Austria to ban “ISIS symbols” in crackdown on Islamist groups

Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner.

Austria plans to ban Islamist groups’ symbols and strip citizenship from people who travel abroad to fight with ISIS in a crackdown announced by conservative government ministers on Monday.

The People’s Party (OVP) campaign still needs to be coordinated with their Social Democrat coalition partners but looks likely to be adopted amid mounting concern in Austria about the potential security threat from “radicalised Muslims”, especially those who associate with ISIS.

Authorities suspect more than 140 people in Austria – most of them foreigners who sought asylum – have allied themselves with jihadist groups fighting abroad. Expressions of support for them on the Internet are becoming common.

Thousands of Western volunteers have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join rebel groups including ISIS. The trend has raised fears in Europe and the United States of attacks by returning fighters.

Germany, which believes some 400 German citizens have joined ISIS, imposed a similar ban last week on Islamic State symbols such as the “black flag” used by the group in internet postings, and any promotion of the group.

The Shahadah placed above the historical seal of Prophet Muhammad (saw), is used by numerous jihadist groups, including ISIS.
The Shahadah placed above the historical seal of Prophet Muhammad (saw), is used by numerous jihadist groups, including ISIS.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said in August that anyone bearing ISIS flags or trying to recruit for the group would be arrested. He has also said he would consult on discretionary powers to prevent Britons returning home if they have pledged allegiance to what he called extremist causes.

Austrian Vice-Chancellor and OVP leader Reinhold Mitterlehner said an influx of foreign sympathisers for Islamist forces and the Islamic State’s beheading of another western hostage had created a “dangerous European dimension” to the Syrian conflict.

“It is our duty as politicians to react to this increasing radicalization and to take appropriate steps,” he said.

The new campaign aims to promote cultural exchanges between traditionally Roman Catholic Austria and its roughly half a million Muslims, to prevent youth from getting drawn into jihadist networks, and to tighten existing laws.

Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner stressed a need for a zero-tolerance policy against radical Islamists, as shown by Austria’s adding 20 staff to federal and provincial agencies in charge of combating terrorism.

The black flag of jihad was used by the Prophet Muhammad (saw). It is not exclusive to ISIS or Al Qaeda.
The black flag of jihad was used by the Prophet Muhammad (saw). It is not exclusive to ISIS or Al Qaeda.

“There is no place in our society for ISIS symbols on T-shirts and flags, so we want to ban IS symbols,” she added.

Her ministry was working on legislation to revoke citizenship from “foreign fighters” and to prevent minors travelling outside the European Union without the consent of their guardians.

Justice Minister Wolfgang Brandstetter said the government would tighten hate crimes law so that people who urge violence against certain groups could be charged if their message reaches just 10 people instead of the current guideline of around 150.

Police should also be able to get telephone and Internet usage data on suspects in serious cases as long as a judge approves, he said, adding: “Whoever sows hate and violence in Austria will reap prison.”

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