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Authorities Investigate Terror Attack In Austrian Capital


All right. We're going to change gears and head overseas for this next story to Austria. That is where authorities are continuing to investigate a terrorist attack launched last night in Vienna. It left four people and the attacker dead. More than 20 other people were shot by the gunman, who was eventually killed by police. As NPR's Rob Schmitz reports, the attacker had a previous conviction on terrorism charges.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: The shooting started around 8 o'clock in the evening in the narrow, twisting alleyways of central Vienna, filled with people enjoying their final hours of freedom before COVID-related lockdown measures kicked in at midnight.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Yelling in Non-English language).

SCHMITZ: Dozens of videos of the attack like this one showed a man dressed in white baggy clothes shooting indiscriminately at passersby with a rifle and later a handgun.

FLORIAN MATTHIES: And then I heard the shots right behind me very fast.

SCHMITZ: Florian Matthies was walking to his shop when he realized he had forgotten his keys at home. Turning around to fetch them may have saved his life. For at that moment, the shooting began.

MATTHIES: People came running around the corner. And so everybody was kind of, like, freaking out and running away. And I was running away as well, going into my house, which is very, very close. And then I didn't hear anything.

SCHMITZ: When Matthies went back outside, he says he saw the dead body of the gunman lying beside his bag of ammunition. Police had just shot and killed him but not before the gunman had killed two men, two women and injured nearly two dozen others, some of them critically, all of them either sitting outside cafes or simply walking down the street. Police now believe the gunman acted alone, but they've arrested 14 others in connection with the attack. Now this normally peaceful alpine country is reckoning with one of its worst attacks in recent memory, said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz at a press conference today.


SEBASTIAN KURZ: (Through interpreter) We often see Austria as a happy island where violence and terror are known only from news reports on other countries. But the sad truth is that while we are lucky enough to live in a relatively safe country, our world is anything but safe.

SCHMITZ: At another press conference, journalists pressed Vienna's police chief Gerhard Purstl about the suspect's background. The gunman was a 20-year-old dual citizen of Austria and North Macedonia who was convicted in April of 2019 of terrorism-related charges after he tried to leave for Syria to join the Islamic State. Austrian authorities sentenced him to 22 months in prison but then released him after just eight months. Journalists wanted to know why. Purstl said dozens of suspected Islamic State sympathizers are under his department's watch.


GERHARD PURSTL: (Through interpreter) Whether or not someone has deradicalized and reformed is very difficult to say or predict. Absolute security simply doesn't exist.

SCHMITZ: Vienna's municipal rabbi, Shlomo Hofmeister, witnessed the attack from his window near the city's synagogue.

SHLOMO HOFMEISTER: The gunman shot at people, people sitting in bars and pubs. The synagogue was not in service at this point. With the end of the evening prayers, everybody had left, and it was an empty building.

SCHMITZ: Hofmeister says he hopes this event won't change his city.

HOFMEISTER: But as similar attacks have shown in other countries, the aim of terrorists is to spread fear and to polarize society. And they're playing into each other's hands by doing that.

SCHMITZ: Hofmeister says, when we have the wrong understanding of a situation like this, then society allows itself to polarize. And if that happens, he says, then the terrorists win.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Berlin.


Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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