Suspended sentence for Jihadist arrested at Zurich airport

The 26-year-old defendant during a break in the trial with his attorney Daniel Weber Keystone

The first Swiss case involving a suspected jihadist prevented from travelling abroad ended with an 18-month suspended sentence handed down on Friday at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona. The accused is a Swiss-Lebanese man.

This content was published on July 15, 2016 and agencies

On Thursday, prosecutors in the capital of Ticino, the southernmost canton of Switzerland, had made their case against Ahmed J., who was intercepted by the Federal Office of Police and Zurich cantonal police in April 2015. He had been preparing to board a Turkish Airlines flight for Istanbul, Turkey, possibly with plans to travel on to Syria or Iraq. The man had maintained that he wanted to go to Syria for humanitarian purposes, and was not planning to join the IS.

On Friday the court awarded an 18-month suspended sentence, rather than the two-year suspended sentence and three-year probation period recommended by the prosecutors from the Attorney General's office.

The Swiss-Lebanese dual national, who is in his mid-20s, denied charges of belonging to a banned group and supporting a criminal organisation, a category that extends to terrorist and militant groups al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS). Swiss law prohibits any support to terror groups ranging from propaganda to financial help. 

But according to the prosecution, Ahmed J not only harboured sympathy for the IS, but also contacted a middleman on the border between Turkey and Syria, thereby demonstrating support for the group. 

The Attorney General's office chose not to recommend an unconditional sentence because the man was a young father who had been cooperative after his arrest and had good chances of being deradicalised.

Growing up Swiss

The eldest of six children, the defendant was born and grew up in canton Zurich. At school many of his classmates were Albanian Muslims, and he later began to frequent a mosque in Winterthur – a place where authorities believe young Muslims are being radicalised. The young man, who calls himself a devout Muslim, had recently been living at his parents' house with his girlfriend and their young son.

According to the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS), at least 73 jihadi suspects – 28 Swiss – have left Switzerland for conflict zones since 2001. Of these, 59 travelled to Syria or Iraq and 14 to Somalia, Afghanistan or Pakistan. In all, 16 have since reportedly died, and 13 have returned to Switzerland.

However, none of those have been registered since the beginning of 2016, signalling a possible lull in activity. Also since the beginning of 2016, 12 individuals have come back to Switzerland after involvement in jihadi activities, and all of them were charged with illegal activities upon return, the FIS reported in May. The Office of the Attorney General is currently working on 60 such cases overall, according to the report.

The FIS also has said it is monitoring the social media activity of about 400 potential jihadists.

Electronic evidence

After Ahmed J.’s arrest, investigators discovered IS symbols on the man’s laptop, as well as photos of jihadi soldiers and propaganda material glorifying violence, death and martyrdom.

Earlier this year, the Federal Criminal Court upheld the decision of the Swiss Attorney General’s Office to confiscate the man's Swiss passport and identifying documents. The court also said then that there was strong evidence that he was on his way to Syria or Iraq.

Between September and December 2014, the court said the man had been in contact with a Winterthur man who had left with his girlfriend for Syria; both have since returned. He was also said to have been in contact with another person who left for Istanbul and Syria in February 2015.

Police have also said they discovered evidence of a phone call between the man and his girlfriend in which he confided to her his desire to die as a martyr.

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