamic State terrorist militia. For this reason, he spent almost the whole of 2019 in Austrian prisons, and after his release he sported his beard and muscles.

In July 2020, Kujtim F. received German and Swiss Islamists in Vienna, and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution pursued them to the Meidling Tewhid Mosque and the Wurstelprater, where an Islamist drove with the adrenaline-pumping Black Mamba. The day after their departure, Kujtim F. drove to Bratislava with a friend to buy Viagra and ammunition for an AK-47 assault rifle. They did not get either.

All of this was known to the Austrian state security by October 2020 at the latest, almost two weeks before the attack in Vienna: A convicted terrorist harboring threats from neighboring countries wanted to store an assault rifle in Slovakia. Nothing happened at that time: Because they claimed the planning of the raids against the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, “further measures against F. were not feasible,” the Austrian secret service BVT writes in an internal report.

This background of the perpetrator and the failures of the state have been known for months. What have the authorities found out since then? The internal files have ten thousand pages. The statements, cell phone data and DNA samples of the suspects paint the disturbing picture of a Central European terrorist cell.

In group chats called “Muslims” or “Schoolchildren”, the young men exchanged hundreds of alarming messages, including a video of a Boko Haram terrorist with a machine gun on sustained fire. In posts, the boys welcome the temporary release from prison of IS preacher Ebu Hanzala and the many corona deaths in the US. Just four days after the attack, police officers found a machete behind a billboard in the Vienna 23rd district, which a suspect allegedly deposited for Kujtim F. (or vice versa).

The Islamists networked across borders: Kujtim F. is said to have written a letter to the terrorist Makhfi A. in a French prison, the content of which is unknown. On May 14, 2020, Kujtim F. is said to have transferred 1400 euros to the Serb Heset M. for forged German papers. Accordingly, the Viennese wanted to travel to Syria again. Again and again, the suspects have transferred money to Switzerland and Germany or received it from there.

The investigators in the Austrian city of St. Pölten suspect a head of the cell: Argjend G. worked as an IT technician at a university, in his spare time he is said to have given Islam and Arabic lessons in a specially rented apartment, he is said to have preached and also to take exams from his radical students. Kujtim F. Often visited him, together they picked up the German Islamists from Vienna airport.

One month before the attack, Kujtim F. received another visit from Germany, and the soon-to-be assassin shared a room with his cousin for ten nights. He told the German detectives about his fear of Kujtim F .: He had “prayed very differently than usual” and “tried to teach me”.

In the room, the two of them said little, Kujtim F. “only watched these extreme videos where the assassins slaughter people. Kujtim said I should see it.” Then the cousin says: “When I found out that the attack took place in Vienna, I feared that my cousin Kujtim might have something to do with it. I thought he could do it.”

In the days before November 2, the traces came together: once again Kujtim F. asked the friend with whom he had already traveled to Bratislava to go to the Czech Republic. Perhaps the most important clues about accomplices or knowledgeable people come from the DNA analyzes and the cell phone location: Hundreds of objects, hair and scraps of skin in Kujtim F.’s apartment and on his corpse have been examined by the medical examiner at the Medical University of Vienna. The investigators had data from dozens of transmitter masts in the city center and around Kujtim F.’s apartment.

The terrorist’s apartment was full of DNA traces of a Hedayatollah Z., born 27 years ago in Afghanistan. Hedayatollah Z.’s forensic scientists also found fingerprints on the magazine of Kujtim F.’s pistol and machete. The 31-year-old Chechen Adam M. had left his mark on the cases in Kujtim F.’s pistol and the cartridges of the rifle.

The cell phone data match: On the day before the attack, the cell phones of Hedayatollah Z., Adam M. and St. Pölten’s apartment preacher Argjend G. were logged into a transmitter mast near Kujtim F.’s apartment. The investigators assume today that Kujtim F. did not act alone.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons why suspects panic on the evening of the attack. Many chats were deleted that night and cell phones were reset to factory settings. “Prepare yourself”, “Raid,” wrote one of those arrested around 10.30 p.m. “Be up at 5 o’clock”, says another, “Have you fed the cat?”.

Two and a half weeks after the attack, the young man who chauffeured Kujtim F. to Bratislava painted his prison cell with a blue ballpoint pen. When guards opened the door, there were Islamic sayings on almost every wall, and the prisoner had drawn weapons on the locker and described them: “M16”, “Makarov”, “AK-47”, “4 kilos with a full magazine”.

The bereaved

An extremist clique had radicalized itself under the eyes of the state, held jihadist picnics and shopped for ammunition. The Viennese and the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution withheld information from each other, the cooperation with the Slovak authorities only hardly worked.

Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) spoke of “intolerable mistakes” made by his people, while criminal law professor Ingeborg Zerbes found “significant deficiencies” in the exchange of information, in the organization and in the culture of the security apparatus.

The government’s reaction to the failure came quickly and symbolically, on Monday this week representatives of the Greens again presented the government’s ideas to journalists: A new paragraph should prohibit “religiously motivated extremism”. The Austrian deradicalization and prevention program should get more money. Karl Nehammer had already started reforming the BVT before the attack.

Everyone knows that this act could have been prevented with the existing laws. As an apparent answer to the attack, the ÖVP drafts populist paragraphs, and takes responsibility for the victims and bereaved in speeches: ÖVP security spokesman Karl Mahrer promised to alleviate “at least the economic suffering” soon after the attack, the green club chairwoman Sigrid Maurer announced a compensation fund for the victims of terrorism. Six months later there is no fund, and we are back at the beginning of this story.

The glass door to the restaurant run by the family man Qiang Li on Schwedenplatz has seven holes. The older daughter Kexin wants to continue his work, has taken over the restaurant and its debts and receives rental regulations for it every month. The mother still barely manages to go shopping, and Chinese-language psychotherapy is hard to find. This family would have needed straightforward compensation. Because it doesn’t exist, she now needs a lawyer.

“When something like this happens in France, the president is in the hospital, here the victims have to run after every euro,” says a lawyer.

He once cited a list of citizens in the first district; after the attack near his office and apartment, he felt responsible: he represents the 20 victims and survivors of the attack free of charge.

There is not much money to be made, he says: If there is no perpetrator (anymore), the state is liable according to the Crime Victims Act. The regulation is almost 50 years old and has modest flat-rate pain compensation: one-time 2000 euros for injured people, 8000 euros for severe permanent consequences. The bereaved Qiang Lis received 6000 euros and can each take ten psychotherapy hours.

“The whole thing is a single bureaucratic struggle,” the lawyer says, “let’s take the funeral costs”: The Crime Victims Act replaces the difference to what the social security pays. “You have to submit the funeral bill, get a confirmation from the insurance company, and at some point there might be money.”

He is disappointed with the state, uses words like “shameful” and “cheek”. He sees himself “forced to sue the republic for official liability.” Then the victims would have to fight for compensation in court.

But why didn’t the government, as promised, create an emergency fund for the victims of Vienna?

“A completely new instrument is currently being intensively examined,” writes a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Social Affairs.

It’s six months too late.

(All photos by Michael Laubsch)

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