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Top Swiss Islamic Officials Indicted for Making al-Qaeda Propaganda Videos

Nicolas Blancho, President of ICCS, attends a press conference of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland in Bern, Switzerland

Three senior leaders of one of Switzerland's most visible Islamic organizations were indicted Thursday after a nearly two-year investigation into videos that one of the leaders made in Syria, including interviews with senior al-Qaeda leaders.

The charges were announced by the Office of the Attorney General and will be heard by the Federal Criminal Court.

The Local reported:

Swiss federal prosecutors have brought charges against leading members of the country’s largest Islamic organization in a criminal probe into jihadist propaganda.

Swiss media reported on Thursday that the president and two members of the governing board of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS) had been charged with violating the ban on groups including Al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS).

Blick named the three as Nicolas Blancho, ICCS president, Naim Cherni, and Qaasim Illi.

With respect to the charges, prosecutors believe the videos made inside Syria were more than just documentaries.

According to Swissinfo:

The specific allegation against the head of the “culture production department” at the ICCS is that between the end of September 2015 and mid-October 2015 he made films in Syria with a leading member of the banned terrorist organisation al-Qaeda in Syria, the OAG said in a statement on Thursday.

The films were subsequently used as propaganda for the al-Qaeda member concerned. Two videos were published on YouTube, both of which were endorsed by the head of the “public relations and information department” at the ICCS and actively promoted via social media and at a public event by all three accused: by the committee members mentioned and by the ICCS president.

The OAG alleges that the accused offered the leading al-Qaeda member in question “a prominent multilingual multimedia platform from which to advantageously portray and promote both himself and the ideology of al-Qaeda, the terrorist organisation he represents”.

The OAG claims to have proof that this increased the appeal of al-Qaeda to existing and potential members around the world, thus promoting the organisation’s criminal activities.

The investigation was opened by Swiss authorities in December 2015, when Naim Cherni published a lengthy interview with Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abdullah al-Muhaysini.

At the time, prosecutors alleged:

The German citizen is accused of having presented his journey to embattled regions of Syria in a video for propaganda purposes, without having explicitly distanced himself from Al-Qaïda activities in Syria. In particular, the accused party is accused of having interviewed a senior member of the jihad umbrella organisation Jaysh al-Fath ("Army of Conquest"), of which the Syrian Al-Qaïda branch Jabhat al-Nusra ("Support Front") is also a member.

Prosecutors asked YouTube to remove the videos, though a copy of the interview with al-Muhaysini (with English closed-captions) is still available on their site:

After the announcement of the investigation, the ICCS leaders held a press conference protesting their innocence.

During the press conference, Cherni claimed the interview with the al-Qaeda leader was "an important contribution in the fight against Islamic State."

When al-Muhaysini was designated as a terrorist in November 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department said:

As of late 2015, al-Muhaysini was an accepted member of al-Nusrah Front’s inner leadership circle.  As of July 2015, Abdallah al-Muhaysini served as al-Nusrah Front’s religious advisor and represented al-Nusrah Front in an Idlib Province, Syria, military operations room.  He has been involved in recruiting fighters to join al-Nusrah Front and helping to form a new al-Nusrah Front “state” in northern Syria.  In April 2016, Muhaysini launched a campaign to recruit 3,000 child and teenage soldiers across northern Syria for al-Nusrah Front.

Al-Muhaysini has played a crucial role in providing financial aid to al-Nusrah Front.  Between 2013 and 2015, al-Muhaysini raised millions of dollars to support al-Nusrah Front governance efforts in Idlib Province, Syria.  As of early October 2015, al-Muhaysini had set up institutions providing financial aid to terrorist groups, including a highly successful campaign that he claimed had secured $5 million in donations to arm fighters.

Late last year, prosecutors expanded the investigation to include ICCS president Nicolas Blancho and board member Qaasim Illi.

Blancho first gained notoriety for organizing protests in 2006 during the Danish cartoon crisis and against the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. He is well known for staging publicity stunts to push a victimization narrative.

Blancho and ICCS have also been investigated by Swiss intelligence for their funding sources and for close ties to terrorists.