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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UPDATE: Woman jailed for nine years for knife attack on Swiss shoppers

In a rare case of alleged Islamist "terrorism" in Switzerland, a woman was jailed for nine years on Monday for the brutal knife attack on two shoppers at an upscale department store.

UPDATE: Woman jailed for nine years for knife attack on Swiss shoppers

A Swiss woman accused of slashing two people in the name of the Islamic State group in an upmarket shop
was sentenced on Monday to nine years prison coupled with psychiatric treatment.

The criminal court judges found the woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, guilty of two counts of attempted murder, and of violating the Swiss laws against association with Al-Qaeda, IS and related Islamist groups.

The woman, who has not been named, tried to slit the throats of two women shopping at the Manor store in Lugano, in Switzerland’s southern, Italian-speaking Ticino region on November 24, 2020.

The attacker, 28 at the time, was accused of committing a “jihadist knife attack” and had “intended to kill her victims and to commit a terrorist act on behalf of IS” (the Islamic State group), the attorney general’s office said earlier this year.

Random victims

On the day of the attack, the woman had gone to Manor’s kitchen supply division on the fifth floor, picked out a large bread knife and approached a random woman standing nearby.

Grabbing her from behind, the assailant plunged the knife at least 10 centimetres into her throat, missing her main carotid artery “by a few millimetres”, the court heard. 

As she screamed “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and “I will avenge the Prophet Mohammed”, she struck the victim to the ground, and then moved on to a second woman, stabbing the knife towards her face and shouting “I am here for

The second woman suffered defensive wounds to her right hand, but managed with help from others to overpower her attacker and hold her until police arrived.

“The suspect acted wilfully and with particular ruthlessness,” prosecutors said, maintaining that she had acted “with the aim of killing (her victims) and thereby spreading terror throughout the population on behalf of the ‘Islamic State’.”

Mental health problems

Police quickly discovered the alleged assailant had been linked to a 2017 jihadism investigation.

After “falling in love” over social media with a jihadist fighter in Syria, she had attempted in 2017 to travel to the war-torn country to meet him, but was stopped by Turkish authorities at the Syrian border and sent back to Switzerland, it is alleged.

Upon her return, she was deemed to have mental health problems. She was admitted to a psychiatric clinic and fell off the security police radar until the attack three years later, police said.

The assailant had reportedly once been married to a Muslim asylum seeker and had converted to Islam.

‘Very rare’

Experts said the trial marked a rare event, pointing out that such attacks are almost unheard of in the wealthy Alpine country.

Switzerland has never experienced a large-scale terror attack, though it did suffer two other individual knife attacks in 2020 by people with suspected jihadist ties.

“In Switzerland, it’s been very random and very rare that we have people that conduct terrorist attacks,” Christina Schori Liang, a terrorism expert at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told AFP.

It is even rarer that the alleged jihadist attacker is a woman.

“Isis has never claimed an attack carried out by a woman,” Damien Ferre, founder of the Jihad Analytics group which analyses global and cyber jihad, told AFP.

While there were reports of women carrying out attacks in the battle for Mosul in Iraq in 2004, he stressed that “it was never proven and the group did not communicate about it.”