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Swiss Jihadi recruits sought ‘fresh start’

La police dans une mosquée en Suisse.
Police search a Winterthur mosque last year, thought to be a recruiting centre for Jihadists Keystone

Homegrown Swiss jihadists often want a fresh start due to troubles at school or in the workplace. They tend to view the world in stark terms but harbor no hatred toward Switzerland, according to academic research by an analyst at the Federal Office of Police.

The findings come from an unusual source – an unpublished master’s thesis by University of Bern student Florent Bielmann, who works at the Federal Police Office (Fedpol). The work emerged this week through his mentor, Frédéric Esposito, a political scientist and lecturer at University of Geneva’s Global Studies Institute.

Bielmann had access to thousands of pages of police reports and other documents from public prosecutors about alleged Swiss jihadists. He used them to document the journey of nine men and one woman charged with becoming jihadi travelers before returning to Switzerland – a relatively limited phenomenon.

Though he studied a relatively small number of people, Bielmann’s work represents “a unique cartography” that maps out how a group or closed circle of people play a big role in recruitment, said Esposito. “Social networks often play only an accelerating role in the process of radicalization.”

In a report last October, Fedpol said it banned nearly 100 people from entering Switzerland – up from a bit more than two dozen a year earlier – mainly due to fears that they had links to jihadism. Fedpol can ban anyone who might pose a security threat through terrorism, violence or organised crime.

Fresh start

In all the cases he studied, Bielmann reported the would-be jihadist had “limited social mobility” due to poor performance at school or difficulties keeping a job.

Just one of them had a school diploma – a certificate from completing a professional apprenticeship.

Most of the alleged fighters also highlighted the opportunity for jihad to change their lives. “I realised at the time that it was a new beginning in my life,” one of them is quoted as saying. 

They also shared a binary world vision: good against evil, oppressed Arab countries against an international coalition.

Unlike with former colonial powers such as Britain or France, however, “there is no hatred of Switzerland but a hatred of the Western world”, said Esposito. “We also have a much less homogeneous Muslim community. So there is less desire to fight with the country itself.”

John Heilprin

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