28 August 2014
Swiss Foreign Fighters Active in Syria
To what extent are Swiss-based jihadists active in Syria? Proportionately speaking, Daniel Glaus and Lorenzo Vidino’s analysis finds that a large number of citizens or residents have joined the fight. It’s also a problem that the authorities might be powerless to stop.
By Daniel Glaus and Lorenzo Vidino for Combating Terrorism Center (CTC)
Switzerland has traditionally experienced little domestic jihadist activity. Unlike other Western European countries, no successful terrorist attack of jihadist inspiration has been perpetrated on its territory and there is no publicly available information indicating that concrete plans for an attack in Switzerland were ever made.[i] Less than a dozen individuals have been tried for terrorism-related crimes, all of them involving non-violent activities of material support and propaganda. The number of Swiss residents who have traveled abroad to join jihadist groups is also estimated to be significantly lower than in other European countries.
Yet Swiss authorities are not complacent, and they argue that “Switzerland is not an island.”[ii] Counterterrorism officials have consistently warned that there is ample evidence suggesting that some of the same radicalization trends that have long characterized other Western European countries also exist in Switzerland, albeit on a smaller scale. Recent developments, for example, indicate that a small contingent of Swiss citizens and residents have traveled to Syria to join various militant groups.
This article first provides a general overview of the jihadist scene in Switzerland. It then analyzes a number of known cases of Swiss-based individuals who have fought in Syria. The article finds that, as authorities have long claimed, a comparatively small but, by Swiss standards, alarmingly large number of citizens and residents have recently traveled to Syria. These subjects appear to be mostly “homegrown,” with a sizeable percentage of them tracing their roots to the Balkans. It is debatable whether Switzerland possesses an adequate legal framework to mitigate this threat.
A Small, Underdeveloped Scene
Throughout the 1990s, small networks of mostly North African militants used Swiss territory to raise funds, spread propaganda and provide other support activities to organizations operating outside of Europe.[iii] The largely laissez-faire attitude of Swiss authorities (an approach, it should be noted, not dissimilar to that of most European countries at the time) and convenient geographic position at the heart of Europe made the country an ideal permanent or temporary location for jihadists.
The attacks of September 11, 2001, changed the Swiss government’s approach toward jihadist networks. While still correctly assessing that Switzerland was not a likely target for attacks and did not have a large jihadist presence, authorities began to monitor jihadist activities in the country more closely and, in some cases, took action.[iv] Yet throughout the mid-2000s, Swiss authorities experienced difficulties with successfully bringing terrorism charges against members of networks they suspected to be funding various terrorist groups through petty crime. [v] Given the challenge of bringing charges against them for any terrorism-related offense, Swiss authorities often opted to charge them with regular criminal offenses or, more frequently, deported them.[vi]
The only exception is the conviction of Moez Garsallaoui and Malika el-Aroud in 2007.[vii] Garsallaoui was a Tunisian-born member of Hizb al-Tahrir who received asylum in Switzerland in 1997. He met el-Aroud, the widow of Abdessatar Dahmane—the al-Qa`ida militant who killed Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud two days before the September 11, 2001, attacks—in a chat room. [viii] After getting married, the two began running various jihadist websites out of an apartment near Fribourg.[ix] Operating in an era in which online social networks were in their infancy, their sites played a crucial role in connecting like-minded French-speaking individuals, spawning an informal community of militants that has operational implications today, almost 10 years after the pair’s demise.[x]
By the late 2000s, Swiss authorities began to observe that an increasing number of terrorism-related activities involved individuals who were either born or at least had grown up in the country, replicating the homegrown dynamic seen throughout Europe. This phenomenon gained the attention of the Swiss public with the case of Majd N., a 19-year-old high school student from Biel who was arrested in May 2012 in Kenya and accused of having fought with the al-Qa`ida-linked al-Shabab.[xi]
The case reinforced the argument long made by Swiss authorities that Switzerland is “not an island,” but rather experiences radicalization dynamics similar to those of neighboring countries, just on a significantly lower scale.[xii] Structured groups and recruiters with roots in the Middle East (Kurdish Ansar al-Islam,[xiii] Turkish Hizb Allah [xiv]), East Africa (al-Shabab) and North Africa have a presence in the country. Clusters of homegrown activists sympathizing with jihadist or militant Salafist ideology are active in Switzerland, often organizing events throughout the country and frequenting online jihadist forums and social media.[xv]
Despite these actions, the number of Swiss-based jihadist sympathizers and the intensity of their activities are substantially smaller than in most Western European countries, including those with a comparably sized population. The Swiss “mini-scene” is also split along linguistic lines, as French- and German-speaking militants do not seem to frequently interact with one another.[xvi] Rather, each milieu draws inspiration from the more developed scenes in France and Germany. Swiss-based activists seeking to develop their intellectual or operational involvement, in fact, often travel to other countries or invite foreign personalities to Switzerland. The radicalizing elements from the Balkans are particularly influential—an area to which some 60% of Swiss Muslims trace their roots.[xvii]
Swiss Foreign Fighters in Syria
In May 2014, the Swiss intelligence agency Nachrichtendienst des Bundes (Federal Intelligence Service, NDB) publicly stated that it believed that up to 15 Swiss residents have gone to fight in Syria, although it could only confirm five cases. Of those five, stated NDB Director Markus Seiler, one has returned and two have died.[xviii] These numbers are smaller than for most European countries, even in relative terms. Yet they constitute a disturbing trend for Switzerland, as they are higher than any comparable mobilization the country has witnessed in the past.
One of the confirmed cases is that of Mathieu, a 29-year-old convert from a prominent Catholic family from Lausanne. In his early 20s, Mathieu worked odd jobs and developed a keen interest in paragliding. In 2012, he unsuccessfully ran for elections in the small municipality in the Valais canton where he lived in a small chalet.[xix] In May 2013, he converted to Islam at a local mosque, and by early fall he was chatting via Facebook with individuals apparently belonging to armed Islamist groups in Syria.
In lightning speed evolution from new convert to aspiring jihadist, by early December 2013 Mathieu told Facebook contacts that he was planning to soon leave for Syria.[xx] He went to neighboring France and took a test to pilot Ultra-Light Motorized Airplanes (ULM) on December 18.[xxi] On the same day he obtained his license, he posted a message saying: “If all things are destroyed…there still is The Creator of all things. We do not need anything else but Allah, he is our best guarantor.” [xxii] Days later, he left France for Turkey with two fellow aspiring jihadists, one of whom was a 17-year-old French citizen of North African descent whose smartphone was tracked to Turkey.[xxiii] On December 21, he wrote his parents an e-mail with the telling subject line “New life. Hard news for you. Terribly sorry.” [xxiv] In the e-mail, he stated that “in order to best follow Allah’s path, I have decided, because I feel able to both physically…and mentally (even though I know it won’t be easy always), to leave to accomplish the jihad in Syria.” [xxv]
After nearly three months of silence, Mathieu resurfaced online on March 16, 2014.[xxvi] Back in Switzerland, he gave an anonymous interview to Swiss national television station RTS in which he claimed to regret his decision to travel to Syria. [xxvii] “At the time, for me it was a legitimate jihad, to fight against the regime of Bashar who used chemical weapons to massacre his people,” he explained. He recounted how he lodged in a house with “80 to 150 jihadists” in which “the upper floor was for the future fighters, the ground floor for those who wished to blow themselves up. They were about 15, did not get military training and were treated better.”[xxviii] Mathieu did not specify which group ran the house and claimed not to be involved in any fighting. An investigation on Mathieu has reportedly been opened, but no charges have yet been filed against him.[xxix] He appears to be continuing his paragliding activities in the Alps. [xxx]
A bloody incident on March 20, 2014, brought to light the case of another jihadist fighting in Syria with Swiss links. Three individuals linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)[xxxi] responded to a routine security check by Turkish authorities near the Hatay border crossing by opening fire and throwing a hand grenade, killing a policeman, a non-commissioned gendarmerie officer and a truck driver.[xxxii] One of the three attackers who had crossed from Syria and was heading to Istanbul was Cendrim, a native of Kosovo who had moved at the age of seven to Brugg, in canton Aargau.[xxxiii] From a young age, Cendrim engaged in various criminal activities, including armed robbery and assault. In 2011, he was imprisoned for 24 months and, upon release, deported to Kosovo.[xxxiv] Some reports indicate that Cendrim’s radicalization might have begun during his incarceration.[xxxv] In June 2013, shortly after his deportation to Kosovo, he traveled to Syria, where he reportedly joined the ISIL.[xxxvi]
Another Swiss-based individual who apparently joined the ISIL in Syria is Valdes, a 33-year-old from the town of Kriens, near Luzern. [xxxvii] Valdes married into a family that plays a central role in the Bosnian Islamist networks in Switzerland. His wife is an activist for various Islamist causes, and his father-in-law is well-known for his connections to militants in Bosnia. [xxxviii] Until April 2014, Valdes was highly active on Facebook, posting pictures apparently from Syria before deleting his profile.
A six-month-long monitoring of the online jihadist sympathizer scene in Switzerland carried out by Swiss weeklies SonntagsZeitung and Le Matin Dimanche revealed the existence of other individuals apparently fighting in Syria who seem to be Swiss citizens or residents, but whose real identities cannot be fully verified. Many of them appear to have an Albanian or Bosnian background. Several of the apparent Swiss jihadists use their home country as part of their kunya, calling themselves “al-Suisri” or “As-Swissry.” An individual calling himself Abou Suleyman Suissery is tagged in a photo smiling and holding a gun in the company of other armed militants who call themselves “Team of Shock.”[xxxix] Reportedly a naturalized Swiss citizen of North African descent from canton Vaud, Abou Suleyman told one of the authors that he was “the official recruiter of Al-Qa`ida in Switzerland.” He asked for money to further elaborate on this claim—something the author declined.[xl]
The number of Swiss jihadists in Syria is small when compared to most other European countries, including those with a similarly sized population. Yet the presence of an undetermined number of its citizens and residents fighting in Syria is a relatively new phenomenon for Switzerland. It demonstrates that Switzerland suffers from radicalization dynamics similar to its neighbors, albeit on a smaller scale.
Moreover, the issue of foreign fighters might be particularly problematic for Switzerland, whose legislation does not possess extensive and precise provisions covering the phenomenon. As of July 2014, Swiss authorities have not filed any criminal cases against individuals suspected of having fought in Syria, including in a case like Mathieu’s in which evidence of his ties to jihadist activity is strong.
[i] Potentially the only exception could be the plans discussed by a cluster of Swiss-based North African militants to attack Israeli El Al aircraft at Zurich airport in 2005. The militants reportedly conducted surveillance of the airport, but it is debatable whether their preliminary activities could be qualified as a plot.
[ii] Christiane Imsand, “La Suisse n’Est pas une Ile,” Le Nouvelliste, June 22, 2012.
[iii] “DAP Annual Report,” Swiss Service for Analysis and Prevention, 2002, p. 38.
[v] The first such case was the so-called “affaire Saoud,” an operation triggered by the discovery that various Swiss phone numbers had been in possession of one of the masterminds of the May 12, 2003, bombings in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Swiss authorities subsequently uncovered a sophisticated document-forging network led by a Biel-based Yemeni businessman that smuggled into Switzerland illegal immigrants including, it was suspected, terrorists. Yet the terrorism charges against the network largely fell apart in court, and the members of the network were only convicted for minor illegal immigration violations. See “Summary of Legal Proceedings,” Dossier SK.2006.15, Federal Criminal Tribunal, Bellinzona, 2006.
[vi] That was the case, for example, with a network of North African militants involved in theft to fund the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) and suspected of potentially planning to blow up an El Al airliner in Zurich. See Sebastian Rotella, “Theft, Fraud in Europe Fund Terrorist Group, Police Say,” Los Angeles Times, April 1, 2007; Sylvain Besson, “Cellule Terroriste en Suisse: Le Parcours d’un Delinquant Devenu Islamiste Radical,” Le Temps, July 3, 2006; “DAP Annual Report,” Swiss Service for Analysis and Prevention, 2007, p. 16; “Swiss Deport Last Suspect Held in Plot to Blow up Israeli Airliner,” Associated Press, July 16, 2007.
[vii] The couple did not serve time in Switzerland and moved to Belgium, where they were soon charged with recruiting local young Muslims to travel to Pakistan. In the subsequent trial, a Belgian court sentenced both el-Aroud and Garsallaoui to eight years for recruiting for al-Qa`ida, although the latter only in absentia as he had managed to flee the country before Belgian authorities could swoop in. Garsallaoui continued his activities from the tribal areas of Pakistan. In 2008, he published an open letter inviting Swiss people, government and security forces to convert to Islam, and threatening revenge against them. He also became involved in Jund al-Khilafa and other jihadist groups operating in the Pakistani tribal areas, providing training in various weapons, bombmaking, document forging and use of the internet. Thanks to his skills, Garsallaoui became one of the top trainers and handlers for recruits coming from the West and particularly from the French-speaking world. According to various French media reports, Mohammed Merah had been one of his recruits. Garsallaoui was killed in a U.S. drone strike in October 2012.
[viii] “L’Islamiste Refugie a Fribourg Tue par un Drone au Pakistan,” Le Temps, October 18, 2012.
[ix] “Summary of Legal Proceedings,” Dossier SK.2007.4, Federal Criminal Tribunal, Bellinzona, 2006.
[x] Several individuals who met through the sites created by el-Aroud and Garsallaoui have been involved in terrorist activities during the last 10 years. In several cases, their mobilization took place through connections first made on said sites. For an Italian example, see Lorenzo Vidino, Home-Grown Jihadism in Italy: Birth, Development and Radicalization Dynamics (Milan: Istituto per gli studi di politica internazionale, 2014), p. 52. For connections in the French-speaking world, see Sylvain Besson, “Fin de Parcours pour Garsalloui, ex-Refugie en Suisse Tue par un Drone,” Le Temps, October 18, 2012; Benjamin Ducol, “Uncovering the French-speaking Jihadisphere: An Exploratory Analysis,” Media, War & Conflict 5:1 (2012).
[xi] Daniel Glaus and Marie Maurisse, “La Descente aux Enfers de Majd N., le Biennois Apprenti Terroriste,” Le Matin Dimanche, November 18, 2012; Daniel Glaus and Marie Maurisse, “Le Dangereux Voyage de Majd pour Devenir Combattant Islamiste,” Le Matin Dimanche, November 25, 2012; Quand Al Qaida Recrute en Suisse, RTS, November 8, 2012; Samuel Jaberg, “Un aller sans Retour pour la Guerre Sainte,” Swissinfo, July 4, 2012; “Un Gymnasien de Bienne Inculpe pour Liens avec les Shebab,” Le Temps, March 25, 2004; “Abu Sa’ad al-Urduni or the Improbable Matches – Episode II,” Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, December 5, 2011.
[xii] As in any other Western European country, radicalization by jihadist inspiration seems to affect only a statistically marginal segment of the Swiss Muslim population. But radicalization in Switzerland appears to be a limited phenomenon also when compared to other European countries. Four factors can explain this difference: 1) lack of an “infecting cluster”: Switzerland never hosted an openly jihadist mosque or high profile jihadists, elements that in other countries have been crucial in spreading jihadist ideology; 2) good degree of social, economic and cultural integration of most Muslims living in Switzerland, rendering them more resilient to extremist narratives; 3) demographic characteristics of the Swiss Muslim population: some 80% to 90% of Swiss Muslims trace their origins to the Balkans or Turkey, where the vast majority of Muslims traditionally espouse forms of Islam that are more tolerant and apolitical; 4) Switzerland’s foreign policy, whose largely neutral stance does not provide a source of grievances. While these concurrently operating factors can potentially explain the low levels of jihadist radicalization in Switzerland, none of them is a guarantee. Each, in fact, presents weaknesses and exceptions.
[xiii] “DAP Annual Report,” Swiss Service for Analysis and Prevention, 2005, p. 31; “DAP Annual Report,” Swiss Service for Analysis and Prevention, 2006, p. 31.
[xiv] Martin Stoll, “Geheimdienst observiert Basler Moschee,” Sonntagszeitung, September 2, 2012.
[xv] Lorenzo Vidino, Jihadist Radicalization in Switzerland (Zurich: Center for Security Studies, 2013).
[xvi] These details are based on the monitoring of online social media activities of Swiss Salafists carried out by both authors independently since June 2012. This analysis has been confirmed by interviews with officials in the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) and the Swiss Federal Police.
[xvii] Dialogue avec la Population Musulmane 2010 (Bern: Federal Department of Justice and Police, 2011), p. 29.
[xviii] “NDB Annual Press Conference,” Swiss Federal Intelligence Service, May 15, 2014.
[xix] Daniel Glaus and Alexandre Haederli, “Vom Chalet in den Jihad,” SonntagsZeitung, April 6, 2014.
[xx] Ibid. The authors were able to save most of Mathieu’s Facebook interactions before he erased the more incriminating content. One former Facebook friend confirmed Mathieu mentioned “fighting in Syria.”
[xxi] Ibid. Mathieu wrote his parents: “I took my ULM exam in Lyon on Wednesday and it went well” (“Je me suis rendu à mon examen ULM à Lyon mercredi, qui s’est bien passé”). Pictures published on his Facebook page indicate he trained on a Zodiac 650-type ULM with a maximum speed of 260 km/h. There are no indications that his training with ULM was related to his militant interests.
[xxii] Ibid. The original reads: “Si toute chose et détruite…Il reste Le Créateur de toute chose. Allah nous suffit il est notre meilleure garant.” The post was accompanied by a picture showing a bearded and apparently screaming man standing in front of a heavily destroyed and burning house stretching his arms to the sky.
[xxiii] Ibid. On December 21, 2013, Mathieu wrote his parents that he had parked his vehicle by Lyon’s airport, where they could pick it up. He also wrote: “I am about to return to Syria, traveling with two French brothers and others who arrived last night. I have many contacts with French jihadists who are already in Syria and who will facilitate our arrival!” (“Je suis actuellement sur le point de rentrer en Syrie, voyageant donc avec deux frères français, et d’autres arrivés hier soir. J’ai beaucoup de contacts avec des djihadistes français déjà en Syrie, qui nous faciliteront notre arrivée”). See also: “Jihad en Syrie: l’inquétante disparition de Brahim, 17 ans,” Le Parisien, January 18, 2014.
[xxiv] Ibid. The subject line in French read: “Nouvelle vie. Dure nouvelle pour vous. Milles excuses.”
[xxv] Original text: “De plus, toujours pour suivre au mieux le chemin d’Allah, j’ai décidé, car je m’en estime capable, tant physiquement [ma hanche va vraiment mieux !] que mentalement (bien que je sais que ce ne sera pas facile tous les jours !), de partir pour accomplir le Jihad en Syrie.”
[xxvi] Glaus and Haederli.
[xxvii] There are indications that he crossed the border in Akçakale and was stopped by Turkish authorities. It does not appear that he was expelled from Turkey, but that he returned to Switzerland voluntarily.
[xxviii] 19.30 le Journal, Radio Television Suisse Romande, April 4, 2014.
[xxix] E-Mail Statement by Spokesperson of the Office of the Attorney General (OAG), April 2, 2014.
[xxx] These pictures were posted on his Facebook page. Apparently he moved from his chalet in Lower Valais back to his parents’ address in Lausanne. The website of his paragliding instruction company is still online.
[xxxi] In June 2014, the ISIL shortened its name to the “Islamic State.” This article, however, still refers to the group by its more common name, the ISIL.
[xxxii] “Syria Back on Turkey’s Agenda,” al-Monitor, March 21, 2014.
[xxxiii] “Radikalisiert durch Balkan-Prediger,” SonntagsZeitung, March 30, 2014.
[xxxiv] “Aargau muss Genugtuung an Dschihadisten zahlen,” Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen, May 14, 2014.
[xxxv] “Reaktionen zum Brugger Terroristen Cendrim R.” Solothurner Zeitung, March 30, 2014; “Der gewalttätige Gotteskrieger aus Brugg,” Tages-Anzeiger/Der Bund, March 27, 2014; “Er war renitent und unzufrieden,“ Blick, March 31, 2014.
[xxxvi] “Der gewalttätige Gotteskrieger aus Brugg,” Tages-Anzeiger/Der Bund, March 27, 2014.
[xxxvii] These details are based on the authors’ analysis of Valdes’ Facebook account in 2013 and 2014.
[xxxviii] Daniel Glaus and Ursula Zenger, “Im Netzwerk des Attentäters,” SonntagsZeitung, November 20, 2011.
[xxxix] These details are based on the authors’ analysis of Facebook pages. Originally published in French, the photo caption read, “L’équipe de choc… un renouveau et un nouveau départbi idhnillah.” It was published on April 11, 2014, by a French jihadist (also tagged as being in the picture).
[xl] This conversation occurred in a Facebook chat with the author on March 30, 2014.
Daniel Glaus is a reporter for the Swiss weekly newspapers SonntagsZeitung/Le Matin Dimanche.
Lorenzo Vidino Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies, ETH Zürich.