Europe is in the crosshairs of international terrorism once more. Just days after an attack in Nice, France another attack has taken place on the continent. Tonight in Vienna two people were killed and over fifteen wounded in a series of shootings in central Vienna. Austrian police and government spokesmen confirmed that a group of gunmen launched the attacks in six different locations across the capital city. The first shootings took place near the Seitenstettengasse synagogue although it is unclear if the synagogue was an intended target.
Information coming out at present is somewhat fluid. Austrian media claims a manhunt for the suspects is still underway. According to police as many as six shooters might’ve been involved and at least one is dead. Reports from outside of Austria claim one of the shooters was a Chechen with ties to ISIS. Other reports from firearm experts suggest the weapons used were likely an AK type rifle and an M57 Tokarev. Authorities believe the number of casualties will likely increase in the coming hours.
News of the attack has arrived as the last day of campaigning in the 2020 US Presidential Election enters its final hours. Neither candidate has made mention of the attack yet, but as more information becomes available both Donald Trump and Joe Biden will likely release statements.
I’ll touch on the attack a bit tomorrow and then Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning I’ll post about India and China.
Monday was a dark day for Russia. An explosive device detonated on a crowded metro train as it departed from Sennaya Ploshchad station around 1430 local time. Eleven people were killed and over fifty injured to one degree or another. A second device was found at another metro station and defused before it could detonate. An investigation began immediately and it was not long before police labeled the incident a terror attack, specifically a suicide bombing. Today, Russian officials released the name of the bomber, Akbardzhon Dzhalilov, a 22 year old Central Asian national. Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the city at the time of the attack. It is not likely that there is a connection between his visit and the attack. Putin being in St Petersburg yesterday was merely a matter of happenstance.
Today, as St Petersburg attempts to return to normal amid increased security at transportation infrastructure locations there is speculation in the media on how the Russian government will respond to this terrorist attack. Russia is no stranger to terrorism and past attacks have favored transportation locations. They are especially soft targets with large amounts of people coming and going. Security is porous under the best conditions, however. It is simply not possible to screen each and every person stepping into or out of a metro station, bus terminal, or airport. Yesterday’s attack was the latest of many against transportation locations in Russia. One of the most infamous attacks was the 2009 bombing of the Nevsky Express train running between Moscow and St Petersburg that killed 29 people. Islamic militants from the North Caucasus were responsible for that attack.
The St Petersburg attack also reaffirms the grim reality that Russia has been wrestling with a terror problem long before it became involved in the Syrian conflict. The majority of bombers and attackers that have struck Russian targets have come from the North Caucasus region, a hotbed of instability and Islamic insurgency for decades, if not centuries. Many of the men and women responsible for launching terror attacks on Russian soil have come from this region or from Central Asia.
International reaction was swift in coming. Leaders from Europe to the United States expressed their remorse and offered aid if possible. President Trump spoke on the phone with Putin and personally extended his condolences. Combatting terrorism is one issue the US and Russia seem to agree on. Relations between the two nations have deteriorated in recent years, yet it’s the hope of many observers that fighting terrorism will provide some common ground for Washington and Moscow to build upon in the future.
ISIS has claimed responsibility for a pair of bombings that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people in Iraq and Pakistan today. In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded at a used car marketplace in the Bayaa neighborhood in the southern portion of the city. The death toll right now sits at above 50 with an even larger number of wounded. It is the deadliest attack so far this year in Iraq, a nation that is no stranger to large-scale terrorist attacks. Recently, the number of bombings in Baghdad has been on the rise. On Wednesday, a suicide car bomb attack in the Sadr City area left 11 dead. The neighborhood where today’s the attack took place is no stranger to bombings either. On Tuesday, a car bomb in the same area killed 4 people.
A suicide attack in Pakistan targeted a popular Sufi shrine in the town of Sehwan. The shrine is one of the most revered in Pakistan. Thursday was a sacred day for Muslims to pray there and the shrine was crowded at the time of the attack. At least 72 people were killed and that number will possibly rise as time goes on. Since last Sunday, Pakistan has experienced six suicide attacks, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people. The attacks in Pakistan provided a sharp reply to statements by the civilian and military authorities suggesting Pakistan had defeated the militants there.
An apparent terrorist attack in the heart of Berlin days before Christmas. Berlin police have launched a new manhunt for the person responsible for the truck attack on a Berlin market that killed twelve and injured nearly fifty. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack as Berliners face the reality that there is a terrorist roaming armed and free in their city.
While all of this is taking place, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy is coming under renewed attack. Hours after the attack, a leading nationalist politician was referring to the victims as “Merkel’s dead.” This morning Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, a close ally of Merkel, said the time has come to rethink the chancellor’s immigration policy. In nine months she will be up for re-election and despite a comfortable 57% approval rating, yesterday’s attack showcased her vulnerability.
As a wave of nationalist populism surges across Europe and rearranges the political landscape in a number of nations, Merkel is aware that one false move could unleash that wave in Germany. Her handling of the refugee crisis has polarized German voters and set the nation’s politics into a period of uncertainty. Merkel’s center-right party has been losing ground in state elections to the nationalist Alternative for Germany party. While the chancellor has hardened her refugee policy in the second half of 2016, resulting in climbing approval numbers, the prevailing political winds, and this latest terrorist attack could be a menacing combination for Merkel to hurdle.
The general consensus in Berlin has been that Merkel is poised to win re-election in 2017. A terrorist attack on German soil has the potential to change the scenario and it might possibly be on the doorstep right now. 2017 could very well bring about a Trump Moment for Germany and put a left-leaning coalition in power. That scenario could potentially rock an already reeling European Union back on its heels and unleash many unforeseen circumstances across Europe and the world.
*Author’s Note- With the holiday season now upon us, most of this blog’s posts will be shorter than usual between now and New Years.*
Following two bombings in Istanbul that killed dozens of people over the weekend, Turkey has struck back at the group which claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Kurdish Freedom Hawks, a breakaway faction of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) released a statement claiming responsibility, yet also saying that the Turkish people were not the target of the bombs. Nevertheless, Turkey struck back hard yesterday with airstrikes against 12 PKK targets in northern Iraq and the arrest of over 200 members of Kurdish political parties on Sunday and Monday. The state-run Anadolu news service reported there were 235 arrests in 11 cities across Turkey.
Saturday’s bombings outside of a soccer stadium in Istanbul claimed the lives of 44 people and wounded over 150 others. 39 of the victims were police officers. The bombings have, predictably, raised anger and a nationalistic fervor in Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will surely use the attack as a reason to push a bill expanding his powers through the parliament. If passed, the act will introduce an executive presidency similar to that of the United States to Turkey. Erdogan and his supporters claim it will help make the government more efficient, while his opponents are concerned it could potentially lead to Turkey becoming a one-party state.
Expressing concern about Erdogan’s strengthening power now might be a case of too little, too late. He already holds near-dictatorial powers and is shifting Turkey towards an authoritarian state since the attempted coup in July. The government and civil services have been purged of real and perceived anti-Erdogan sentiment. Free media is precariously close to extinction or, at the very least, intimidated into submission. When all is said and done, Erdogan will have reshaped Turkish politics and society into something few observers believed would ever be possible. With the new shape of Turkey will come the striking reality that there is no one left to stop Erdogan from doing whatever he wishes.