'Very scary': Austria says anti-vax activists crossing borders

Jastinder Khera, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 28 2022 05:06 PM

Some radicalized activists who reject Covid vaccines and anti-virus measures are crossing borders to join protests where extremist ideology is being spread, Austria's new domestic intelligence chief told AFP, calling the trend "very scary".

Omar Haijawi-Pirchner said foreign activists are travelling to Austria -- where Covid vaccines will become mandatory next month -- to demonstrate and hold "network meetings with their partners, right-wing extremists".

He added that the often right-wing extremists were using the gatherings to spread their ideology, including anti-Semitism, and that "we see a lot of people that are very highly radicalized".

From France to the Netherlands to Germany and Belgium, European countries have been rocked by anti-vaccine protests in recent months, as governments clamp down on the unvaccinated. 

In Austria, tens of thousands have taken to the streets almost weekly since the government said Covid vaccines would become mandatory from February 4. 

Haijawi-Pirchner, 41, who took over Austria's newly reformed DSN intelligence agency in December, said the radicalisation of some activists and the protests' increasingly international dimension were "very, very scary for us".

While the DSN is not responsible for foreign intelligence gathering, it has received information pointing to a large number of well-organised activists in Germany and Switzerland, Haijawi-Pirchner told AFP in his first interview with foreign media since his appointment. 

He said the DSN had seen credible threats of violence in Austria, pointing to clashes with the police on the sidelines of protests. 

There are "a lot of people threatening... critical infrastructure at the moment," including the media, health facilities and politicians, he said. 

- Russia-linked scandals -

The DSN that Haijawi-Pirchner leads replaced the former BVT agency as part of far-reaching intelligence reforms.

The BVT's reputation had been tarnished by a string of what Haijawi-Pirchner discreetly refers to as "incidents" in recent years. 

These included raids on the BVT ordered by the far-right then Interior Minister Herbert Kickl in 2018 and embarrassing accusations of Austrian officials leaking information to Russia.

This, along with the perceived closeness to Moscow of Kickl's Freedom Party (FPOe), led to reports that other Western agencies were refraining from sharing intelligence with Vienna.

Haijawi-Pirchner has come to the DSN from a successful police career in the Lower Austria region and emphasises the agency is a fresh start.

He says he has had a "lot of communication with our partners" in other countries in the last few months.

The current level of information sharing suggests that some confidence has returned, he says, but "we are fully aware... that this process of rebuilding trust" will take months or years. 

The intelligence reform means the DSN is now a "hybrid" service encompassing both intelligence and police work, a structure Haijawi-Pirchner says has been well received among Austria's allies.

The shake-up also aimed at addressing what Haijawi-Pirchner accepts were failures around November 2020's deadly jihadist attack in Vienna, which followed missed warnings about the perpetrator’s activities.

Haijawi-Pirchner says the reforms have led to better communication between security services. 

"You can never avoid a terrorist attack by 100 percent" he says. 

But "the DSN is better prepared for such a situation than the BVT", he added.