Last month, Switzerland suffered its second-ever jihadist terrorist attack — only two months after the first had occurred. Although it was perpetrated by a woman, which is rare, it did not garner a great deal of attention internationally. However, despite its limited toll of two wounded victims, the Lugano attack has important takeaways. It highlights that the threat has shifted from returning foreign fighters to frustrated wannabe travellers. It also sheds light on the increased danger of mentally vulnerable people in radical circles during a pandemic and it shows that no single Western country is immune to jihadist violence.
How the Attack Unfolded
At around 2pm on November 24, a woman randomly attacked two people on the fifth floor of the Manor shopping mall at the Piazza Dante Alighieri in Lugano — an Italian-speaking town Switzerland. The attacker tried to strangle the first victim with her bare hands and cut the second victim’s throat with a large serrated kitchen knife she had reportedly stolen shortly before in the same mall. One of her victims was only slightly wounded, but the other suffered serious injuries. Customers then overpowered the perpetrator, who reportedly shouted “Sono dell’ISIS!” — Italian for “I belong to the Islamic State”.
The attacker was identified as a 28 year old woman living in Vezia, a municipality on the northwestern outskirts of Lugano. With a population of 150,000 inhabitants, it is the largest town in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino (also known as Tessin). Local media gave her initials as J.M., in which the ‘M’ stands for the surname of her former husband, while her maiden name would be J.D. Her father is an autochthonous Italian speaking Swiss citizen, while her mother is of Serbian descent. The family is said to be Christian, but she converted to Islam apparently after marrying an Afghan asylum seeker. The couple had lived in nearby Pregassona, but separated some time ago.
J.M., as we will call her in accordance with the local press, was known to be radicalized. In 2017, she tried to join a man who had left for Syria, after having met him virtually through social media. She was stopped, however, at the Turkish-Syrian border and sent back to Switzerland. There, an investigation was opened, but in March 2018 the Swiss judiciary decided not to prosecute her. She was deemed to be mentally unstable — a greater danger to herself than to others — and placed in a psychiatric facility. When exactly she left that institution is not known, but according to a police statement, she never reappeared in a terrorist investigation until the Lugano attack.
A Famously Neutral Country
Until very recently, Switzerland had never experienced a jihadist attack. The closest it came to that, was the 2016 assault on two members of the An-Nur mosque in Winterthur, allegedly targeted for notifying the media about a sermon in which the imam incited violence. Famous for its neutrality, Switzerland does not belong to military partnerships such as NATO, and its armed forces have rarely been deployed abroad. From February 2004 until March 2008, Switzerland did participate in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, but only with a maximum of four officers in place. Unlike many other European countries, it hasn’t been involved in more recent military operations against jihadist groups.
Having said that, Switzerland has somewhat of a strained relationship with Islam, its third largest religion with an estimated 450,000 followers (5.4% of the Swiss population). Despite opposition from the government and Catholic bishops, 57.5% of the Swiss voted in a referendum for an amendment to the constitution banning the construction of new minarets in November 2009 — there were only four mosques with such minarets in the country at that time. Since then, two cantons have also voted to ban the wearing of burqas. Despite these bans, Switzerland never fell into the crosshairs of the violent jihadist movement, at least not to a similar extent as the Prophet Mohammed cartoons of Jyllands Posten did to Denmark and those of Charlie Hebdo to France.
Vengeance Argument a Propaganda Pool
While it is a convenient argument that terrorist attacks are acts of vengeance against those who attack Muslim countries, the truth is that any Western country is a potential jihadist target, no matter what it does. The Islamic State uses this argument as a pretence in its propaganda, but in reality the organization was plotting violence in Europe long before it became a military target of the West. The first Islamic State attack on European soil was Mehdi Nemmouche’s deadly assault on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014. The very first Western air strike against IS happened in August of that same year — and according to the research of the well-informed French journalist Matthieu Suc, preparations for Nemmouche’s attack began in mid-2013.
At the time of the writing of this piece, it remained unclear whether the Lugano attacker was still in touch with people in Syria or radicalized by individuals elsewhere. However, although she seemingly acted alone, it is premature to consider her a ‘lone wolf’ ’ — a term that all too often turns out to be wrong. Because the perpetrator was not initially armed, it seems to be an impulsive attack. However, there needs to be a thorough investigation to determine her true motives and if she was working with others. For now, however, there are striking similarities between this attack and the one carried out in Switzerland a month prior.
Attack in Vaud
On the evening of September 12, a Portuguese man was stabbed to death at a kebab restaurant in Morges, a municipality in the French-speaking canton of Vaud. Here too, the victim appeared to be randomly chosen. The killer, Ö.A. (27), was apprehended alive and turned out to be a Swiss citizen of Turkish descent, a known radical suffering from mental health issues. After the Morges attack, a manifesto was reportedly found in his possession, in which he swore to avenge insults against the Prophet Mohammed. Interestingly, Ö.A. had been arrested the previous year after trying to set a gas station on fire in nearby Prilly in April 2019, but was released from prison three months later.
After the Vaud attack, Ö.A. was found to be connected to an important network of Islamic State adherents in French-speaking Switzerland and France. At least one member of that network is known to have joined a battalion in Syria close to the Islamic State’s foreign operations department — the so-called ‘Amniyat’, responsible for attacks in the West. According to my information, Ö.A. had tried to leave for Syria himself shortly before his first arrest. While it is unclear whether he was still in touch with people from that network, it cannot be ruled out.
A lone perpetrator could act on his own from planning stage to execution, even if he’s part of a network. That can be the case, for instance, when all the network members he was in touch with were arrested or killed. Revenge for their fate could easily become a trigger to carry out an attack.
So, both attacks in Switzerland have been committed by individuals who failed in their plan to travel to Syria. The exodus of foreign fighters that started in 2012, has narrowed much of the counter-terrorist efforts in Europe to returning combatants for a significant time. Especially after large-scale attacks — like those committed in November 2015 in Paris — turned out to be the work of exfiltrated Islamic State fighters. However, since the self-styled caliphate lost most of its territory, the threat has clearly shifted to people who never reached the battle zone.
For those who tried to do so, the frustration of a failed attempt could be an additional and powerful driver to act. They were prepared to die in the war, which lowers the threshold for dying at home and their anger towards the West has probably grown because of their shattered plans. Well-known examples of aspiring foreign fighters who finally resorted to attacks at home are the April 2017 Stockholm attacker Rakhmat Akilov, two of the June 2017 London Bridge attackers Khuram Butt and Youssef Zaghba and, much more recently, the November 2020 Vienna attacker Kujtim Fejzulai.
Terrorist planners can easily exploit the frustrations of those who failed to travel. It makes them ideal prey to push into action — be it by mere encouragement or outright guidance. The same is likely true for the mentally unstable.
Mental Health and Radicalization
Both Swiss perpetrators reportedly had psychological issues and local security services have warned of an elevated terrorist threat due to the Covid-19 crisis. For terrorist groups, it is much more difficult to commit a mass casualty attack when large gatherings are banned, shops are closed and curfews imposed — as has been the case in several countries for a significant time. However, social isolation, increased dependence on virtual networks and deteriorating mental health can certainly fuel radicalization and trigger deranged acts.
In the past years and months, there have been several attacks for which it was impossible to say what mattered most: the perpetrator’s ideological leanings or his mental state. And sometimes, even an explicitly-uttered jihadist motive seems little more than a last-minute justification for a desperate act. But at the same time, this desperation can be exploited by others. People with psychological issues might be less reliable in operational terms, but easier to sway. That is a particularly valuable asset for organizations that consider every plot, whether it succeeds or not, as a welcome contribution to the climate of fear that they want to create — such as the Islamic State.
While the issue of mental health is certainly a factor and cannot be discounted, it is dangerous to attribute these recent attacks in Switzerland to mental disorders alone. Mental issues do not necessarily rule out a crafty terrorist plot. Network connections are often only revealed in the course of lengthy investigations and even then the complicity of others can remain unclear.
Therefore, it is imperative that counter-terrorism officials look in every possible direction: from high-profile foreign fighters, to frustated wannabe travellers and the least competent backbenchers within the jihadist sphere. However, in order to completely eradicate the threat of jihadist terrorism, authorities must continue to invest in de-radicalization programs and work towards reconciliation between Western and Islamic values.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.