Austria’s two-century-old reputation as a playground for spies is about to be enhanced as local forces chasing jihadi fighters join foreign agents snooping on each other.
The Interior Ministry is seeking, and politicians are debating, rules that would give the police more power to snoop. Austria’s renewed zeal for domestic espionage harks back to September 1814 and the Congress of Vienna, when Austrian spies snagged secrets from foreign diplomats. Now it’s radicalized Muslims recruited to Islamic State who are intelligence targets.
Austria has the most permissive spying laws in Europe when it comes to foreign agents on its soil — yet curtails its own cops more than in many other countries. That makes it harder for police to track the more than 140 people from Austria who have joined the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, making the Alpine country a higher per-capita contributor than neighboring Germany.
“With some new developments like industrial espionage and jihadism, we’re having a hard time doing our job the way one expects us to,” said Alexander Marakovits, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, in a telephone interview. For instance, authorities can only observe someone for nine months and then if no offenses have been found must delete the records from the surveillance, making them impossible to revisit, he said.
More than 60 jihadis have come back to Austria since the fighting began, according to the Interior Ministry. Their return poses a “big challenge” to authorities, the country’s counter-terrorism force, or BVT, said in its 2014 annual report, adding that present laws prohibit prosecuting them.
Time limits and jurisprudence aren’t the only handicaps. There are also administrative hurdles to overcome. Because Austria doesn’t distinguish its counter-terrorism forces from the regular police, Interior Ministry spokesman Karl-Heinz Grundboeck said, there’s no way to accelerate urgent probes. Authorities also lack spy software to track digital communication, he said.
Those obstacles mean that Austrian agents struggle to replicate the information advantages they enjoyed under Imperial rule, according to Joseph Braude, a Middle East security specialist at the Washington-based National Information Security Center.
Electronic surveillance “combined with on-the-ground sleuthing, have proven very effective,” Braude said in an interview. “A combination of technology acquisition and training is necessary, which can only be acquired through state-to-state cooperation.”
Before this year’s surge in jihadi recruitment, Austrian authorities were focusing on reining in foreign agents after a report in Der Spiegel showed the U.S. used Vienna as a base to spy on Germany. Under Austrian law, spying isn’t explicitly illegal unless intelligence collection is focused on the home country, said Gert Rene Polli, former head of the BVT intelligence service.
“I don’t know any other country where the rules are equally liberal,” Polli said in a phone interview. “Up until now it was very comfortable to live with this. What was overlooked is that the laws were used against Austrian and European interests.”
About 7,000 spies live among 17,000 accredited diplomats in this city of 1.8 million, according to the “The Shadow City,” a 2014 book about spying in Vienna written by journalist Emil Bobi. Stories of spy swaps, assassinations and Cold War intrigue are part of the city’s DNA. Tourists are still offered daily showings of the 1949 film, “The Third Man,” and invited to go underground — literally — in the maze of tunnels where the film was shot.
The government announced on Sept. 26 that it would hire social workers and teachers to develop a “de-radicalization and prevention network” targeting at-risk Muslim youth. Islamic State militants have set up a sophisticated recruitment program using money, food and camaraderie to tempt young Muslims to their cause, the Austrian Press Agency reported in August.
Vienna’s Islamic Center, in a low-income neighborhood, is where thousands of the city’s Muslims travel for Friday prayer. Vending machines stocked with Turkish sweets greet visitors in the hallway. Discarded airplane seats line the back of the prayer room. On a recent weekday afternoon, it was occupied mostly by men in their 20s.
The mosque became the center of attention when a young man calling himself an Austrian jihadi under the name of ‘‘Firas Houdi’’ said in social media that he was radicalized there. Houdi opened a Facebook account Aug. 30 and in six days made more than 400 “friends.” Posts he said were from Syria showed him smiling with other jihadis, bragging about the price to buy women and stomping on a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, the father of current leader Bashar al-Assad.
Two requests to communicate with Houdi via his page weren’t acknowledged. His account has since become private.
The Islamic Center’s imam, Salim Mujkanovic, denied that his mosque has radicalized its members. Speaking out against radicalism, he urged his listeners in a Sept. 5 sermon about local Muslim youth “not to let them choose a false path, be blinded by radicals and to act promptly.”
“Those who look away share the guilt,” Mujkanovic said. The video was posted online.
Austria may want to adapt its laws for today’s exigencies, said David King, author of “Vienna, 1814: How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War and Peace at the Congress of Vienna,” a book about the diplomatic gathering that carved up much of central Europe among the major powers after Napoleon’s defeat.
Poets, cabbies and theater critics were employed by Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich to construct a network that made Austria “the primary beneficiary of the espionage bonanza” at the Congress, King said.
By intercepting confidential letters from delegations across town, Vienna’s spies found out that Britain had signed the Treaty of Ghent, ending the 1812 war with the U.S., at almost the same time U.K. Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh did, King said.
Staunching the flow of Austria’s jihadis shouldn’t only be a job for the police, said Imam Mujkanovic, who urged Muslims to pay more attention to community members tempted by Islamic State.
“Muslims should not to blind themselves in one eye or turn away but be vigilant,” he said on the video. “This is about our children.”