By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 20, 2006; A14
BERN, Switzerland -- For centuries, this Alpine nation has successfully relied on a strict policy of political neutrality to insulate it from the wars, invasions and revolutions that have raged outside its borders. These days, a new threat has emerged: one from within.
As they have elsewhere in Europe, Islamic radicals are making inroads in Switzerland. Last month, Swiss officials announced the arrests of a dozen suspects who allegedly conspired to shoot down an Israeli airliner flying from Geneva to Tel Aviv. In a related case, a North African man has been charged with organizing a plot from Swiss soil to blow up the Spanish supreme court in Madrid.
For years, even after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, Swiss officials assumed that their country was one of the last places Islamic radicals would look to attack. Long considered a slice of neutral territory in a world full of conflicts, Switzerland trades on its status as home to the International Committee of the Red Cross and other diplomatic institutions.
As the global jihad movement becomes more decentralized and fragmented, however, Swiss security officials are warning that their country could become a target.
In an intelligence report completed in May, the Swiss Federal Police reversed previous assessments that the domestic risk of terrorism was nearly nonexistent. The report concluded that Switzerland had become "a jihadi field of operation" and predicted that terrorist attacks were "an increasing possibility."
"It would be dishonest to say that these groups are ready to act in Europe but that Switzerland is an island and that these groups could not be active in Switzerland, too," Jean-Luc Vez, director of the federal police, said in an interview here in the Swiss capital. "It is very, very important for us to say this to the Swiss politicians and the Swiss people."
The changes in Switzerland mirror those in other smaller European nations that, until recently, didn't see themselves as likely targets for Islamic terrorists.
In Sweden, another country with a long history of neutrality, prosecutors last month convened a top-secret closed trial of three terrorism suspects in the southern city of Malmo. Authorities have not identified the suspects or disclosed any evidence. But Swedish media have reported that the arrests were made at the request of British counterterrorism investigators.
In Denmark, counterterrorism authorities say they remain on high alert after a Danish newspaper printed cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that spurred boycotts, death threats and violent protests in Islamic countries.
And in the Netherlands, the Dutch government has classified the risk of a terrorist attack as "substantial," a threat level proportionally higher than in the United States, where homeland security officials judge the risk as "elevated." The Dutch government established its threat-ranking system in November 2004, when an Islamic radical killed the Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh.
Like Denmark, the Netherlands has contributed troops and other support to U.S.-led military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. But until the van Gogh killing, Dutch officials had played down the threat of terrorism at home.
Since then, the number of Islamic radicals in the country has increased, as has the number of fundamentalist imams who are seeking to recruit new followers, said Tjibbe Joustra, the Dutch national coordinator for counterterrorism. He said international conflicts such as the war in Iraq are fueling the problem, although the Netherlands has also been polarized over its difficulties in assimilating Muslim immigrants.
"I'm afraid we are seeing an increase in radicalization in the Netherlands," Joustra said in a telephone interview. "In their search for motivation and their search for reasons to radicalize, they are no longer looking so much at national issues as international ones."
Jacques Pitteloud, a former coordinator of the Swiss intelligence agencies, said that in the past Swiss officials were primarily concerned that outside radical networks might try to use the country as a logistical base to raise money or support operations elsewhere. Most terrorism suspects arrested or questioned after Sept. 11, 2001, were foreigners just passing through.
That has changed recently, he said. Most of the suspects in the Israeli airliner case, for example, are immigrants who were granted Swiss residency.
"We might be facing a new era in homegrown terrorism," said Pitteloud, now the director of the Center for International Security Policy, an arm of the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs. "We don't feel like we are a primary target, but in the end, Switzerland is a symbol of quite a lot of things that radical Islam hates." Officials worry about attacks on foreign embassies and institutions in the country.
An estimated 350,000 Muslims live in Switzerland, constituting about 5 percent of the population. Swiss officials said they have done a better job integrating foreigners into the population than other European countries and have fewer radical mosques and organizations.
But "we have seen early signs now of anti-Swiss propaganda on the Internet," Pitteloud said. "We have our fair share of radical Islamists, there is no doubt, many of whom we don't know what to do about because many of them are refugees and we can't just kick them out."
Swiss lawmakers are considering a proposal that would allow police and the domestic intelligence service to tap the phones of suspected radicals or access their computers, even if there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. A similar measure was rejected last year in the Swiss parliament.
Andreas Wenger, director of the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, said the warnings from Swiss intelligence and security services have been slow to register.
"Part of the political spectrum in Switzerland still has the feeling that because we are neutral and not associated with great power politics, that we are less likely to become a target," Wenger said. "The public perception is behind other European countries, most definitely."
Vez, the federal police chief, said domestic spying restrictions have hurt Switzerland's ability to swap counterterrorism intelligence with its allies. "The biggest problem has been the sharing of information with our partners in Europe," he said. "Intelligence-sharing functions like a market. 'If you want something from me, you have to give me something.' "
Switzerland effectively had to build a counterterrorism program from scratch after the Sept. 11 attacks. It keeps a national database of radical suspects, but the watch list is not easily accessible by many police agencies.
In October 2004, Spanish authorities announced that they had broken up a plot by a cell of Moroccan radicals to drive a truck bomb into the National Court building in Madrid. They identified the leader of the cell as Mohammed Achraf, 31, who had sought asylum in Switzerland and been jailed two months earlier in Zurich on minor charges.
Spanish authorities said that Achraf organized robberies in Switzerland and funneled cash to Madrid to finance the plot, and that he continued to plan the attack even while he was locked up in a Swiss jail.
Swiss officials said they didn't realize at first that Achraf, who used several identities, was a suspected radical or that he was under investigation in Spain. Achraf has since been extradited to Madrid. He was indicted in March along with 31 other defendants.
In June, Swiss prosecutors said Achraf had been in contact with a member of the cell that had "the serious intent" to shoot down the Israeli plane.
Investigators have released few details about the alleged plot, and it is not known whether it had progressed beyond the planning stages. Swiss and Israeli news media have reported that the Israeli airline El Al canceled flights from Geneva to Tel Aviv for a week in December 2005 after it was warned by Swiss counterterrorism officials.
Prosecutors said that the cell consisted of about a dozen members and that it committed robberies throughout the country and transferred money to other cells in Spain and France. Cell members in those countries were arrested about the same time as part of a coordinated international investigation.
Seven suspects in Switzerland are being held in preventive detention, while four others have been released, said Hansjuerg Mark Wiedmer, spokesman for the Swiss Attorney General's Office. None of the suspects has been publicly identified. Under Swiss law, they can be held indefinitely without facing formal charges since they represent a flight risk, Wiedmer said.
Hans Hofmann, chairman of the intelligence oversight committee in the Swiss parliament, said the arrests showed that the country was vulnerable.
"Swiss intelligence is realizing that you can't just sit back and cross your arms and say, 'We're not a target because we're a small country,' " he said. "Switzerland is no longer able to exclude itself from the rest of the world in the face of a globalized threat."
Special correspondents Shannon Smiley in Bern and Silke Lode in Berlin contributed to this report.