Young, urban, on benefits: a snapshot of Swiss jihadists

Young urban men with low levels of education are over-represented among Switzerland's jihadists, while 40 percent are on some form of benefits, a new study shows.

Young, urban, on benefits: a snapshot of Swiss jihadists
Authors of a new study recommend the creation of special prisons for dealing with radicalized inmates. File photo: AFP

The study by the Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) looked at the case files of 130 jihadists over a ten-year period supplied by the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) with a view to finding ways to combat radicalisation.

The vast majority of the 130 people in the sample studied are, or were, ‘high-risk persons’ including both violent extremists and supporters and propagandists for jihadist groups.

Read also: Here is what we know about Switzerland's jihadists

More than half of these extremists (72, or 55 percent) were jihadist travellers. In nine other cases jihadist travel was prevented.

Men dominated the sample, with just 14 women (11 percent) among the 130 FIS cases.

Only 6 percent were minors

In terms of age, the average was 28, while two thirds were aged from 21 to 35 years of age. Some 10 percent were over 40. Only six percent were minors.

Switzerland’s jihadists also have relatively low levels of education – only five percent of the 96 extremists for whom educational information was available had completed tertiary studies.

In addition, around a third of people in the FIS sample were unemployed before they were radicalized – far higher than the Swiss jobless rate of 5.1 percent in 2017. This unemployment figure jumped to 58 percent post-radicalization, which study authors attribute to possible difficulties in finding work after criminal proceedings.

41 percent were on benefits

Meanwhile, 41 percent of Switzerland’s radicalized Muslims were on benefits of some kind.

However, in comments made to The Local, study author Miryam Eser Davolio with the ZHAW School of Social Work was keen to put this figure in perspective. 

She noted that these benefits included disability benefits and asylum seeker benefits as well as unemployment money.

In addition, Davolio said that the FIS had been unable to state whether being on benefits was a cause or result of radicalization in individual cases.

Predominantly urban

The ZHAW study also found Swiss jihadists were predominantly urban, with just 11.5 percent living in a rural area. French-speaking Switzerland is also over-represented. A total of 42 percent of jihadists analysed lived in this part of the country although it only makes up 24 percent of the total Swiss population.

The study’s authors also argue that Switzerland’s jihadists are home-grown. They note that while only a third of jihadist travellers had a Swiss passport and just 21.5 percent came from western and southern Europe, 35 percent were born in Switzerland, a further 21 percent came to the country before their 12th birthday and another 10 percent came before their 18th birthday.

Special prisons for radicalized inmates

Davolio told The Local that there had improvements in Swiss measures to combat and prevent radicalization since a previous study in 2015. 

This includes the expansion of a network of specialist extremism units from two in 2015 to nine this year.

But she said a lot of work remained to be done.

The ZHAW study recommends the creation of special prisons designed to deal with jihadists and a multi-pronged approach for the reintegration of radicalized people into the wider community.

It also stress the importance of communication and information sharing between different government departments and agencies.

Read also: Switzerland wants to strip Isis fighter of passport

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Switzerland arrests suspected Isis sympathisers in numerous raids

Four suspected members or sympathisers of the Islamic State group have been detained in Germany and Switzerland in a cross-border operation, prosecutors from the two countries said Tuesday.

Switzerland arrests suspected Isis sympathisers in numerous raids

In Switzerland, three people were picked up in the cantons of Zurich, Sankt Gallen and Lucerne, national authorities said, adding that seven further searches were also carried out.

The suspects, whose identities were not released, are accused of “participation in or support for the outlawed organisation Islamic State”.

In Germany, a man was detained in the western town of Roemerberg, federal prosecutors said.

Identified only as Aleem N., he is “strongly suspected of preparing a serious violent attack threatening the security of the state and of belonging to a foreign terrorist organisation”.

He is believed to have attempted to travel from Germany via Turkey to Syria in September 2020.

“In Syria, the suspect wanted to join the foreign terrorist organisation Islamic State, attain military training and then take part in combat or terrorist attacks,” the federal prosecutor’s office said in a statement.

However, Aleem N. was unable to reach Syria for reasons that were not immediately clear and returned to Germany.

“At the latest in April 2021 he joined Isis in Germany and carried out vast propaganda activities for the group,” prosecutors said.

His duties included “mainly translating official texts, videos and audio messages by Isis from Arabic into German and distributing them on various Telegram channels in German-speaking areas”.

“Isis considered such activities to be equivalent to taking part directly in violent jihad,” it added.

The suspect is also believed to have taken part in a telephone conversation with Isis leaders in late 2021 to “verify his reliability” before travelling to “IS zones of operation”.

However, “a further attempt” to reach Syria in January 2022 “failed again”.

Aleem N. was to appear on Tuesday before a federal judge who will decide whether to remand him in custody.

German intelligence services estimate that more than 1,150 people have travelled from Germany to Iraq and Syria since 2011 for Islamist reasons.

More than a third have since returned to Germany, while at least 270 have been killed in Iraq or Syria.

“A low three-digit-number” are currently detained in the two countries, according to the intelligence services’ 2021 report.