Vienna, spy capital of the world

Vienna, spy capital of the world

8th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

Home to thousands of diplomats and many prominent international groups, Vienna is also a hive of secret service activity operating under the not-too-watchful eyes of Austrian authorities.

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, Vienna remains a spy haven, swarming with foreign agents that the Austrian authorities largely leave to their own devices.

Vienna formed the backdrop to Orson Welles' legendary spy thriller The Third Man in 1949 but even today it remains a hive of secret service activity.

"Austria is still a favourite place for agents,” said Siegfried Beer, director of the Austrian Centre for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies (ACIPSS), at the University of Graz. “They're frequently known to the authorities but rarely hindered. Everything is handled courteously and diplomatically. There's a long tradition in that."
In the latest addition to a growing list of cases that look unlikely ever to be resolved, a Chechen dissident, Umar Israilov, was gunned down in broad daylight in the Austrian capital on January 23, 2009.

Others cases include the 1989 killing of Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou, the head of a Kurdish opposition group in Iranian Kurdistan, and the attempted kidnapping in October 2008 of Kazakhstan's former intelligence chief Alnur Musayev. Both were living in exile in Austria.
Vienna : State attorney Gerhard Jarosch shows a police picture of a jacket of a suspected killer of Umar Israilov, a Chechen national, on 22 January 2009 in Vienna during a press conference.

"Austria is a textbook case for this sort of operation that always remains unresolved,” said journalist Kid Moechel, an author of a book on the subject. “As soon as there is any sort of political link, the authorities start acting very strangely."

For Peter Pilz, defence expert for the opposition Green party, "some regimes such as Russia and Iran enjoy a freedom to do as they please in Vienna that they would never enjoy elsewhere. Quite simply, the Austrian authorities don't want to jeopardise their country's economic interests.”

He accused the Interior Ministry of trying to "cover up" the murder of Israilov, who had repeatedly asked for special police protection before he was gunned down while out grocery shopping in January.

An international meeting point

Vienna, whose geographical position makes it a point of contact between East and West and North and South, has one of the highest densities of spies in the world, experts say.
It is home to international groups such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

In all, at least 17,000 diplomats are based in Vienna, which is equivalent to around one percent of the city's population, according to official figures.

"Around half of these have links to the secret services," said Beer.

Vienna is also "a hub where it's very easy to buy arms or hide or launder money," said Pilz.

In its annual report, the interior ministry acknowledged that "Austria will remain a field of operation for foreign services, as is seen in the very large number of agents." But the ministry did not provide any concrete figures.

Monitoring dissidents

The advent in recent years of hundreds of thousands of refugees in Austria, including around 20,000 Chechens, is also providing a new impetus for secret service activity.

"Every embassy watches its nationals very closely, particularly members of minorities," said Moechel.

Beer said: "Embassies such as the Russian or the Chinese embassies are growing rapidly."


 Spy cameras, robots, hi-tech weapons.

According to some estimates, Russia has at least 500 secret service agents in Vienna, many of whom monitor Chechen exiles.

Austria has admitted to working with Russia's FSB intelligence service -- the former KGB -- in the fight against terrorism.

And, according to the three experts, Vienna also collaborates with the secret services of a number of other countries, sometimes to the chagrin of the United States.

Occasionally, officials overstep the mark: the interior ministry confirmed in February that it had suspended two police officers who had been trying to find out the whereabouts of Rakhat Aliyev, the former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Aliyev, the former Kazakh ambassador to Austria, has been convicted in his home country of kidnapping and murder.

But he has always maintained his innocence and Vienna refused to extradite him in August 2007 on the grounds that he would not be given a fair trial at home. Officially, his current whereabouts are unknown.

Philippe Schwab/AFP/Expatica

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