Islamic extremists in 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."
The Twin Myths of Eurabia
In Europe, Islam rises, Christianity falls