Recent counter terror swoops across Europe show that counter-terrorism is still the top priority for European security forces. But in Switzerland, The Islamic Central Council of Switzerland trial is a reminder of how wide-ranging anti-extremism investigations can also tackle the wider networks responsible for spreading hatred.
The recent indictments by Swiss Federal prosecutors of Nicolas Blancho, Qaasim Illi and Naim Chermi, for spreading Islamist views went by relatively unnoticed in Europe. They did, however, serve as a warning of the complex nature of Islamist networks across Europe. Blancho was the president of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS), the largest organization of its kind in the country. Illi and Chermi sat on the ICCS’s board.
The Swiss Federal Prosecutor decided that some of the material posted online by the ICCS was too closely associated with the so-called Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s terrorist propaganda. Of course, the regulation of social media deserves its own debate, which is indeed high on the list of priorities for EU policymakers and internet giants alike.
But what the ICCS case most strikingly shows is the momentous challenge that European authorities face when it comes to countering extremism and preventing jihadi terrorism. To a varying degree, Belgium, France, Germany, the UK, and all the countries that have been targeted by terrorists responded by flexing their muscles and deploying further security forces at home and abroad. The Sentinelle Operation has been underway in France since January 2015, with thousands of military personnel guarding sensitive places. French Parliamentarians are now in the process of turning the state of emergency measures into permanent legislation. Intelligence-led arrests continue, and this week French police arrested nine people and another was arrested in Switzerland in coordinated swoops which possibly thwarted further attacks.
Yet seemingly, more and more European leaders and counter-terror chiefs want to diversify their strategies to disrupt the ecosystem of terror to which the ICCS may have contributed. This ecosystem is at the nexus of politics, media, and shady third sector organizations. NGOs such as the ICCS and the Association des Savants Musulmans (ASM) are being monitored more and more closely. The ASM, of which Blancho is the secretary, is also under scrutiny in Switzerland: on its board are listed two individuals designated by the United States as terror financiers: Abdul Mohsen al-Mutairi and Abdel Wahab Humaiqani. Al- Mutairi was allegedly involved in raising money for the Syrian terrorist group Al-Nusra. Humaiqani, head of a Yemeni charity, has been accused of funding Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And in 2014, Kosovan authorities arrested ASM board member Imam Shefqet Krasniqi, who was charged with preaching extremism and helping to recruit for the so-called Islamic State.
Further investigation also shows that the Internationaler Islamicher Rat (IIR), an organization where Blancho serves as Vice President, is registered to the same address as ASM. Its President is Ali Bin Abdullah Al Suwaidi, who also heads up Sheikh Eid bin Mohamed Charitable Society an entity which was blacklisted by the Arab Quartet for funding terrorism. Sheikh Eid Society was founded by Abdulrahman Al Nuaimi, a Qatari academic about who the US expressed concerns that he was close to Al Qaeda.
The case of Blancho and his associates appears in a new light since the CIA last week released previously undisclosed information about Osama Bin Laden’s connections, including a full version of his personal journal. Its content is enlightening, with several positive references to the role of Qatar, and that of its global media franchise Al Jazeera, to further Al-Qaeda’s objectives. Blancho was featured on the network several times, often portrayed, in a blatantly disingenuous manner, as an important representative of European Muslims.
Over recent months, there have been strong words among the Leaders of the Arab Quartet, accusing Al-Jazeera for being sympathetic to terrorists. The Quartet also expects Western partners to be tougher when investigating and imposing sanctions on organizations which, under charitable disguise, spread extremist views. These investigations are resource intensive, but, as the case of the ICCS has demonstrated, they often uncover uncomfortable truths that need to be confronted.