By Simon Bradley
Switzerland can do more to stop homegrown jihadists. Mosques need to counsel at-risk Muslims and the state needs more experience in learning how to mentor returning jihadists, according to a Swiss expert.
Miryam Eser Davolio is a researcher at Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) responsible for coordinating a new exploratory study into the radicalisation of Swiss young people .
Currently, some 70 cases of jihadi radicalisation are being investigated in Switzerland, with criminal proceedings underway in more than 20 cases.
On Friday, three coordinated teams of Islamic State gunmen and suicide bombers carried out attacks across Paris killing 129 civilians and injuring dozens. French President Francois Hollande called it an “act of war”.
In a SonntagsBlick interview last Sunday, Defence Minister Ueli Maurer said the Paris attacks had raised the risk levels for Switzerland. He said although there was no proof, a terrorist attack in Switzerland was “no longer totally abstract but imaginable”.
swissinfo.ch: In an interview with NZZ am Sonntag, Defence Minister Ueli Maurer said the greatest danger came from ‘lone wolf’ individuals living in Switzerland who support Islamic State ideals. How significant is this threat?
Miryam Eser Davolio: I think lone wolves need a certain support network to build up their action and people who agree with their ideas to convince them they are doing the right thing. In Switzerland – this is my personal impression after our interviews in the field – this happens on a very small scale.
The situation is very heterogeneous here, not like in France, where certain conspiracy theories and anger against exclusion or unemployment in the city suburbs exist.
There is also a problem of unemployed young Muslims in Switzerland, especially in cantons Geneva and Ticino, where many French and Italian people come to work and there is a lot of job competition. There we have seen certain sensitive situations for young Muslims. Things could become problematic but it all depends on whether these people have a chance to integrate.
swissinfo.ch: Switzerland has beefed up security measures to combat terrorism, strengthening the intelligence service and tightening up surveillance laws. Could individuals still slip through the net?
M.E.: I don’t think they could slip through, as I think there is very strong control of social media and the internet.
But in some cases the intelligence services are very busy, as the last TETRA report explained [the special task force put together by the Swiss Federal Office of Police to coordinate action against terrorism and jihad-related travel (TETRA)]. They mentioned one case where they had 25,000 pages of transcript of online communication for a single individual. When you know that this is eventually in foreign languages and you have to translate it, you can imagine the amount of work involved trying to follow these people.
swissinfo.ch: The federal police and cabinet are considering a possible travel ban to prevent and address jihadi radicalisation within Swiss borders. Is this an effective measure?
M.E.: I think it could help if someone wants to leave. It’s important to have a measure to hold them back. But it’s just one of many other measures we have to think about.
I think counselling is also very important for the individual and their families and friends. As we’ve seen in other parts of Europe, it’s important to support people who are in contact with youngsters so you can talk to them and work on their ideas.
swissinfo.ch: How effective is the collaboration between Swiss Muslim groups and individuals and the police to identify possible signs of radicalisation and to denounce suspects?
M.E.: It varies from canton to canton. In Zurich, they have someone with a bridge-building role who is in contact with various Muslim communities. In St Gallen, they have a round-table for religions, which is in contact with imams and Muslim groups. In St Gallen, seven imams have done further education on integration, living in Switzerland and radicalisation.
In Geneva, they collaborate well and do quite a lot of integration work. They were shocked by this recent news [in August] alleging that two youngsters were radicalised at the Geneva Mosque [in Petit-Saconnex] and left for Syria.
swissinfo.ch: The Swiss police chief Nicoletta della Valle says the idea people are being radicalised in Swiss-based mosques or by Swiss Muslim organisations is a ‘cliché’. So where is it happening?
M.E.: We saw from federal intelligence data that most people were radicalised via friends and the internet. The mosques are rather preventive institutions. People who go there with extreme ideas are confronted and get their ideas corrected. They are told they shouldn’t listen to internet propaganda, for example.
Muslim organisations have quite an important preventative role but they are often afraid when people are radicalised. They close their doors and don’t want a negative image in public and so they give up the chance to influence these people. They could do more but they would need more support to legitimatise the counselling of persons at risk of being radicalised. Their preventative role needs to become more officialised.
swissinfo.ch: Several countries have set up de-radicalisation programmes for returning jihadis. In February a TETRA report said too little was being done to de-radicalise jihadists coming back to Switzerland, and that such programmes were difficult and time-consuming. What is Switzerland doing in this area?
M.E.: Nothing exists right now. It’s important to have mentors or people who can get in touch with young people and work on the attitude of returnees and also before people leave who are becoming radicalised.
One obstacle to this is the lack of experience on this question. People need to go abroad to Germany, Britain, Denmark or Norway to learn how to work with these individuals.
The overall problem in Switzerland is small but there are returnees. The question is what we should do with them to bring them back into society. If they have to go to prison, they need to work with them on that. It’s a very specific topic. You need to be sure they are really disengaging.
swissinfo.ch: What are the other strengths and weaknesses of Switzerland’s anti-jihadi strategy?
M.E.: One of the weak points is that Islamophobia is not addressed. It’s a very important question. In Germany they have addressed this, as when you have people who are afraid of Muslims and against them this enhances the possibility that Islamic State propaganda can gain support.
They build up their propaganda using the theory that Muslims are stigmatised, excluded and humiliated here in the West. If this really happens via Islamophobia and certain political positions then we are simply accentuating polarisation and sowing the seeds for further growing radicalisation.
In its May annual report the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service said radicalised jihadists remained the biggest threat to Swiss national security even though the country was not a priority target for potential terrorists.
Currently, some 70 cases of jihadi radicalisation are being investigated in Switzerland, with criminal proceedings underway in more than 20 cases. As of October, Swiss intelligence had recorded 40 confirmed cases of jihad-motivated travel (+10 since February). Seven others have left conflict zones and some have returned to Switzerland. In addition, 31 other suspected jihadis are being monitored.
The Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) study into the radicalisation of Swiss youngsters looked at 66 cases recorded between 2001 and July 2015. The team of 11 researchers found that 16 out of 66 cases were aged below 25. Most were aged 23-35. Only three women were reported, below European averages of 10%.
The majority of cases were born Muslims from former Yugoslavia and Somalia. Twelve were recently converted, half of Swiss origin. Twenty cases were radicalised via the internet, 13 claimed to have been influenced by war experiences, particularly in the Balkans, while 13 pointed to Salafist propaganda.