The discreet jihadism expert


Johannes Saal is not religious by nature. Maybe that's exactly why he is exploring the most radical kind of faith: jihadism.

"I can't stand it when everything is lying around." Johannes Saal sits at his bare desk in the Center for Religion, Economics and Politics at the University of Lucerne and apologises for the tidyness. "This is where I work. But I always have to tidy up first." For this reason, he prefers to hoard his literature at home, where a 'state of emergency' prevails anyway. Grins. "Recently became a father."

Saal the sociologist of religions doesn’t want to reveal any more about his private life. For professional reasons, he has become cautious; after all, his research is on dangerous criminal networks. He is studying jihadism – a militant, extremist version of Sunni Islamism. "You never know," he says.

The Berliner prefers to talk about how he got to where he is today. Religion? That was never an issue back in his childhood, he says. On the contrary, in East Germany his father had left the church. Nor did his mother want to have anything to do with religion. Why they named him Johannes, which means "God is gracious," remains a mystery to him.

At the dinner table, the family didn't talk about God, but about the world. Maybe that's why, later in life, Saal wanted to know why some people were fascinated by religion, why they voluntarily submitted to strict rules, what the transcendent world had given them. He began to delve deeper, and to observe: in Tel Aviv, doing community work in a Jewish old people's home. Or during an exchange year in multicultural Istanbul.

In his dissertation, supported by the SNSF, he showed that jihadist radicalisation and political violence are essentially collective phenomena. "People often become radicalised because of their social environment, especially through siblings, partners or friends."

Feeling threatened was a part of everyday life

In a postdoctoral role that will last until 2026, Saal has since the beginning of the year been continuing his research into jihadist radicalisation, again with SNSF support. He and his colleagues primarily analyse networks based on police investigations and court records. Part of the project involves content analysis of Salafist sermons, showing how they influence radicalisation. Johannes Saal, himself not religious, thus ended up studying the most radical way of living one's faith: suicide bombing.

He turned his attention to this topic at a time when it was also highly relevant. Terrorist attacks had virtually become a part of life. For many people, everyday activities like taking the train, attending sporting events or concerts, or visiting a Christmas market were tinged with fear. But then, as Covid-19 began to spread across the world, the threat of bombers and knifemen very much receded into the background in Switzerland. Islamist terror seemed to have vanished. And Putin's war in Ukraine appears to have pushed jihadism out of the public consciousness entirely.

Has Saal's research field become obsolete? Have the extremists gone for good? "No," he says, "the radical networks haven’t been sleeping." The problem of radicalisation is real. In times of uncertainty and crisis, even more people become radicalised. According to Saal, while many of the older jihadists have died or been imprisoned, a new generation is currently forming. The fact that public perception is elsewhere at the moment suits these younger elements. "They have learned to be more cautious and tend to retreat into the private sphere."

But based on his research he knows that the ways in which people become radicalised have essentially remained the same: "Through their personal, immediate environment." Anonymous chats, incendiary YouTube videos and extreme websites are not the crucial factors, he says. But rather neighbourhood contacts, in the schoolyard or the mosque. That is how the – mostly young – men get new ideas, greater recognition, a sense of community, and information about radical groupings on the Internet.

Practically no way back

"The misconception that people become radicalised primarily on the web leads to a lot of resources being spent on regulating it or digitally disseminating counter-opinions. Preventative measures need to be modified." This sociologist of religion doesn't just want to sit in his ivory tower. His research findings on how people become radicalised provide actionable knowledge.

On the one hand, he says, it is crucial to provide a broad-based political and media education for society as a whole and for the groups that are particularly at risk: young Muslim men with an immigrant background, people in search of an identity, men from problem families who feel underappreciated. But religious figures are also important, according to Saal. "Mosques are often overwhelmed in terms of resources when it comes to youth work, and the imams are appointed by the ministries of religion of the relevant countries. They are often older, of a traditional mindset and barely speak our national languages; nor do they share any of the lived experience of the men who grew up here." Their inadequacy makes charismatic Salafist preachers who have grown up in Switzerland so attractive.

One solution, then, would be to use religious authorities socialised in Switzerland. "Some kind of church tax or other government funding for mosques that provide social services would also help," says Saal. "This would allow interfaith projects to be expanded and keep the faithful in moderate mosques." Such investments are important, he says, because – once the radical path has been chosen – hardly anyone finds their way back. "Resocialisation is an immense task," as in the jihadist scene every single aspect of life is governed by religious norms. The would-be jihadists have dropped out of school, given up an apprenticeship or job and cut ties with old friends. Besides, he says, it is hard – as it would be for all of us – to admit that one has wasted one's youth. Life becomes devoid of all meaning. "What then?"