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Islamist drama Swiss jihadist ‘holding wife hostage in Syria’

A building burns in the Syrian province of Idlib, where the woman is allegedly being held, in March 2014

(Keystone)

Details have come to light about how a young man from northeastern Switzerland travelled to Syria “to behead infidels” and was joined by his pregnant German wife, whom he is now allegedly holding hostage. 

“I want to go home – please help me,” said the 22-year-old woman from Stuttgart in an audio clip sent to her family that was broadcasted on Swiss public television’s Rundschau news programme on Wednesday evening. 

According to research by Rundschau and Germany’s Stuttgarter Nachrichten newspaper, the woman has been in the Idlib region of Syria, a conflict zone, since October and is being held against her will by her 21-year-old Swiss husband, a logistics specialist and Muslim convert from Arbon, canton Thurgau. 

The Federal Prosecutor's Office in Bern partially confirmed the media reports and shared that it has been investigating the man since November 2014.

The man has also been sending messages home via social media. “I’ve come here to behead infidels. I am ready,” he wrote. “At some point we’ll be in Switzerland.”

He added that he was engaged in jihad and had joined the al-Nusra Front, a branch of al-Qaeda operating in Syria and Lebanon and considered a terrorist organisation by the UN Security Council since 2013.

“We mustn’t underestimate the danger,” Federal Prosecutor Michael Lauber told Swiss public television, SRF, on Wednesday.

“You can’t impose an entry ban on a Swiss citizen, and this man is a Swiss-Turkish dual national. We’re doing a lot, but I can’t give any concrete information,” said Lauber, who added that he couldn’t exclude the possibility of an international arrest warrant.

‘Brainwashed’ 

According to a report on SRF, the couple met through a marriage broker but both of them were previously associated with the “Lies!” organisation, run by German Salafist preacher Ibrahim Abu-Nagie, who wants to distribute 25 million copies of the Koran. 

The German security forces had been monitoring “Lies!” since 2011, but the problem, according to Manfred Schmitt, in charge of Islamism and security for Stuttgart police, is that “quite a lot of people, who had come into contact with or were active in “Lies!”, have in the meantime gone off on jihad”. 

Schmitt also explained that by monitoring the woman’s Facebook entries, they know she converted to Islam in 2013 as a result of the Koran distribution campaign. 

As for her husband, he comes from a large Turkish family and has had a Swiss passport since 1995. People who know him say that, before he was radicalised, he was well integrated, playing football and going to parties. 

Members of his family say he had only wanted to take aid supplies to Syria but had then been brainwashed by radical preachers. 

From Hamburg to Syria 

The couple married in a Stuttgart mosque according to Islamic law and then in a Swiss registry office. They moved to a multi-family home in Arbon in 2013, but the flat is now empty and cordoned off by police. 

The Swiss federal prosecutor searched the flat at the end of 2014, following a tip from German police, but the couple were already in Syria. 

Research by Rundschau and the Stuttgarter Nachrichten reveals that the man had left Hamburg for Turkey at the end of last summer, from where he continued to Syria. His wife, by then pregnant, followed him in October. 

The exact circumstances of her journey remain unclear, according to the report. Her sister says she only wanted to visit her husband in Syria for a week – but she never returned. Her family adds that she gave birth to a daughter on Monday.

For Reinhold Gall, interior minister for the German state of Baden-Württemberg, the case has high priority because she is not in Syria voluntarily. 

“This young woman really wants to go home. Until now her return has been denied,” he said.

Swiss jihadists

In 2014, an inter-departmental task force was set up, led by the Federal Office of Police, aimed at preventing jihadists travelling from Switzerland to conflict regions and terrorist attacks being committed in Switzerland.  

According to the office, between 2001 and September 2014, 55 people left Switzerland to fight in jihadist conflicts, 35 of whom had left since May 2013. Of the total, 31 went to Iraq or Syria, while 24 went to Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia. The office is reportedly reviewing asylum applications to prevent potential terrorists from entering Switzerland. 

Switzerland has been pushing for more coordinated ways of preventing and countering terrorism at all levels of the United Nations, as well as in the Global Counterterrorism Forum and the Council of Europe. As Chair of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in 2014, Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter made the fight against terrorism a priority. 

On February 26, 2015, an FIS task force said Switzerland should do more to thwart jihadists, with possible new measures including a hotline number or even the grounding of outbound travellers.

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