That so-called foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) from Switzerland joined Jihadi insurgent groups abroad is a relatively new phenomenon as only a handful of individuals participated in conflicts such as in Afghanistan or Iraq prior to the outbreak of the Syrian War.
According to Switzerland’s Intelligence Service of the Federation (FIS), 77 of 92 “Jihad travelers” from Switzerland departed to Syria and Iraq since 2013 (another 13 traveled to Somalia), the vast majority joining the Islamic State (or IS) after the declaration of its caliphate in summer 2014. However, in proportion to the general and Muslim population, the small country of Switzerland is similarly affected by the phenomenon of FTF departures as its larger neighbor state Germany.
Unfortunately, almost no data on the socio-demographic backgrounds of these Swiss Jihad travelers is publicly available. FIS only proclaimed that 31 among the 92 FTFs held Swiss citizenship, and around a dozen were females. Some insight provides a recent study by the Zurich University of Applied Science / ZHAW on the radicalisation of 130 Swiss-based Jihadis, including 72 FTFs. The study concluded that, like in Switzerland’s neighbouring countries, Jihadi radicalisation mainly concerns young male adults from immigrant families who were socialised in Switzerland (although one fifth were converts), lived in urban or suburban areas, tended to have a lower level of education and to be poorly integrated into the employment market, while social isolation in the process of religious radicalisation additionally facilitate unemployment. Yet, previous involvement in criminal activities were less prevalent in the biographies of Swiss Jihadis compared to their fellow brethren in other European countries.
According to the author’s data on Swiss FTFs in Syria/Iraq, almost 85% were male and almost 75% were between 18 and 30 years old with few exceptions of minor teenagers and individuals older than 30 years. Individuals with family origin in the Balkans (especially Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia) constituted with a share of more than a third the biggest group in the sample, followed by those from the Middle East (24%, including Turkey), Central Europe (18%, mainly Switzerland, but also Italy, Germany, France, Portugal), and North Africa (17%).
Roughly two-thirds of the Swiss FTFs lived before their departure in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, one third in the Romandy, and only few in Ticino. Although dense social networks of Jihadis existed on a regional level, these regional networks were barely interconnected since they usually rather interacted with like-minded individuals sharing the same language and ethnic origin in the neighboring countries Germany, Austria, France, Belgium, and Italy. In each region, several cities such as Winterthur, Geneva, Lausanne, and Lugano emerged as crucial recruitment hubs. Often, members of the local networks grew up in the same neighbourhoods, visited the same school, and frequented the same mosques. In an estimate of 52% of the cases, radicalisation was influenced through kinship (siblings, spouses, or parents) and 40% through friendship ties, highlightening that the trajectory into religious extremism is foremost a social process. Common dawa (proselytism) and charity activities for Salafi organizations consolidated these pre-existing social networks to close-knit radical groups that formed around charismatic, usually older, leaders and role models claiming religious and ideological authority. For potential FTFs these central nodes often provided resources essential to depart to Syria and Iraq such as contacts to trafficking networks and Jihadi insurgent groups in the destination countries.
Unlike other Western FTF contingents, Swiss departees never formed coherent communities abroad but were rather embedded in German-speaking, Francophone, Bosnian or Albanian units of the Islamic State or Jabhat al-Nusra. But not all Swiss Jihadis in Syria and Iraq were necessarily involved in combat. The ZHAW study assumed that half of the Swiss FTFs actively participated in fightings. Only in few exceptions individuals obtained high-level positions in Jihadi groups abroad such as Majd Najjar, a Swiss-Palestinian from Biel who shortly served as an IS emir in Syria’s Qalamoun region, or formerly Frankfurt-based Swiss citizen Thomas Christen whom German media reported to have become an IS commander for external operations in Europe after instructing the perpetrators of the 2015 Paris attacks.
With the imminent collapse of the IS “caliphate” and increasing difficulties to relocate to Syria and Iraq, the departure of Swiss FTFs came to an abrupt end in 2016. In the last years, at least 25 Jihadis from Switzerland died in the conflict zone and 16 returned, according to FIS. Additionally, authorities believe that at least 20 Swiss citizens (men, women and children alike) are still located in Syria and Iraq, many detained by non-state actors such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in North-Syria.
With the adoption of the “Federal Law on the Ban of the Groups al-Qaida and Islamic State as well as Related Organisations” in December 2014, Switzerland created a legal tool to prosecute willing or returned FTFs, although to date it only found implementation in few cases, usually resulting in lower sentences than other European states. The problem of Jihadi radicalisation, in general, was addressed more broadly by launching a “National Action Plan to Counter and Prevent Radicalisation and Violent Extremism” by the end of 2017. The National Action Plan consists of 26 measures, including the establishment of specialist departments on the cantonal level, training of relevant departments and professions, cooperation with local civil society organisations, social reintegration and national coordination of federal and cantonal authorities.
In regard to Jihadi FTFs with Swiss citizenship, including women and children, detained in camps like al-Hol and elsewhere, Switzerland was well aware of the fragile political situation in North-Syria before the Turkish incursion that started in October 2019.
Already in March, the Swiss government defined goals and strategies to address the problem of returning FTFs. The memorandum stressed national security over individual interests and, consequently, called for operative measures such as the Schengen identification system or arrests to prevent the uncontrolled entry of returnees into Switzerland. Despite the SDF, for instance, repeatedly called the home states of captured FTFs to repatriate them, Switzerland like most other European governments declared that it would not ban them of entering the country but, with the exception of minors, not participate actively in any repatriation. Instead, the Swiss government unrealistically called for the criminal prosecution of Swiss FTFs according to international standards in those states where crimes took place. To date, however, there was not any case that would shed light on the pratical implementation of these new strategies.