The city of Winterthur, north of Zurich, is in the headlines again as a place where young Muslims are being radicalised. The latest unconfirmed report says an Islamic State cell operates out of a mosque in the city.
Kurt Pelda, a respected Swiss journalist with extensive experience reporting the conflict in Syria, writes in the Weltwoche magazine that he has evidence of a previously unknown Winterthur resident who has travelled to Syria to wage holy war. And he says there is now “no doubt” that the An’Nur mosque in the Hegi district has become a focus of brainwashing young Muslims into violent acts.
“There is a whole bunch of preachers and prayer leaders who meet with youngsters in the mosque, or outside, and attempt to radicalise them,” he said in an interview with the Winterthur newspaper, Landbote.
At first glance, Winterthur seems an unlikely place to foster hardline Islamic warriors. Switzerland’s sixth largest city first made its name by hosting industrial heavyweight firms such as pumps specialist Sulzer and Rieter – the maker of industrial weaving machines.
In recent years it has grown in popularity among commuting Zurich workers, pushing its population above the 100,000 mark. The city has a left-leaning government and a reputation for liberal attitudes with a burgeoning multicultural artistic and student scene.
For the last 25 years Winterthur has hosted the annual Afro-Pfingsten festival that celebrates African art and music for a week each spring. It has some less salubrious areas dotted around, but is largely known as a fairly affluent, peaceful – if a somewhat backwater – city.
The bare numbers hardly point to Winterthur being a hotbed of radicalisation. The media have spotted a grand total of six Winterthur residents having travelled to Syria to fight. The Federal Intelligence Agency says it knows of 40 cases of Jihadi-inspired travel from Switzerland among 70 cases of radicalisation it is investigating.
But the media’s uncovering of names, and personalities, of a handful of Winterthur-based Jihadis has created more of a stir than could be produced by mere statistics.
A teenaged brother and sister from the Töss suburb of Winterthur, of Kosovar roots, were said to have turned radical practically overnight having endured a number of problems at home. They are believed to have attended a Thai kickboxing school set up in Winterthur by German national, and twice Muay Thai world champion, Valdet Gashi.
Two other young men are also said to have had links to both the kickboxing school and the An’Nur mosque before also departing for Syria. One of the jihadis was intercepted at Zurich airport by the Swiss authorities but the others are thought to have made it to Syria. Gashi reported on social media that one has been killed in the war zone.
Journalist Pelda has hinted that he will bring forward further evidence of the sixth Winterthur jihadist and possibly of the role of the An’Nur mosque in the coming days.
But not everyone believes that Winterthur is the prime centre of Islamic radicalisation in Switzerland or that mosques are the most likely source of brainwashing. The Swiss media have reported an alleged radicalisation case linked to a Geneva mosque.
In a recent swissinfo.ch interview, Miryam Eser Davolio, who headed a study into radicalisation of young Swiss people for the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, said areas of cantons Geneva and Ticino would be more likely hotspots in Switzerland due to high numbers of unemployed Muslims living there.
In its few comments to the media, the An’Nur mosque has denied radicalising youngsters and told the Landbote that it would throw out anyone who tried. Swiss police chief Nicoletta Della Valle has also gone on record to say it is a cliché to think of mosques brainwashing youngsters, believing that radicalisation is more likely conducted over the internet.
In its May annual report the Federal Intelligence Service said radicalised jihadists remained the biggest threat to Swiss national security even though the country was not a priority target for potential terrorists.
Currently, some 70 cases of jihadi radicalisation are being investigated in Switzerland, with criminal proceedings underway in more than 20 cases. As of October, Swiss intelligence had recorded 40 confirmed cases of jihad-motivated travel (+10 since February). Seven others have left conflict zones and some have returned to Switzerland. In addition, 31 other suspected jihadis are being monitored. Two were reported to have died in conflict areas in October 2015, bringing the suspected total such deaths to 15.
The Zurich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW) study into the radicalisation of Swiss youngsters looked at 66 cases recorded between 2001 and July 2015. The team of 11 researchers found that 16 out of 66 cases were aged below 25. Most were aged 23-35. Only three women were reported, below European averages of 10%.
The majority of cases were born into Muslim families from former Yugoslavia and Somalia. Twelve were recently converted, half of Swiss origin. Twenty cases were radicalised via the internet, 13 claimed to have been influenced by war experiences, particularly in the Balkans, while 13 pointed to Salafist propaganda.end of infobox