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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Case dropped against second Swiss man over Vienna attack ‘links’

Swiss prosecutors said Thursday they had dropped the case against a second Swiss man over alleged links to a deadly shooting rampage in Vienna due to a lack of evidence.

Armed police officers stand guard before the arrival of Austrian Chancellor Kurz and President of the European Council to pay respects to the victims of the recent terrorist attack in Vienna, Austria on November 9,2020. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)
Armed police officers stand guard before the arrival of Austrian Chancellor Kurz and President of the European Council to pay respects to the victims of the recent terrorist attack in Vienna, Austria on November 9,2020. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

The Office of the Attorney General (OAG), which last month decided to drop the case against one suspect, told AFP it had issued a discontinuation order in the case against a second man.

On November 2, 2020, convicted Islamic State sympathiser Kujtim Fejzulai killed four people in Vienna before being shot dead by police.

It was the first major attack in Austria in decades and the first blamed on a jihadist.

Two Swiss citizens who knew Fejzulai were arrested in the northeastern Swiss town of Winterthur just a day after the attack on suspicion they may have helped in its preparation.

‘How was it possible?’ Austrians left asking painful questions after Vienna terror shootings

The two, who were aged 18 and 24 at the time, were known to the police and were the targets of prior criminal cases over terror-linked offences.

The OAG acknowledged Thursday that no evidence had emerged that either man had participated in any way or had prior knowledge of the attack.

The older of the two men was meanwhile hit with a penalty in a separate case with no links to the Vienna file, the OAG said.

The penalty order, seen by Swiss media, indicated that he had been found guilty of violating Switzerland’s law banning Al-Qaeda, Islamic State and related organisations and of being in possession of “depictions of violence”.

According to the ATS news agency, an IS group video was found on his phone depicting people being executed and decapitated.

He was handed a six-month suspended prison sentence, a fine of 1,000 Swiss francs ($1,100, 950 euros), and three years’ probation, ATS said.

ANALYSIS: Vienna terror attack was ‘only a matter of time’

In light of this penalty, he would not be compensated for the 176 days he spent behind bars after his arrest following the Vienna attack, it added.

The OAG said a separate case was still pending against the younger of the two men, also on suspicion he breached the Swiss law banning Al-Qaeda, IS and related organisations, and over “allegations of depictions of violence”. “The presumption of innocence applies,” it stressed.