Swiss lawmakers have filed a motion calling on the Swiss Parliament formally to ban the jihadist group Islamic State [IS] from operating in Switzerland.
The measure—signed by more than 40 politicians from across the political spectrum—is in response to new revelations that the IS has established a network of cells inside Switzerland to raise money and recruit fighters for the jihad in Syria and Iraq.
The jihadist cells are primarily focused on providing financial, logistical and propaganda support to help the IS establish an Islamic theocracy in the Middle East, according to a report published by the Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) on September 21.
But terrorism analysts are warning that the cells could easily be used to perpetrate terror attacks inside Switzerland.
According to the NZZ, Swiss authorities are investigating at least three Iraqi nationals who are the alleged ringleaders of IS activities in Switzerland.
In response to the report, the Swiss public prosecutor's office confirmed that it is currently investigating at least 20 separate cases involving jihadist operations in Switzerland, including at least four directly related to the jihad in Syria.
"According to the information available to date, people who travelled to a conflict zone were assigned to radical groups, after their individual skills and fighting potential were evaluated," said Jeannette Balmer, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office. She added that the investigations were slow-going because of the difficulties involved in locating the Swiss jihadists.
Balmer declined to give more details about the 20 investigations on the grounds of official confidentiality.
In a September 7 interview with the newspaper SonntagsZeitung, Chief Federal Prosecutor Michael Lauber said he was "worried" about the fact that Swiss jihadists are travelling to Syria and Iraq to join organisations like the IS. He said that his office is currently investigating four individuals "on suspicion of supporting a criminal organization and providing funding for a terrorist group."
Lauber also revealed that Switzerland does not maintain a "blacklist" of names of people to check who return to Switzerland—possibly because Swiss authorities do not seem to know how many Swiss jihadists there actually are.
About 40 Swiss jihadists have left Switzerland to participate in holy wars around the world, including 15 who have traveled to Syria, according to the 2014 annual report of the Swiss intelligence agency, Nachrichtendienst des Bundes (Federal Intelligence Service, NDB).
This number is far higher than previous estimates, and especially worrisome considering the relative size of the Muslim community in Switzerland. The Muslim population of Switzerland is estimated to number between 350,000 and 400,000, or around 5% of the total Swiss population of 8 million.
If the NDB's estimates are correct, they would imply that—in terms of percentage—there are now more Swiss jihadists in Syria than French jihadists. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe.
In June, the newspaper Basler Zeitung asked the NDB to clarify the numbers contained in its annual report. The response was:
"As of May 2013: 20 Jihad travelers from Switzerland, of which seven have been confirmed. As of May 2014: 40 Jihad travelers, of which 13 have been confirmed. Of the 15 Jihad travelers to Syria, five have been confirmed. 'Confirmed' means that the information has been verified by two intelligence sources."
The reason for the discrepancy remains unclear, but part of the problem may be attributed to Swiss legal restrictions on the government's surveillance powers.
Swiss law currently prohibits Swiss intelligence from monitoring most domestic telephone and Internet communications. The restrictions were put into place after the so-called Secret Files Scandal (Fichenaffäre) in 1989, when it was revealed that the Swiss federal authorities had secretly and illegally put in place a system of mass surveillance of the entire population.
In April 2014, the Swiss Parliament decided to postpone an initiative to rewrite the law that governs the NDB's intelligence-gathering activities after several lawmakers on the influential National Security Commission of the Federal Council opposed giving the agency more surveillance powers.
The parliamentary initiative to ban the IS in Switzerland is also running into resistance.
Although neighboring Germany banned the IS on September 12, the Swiss Federal Council—the seven-member executive council which constitutes the federal government of Switzerland and serves as the collective head of state—says it sees no immediate need for action.
According to Swiss law, an organization can only be banned if it presents an "imminent serious disturbance of internal and external security" — criteria which the Federal Council says are not currently met.
The president of the National Security Commission, Thomas Hurter, disagrees: "IS shows us that modern terror threats can only be combatted through prevention."
Another factor obstructing an official ban appears to be bureaucratic confusion. According to a legal analysis entitled, "Banning the Islamic State: But How?" published by the newspaper Berner Zeitung on September 17, Swiss authorities are impeding progress by "blocking" each other:
"Before the Federal Council can even consider a ban, it needs to obtain an official request from a government agency. But it is not clear which agencies should do so. The intelligence service referred us to the Federal Office of the Police, the Federal Office of the Police referred us to the Department of Defense, the Defense Department referred us to the Federal Office of Justice, and from there we were referred back to the intelligence service."
During modern Swiss history, only two organizations have ever been banned for endangering the country's security: the National Socialist Party of Adolf Hitler in 1936, and al-Qaeda after the terrorist attacks of 2001.
According to the Berner Zeitung, the ban on al-Qaeda was imposed by the Federal Council by means of the Emergency Law (Notrecht). Since then, the ban has been renewed every three years. The existing ban will expire in 2015, but because a further extension is not possible under the Emergency Law, al-Qaeda will once again become legal in Switzerland.
Mixed messages: To date, Switzerland has been unable to ban the Islamic State, and its existing ban on al-Qaeda is due to expire in 2015. But in a 2009 referendum, the Swiss voted to ban the construction of mosque minarets. Above, posters from the 2009 referendum campaign.
Meanwhile, an in-depth analysis of the jihad scene in Switzerland, published in July 2014 by the United States Military Academy at West Point, states:
"The presence of an undetermined number of its citizens and residents fighting in Syria is a relatively new phenomenon for Switzerland. It demonstrates that Switzerland suffers from radicalization dynamics similar to its neighbors, albeit on a smaller scale.
"Moreover, the issue of foreign fighters might be particularly problematic for Switzerland, whose legislation does not possess extensive and precise provisions covering the phenomenon. As of July 2014, Swiss authorities have not filed any criminal cases against individuals suspected of having fought in Syria, including [cases] in which evidence of ties to jihadist activity is strong."
The report concludes that it is "debatable whether Switzerland possesses an adequate legal framework to mitigate this [jihadist] threat."
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.