EXPLAINED: Does Switzerland face a threat from terrorism?

After a stabbing attack in Lugano on Tuesday, an incident which federal police regards as terrorism-related, many in Switzerland are wondering whether the country is at risk from more attacks. This is what the experts say.

EXPLAINED: Does Switzerland face a threat from terrorism?
Though rare, terrorist incidents do happen in Switzerland. Photo by AFP

A 28-year-old assailant was arrested last week after allegedly trying to strangle one person with her bare hands, and stabbing another in the neck in the southtern city of Lugano, in the canton of Ticino.

“The perpetrator is known to the federal police,” the police said on Twitter. “She was part of a police investigation in 2017 in connection with jihadism.”

In another incident in September, a man stabbed and killed a random person in the back while the victim was eating in a restaurant in the town of Morges, in Vaud.

Officials said the suspect had been known to the Federal Intelligence Service (FIS) “because of the consumption and dissemination of jihadist propaganda”. 

Does this mean Switzerland is at risk of terrorist attacks?

In a report published on November 24th, FIS noted that “in Switzerland, the terrorist threat remains at a heightened level”. 

However, while Switzerland could be a target of attacks, “it is not a top priority for jihadists”, FIS said.

Where does the biggest threat come from?

FIS noted that as Switzerland is part of the Western world, judged by jihadists to be Islamophobic, so they view the country as a “legitimate target”.

According to FIS, “the threat stems primarily from the ‘Islamic Stateʼ and its supporters and sympathisers. The threat posed by al-Qaeda persists. Ethno-nationalist terrorism also remains a threat”. 

“Media reports critical of Muslims, attacks on Muslim targets or discrimination against Muslims may also have a mobilising effect among Islamists. Depending on the unfolding of events, jihadist networks might suddenly adjust their focus to target Switzerland”, the intelligence agency reports.

But FIS also found that, unlike many other countries where attacks were perpetrated by organised groups, in Switzerland assaults “came from lone people with extremist views but no firm attachment to established violent extremist groups”. 

“Their radicalisation and violent tendencies are rooted more in personal crises or psychological problems than in ideological conviction”, FIS added.

The potential for violence also exists among left-wing and right-wing extremists.

Out of 236 such incidents recorded in 2019 in Switzerland, 207 were connected to the left, while 29 were carried out by the right-wing groups.

“Where violence is used, it is usually instigated by the left-wing extremists”, FIS noted. 

“Right-wing extremists have shown restraint in the use of violence. But there are indications that some of them train in combat sports and have weapons”.

Are there any terrorist cells in Switzerland?

Two Swiss citizens were arrested in connection with the recent gun attack in Vienna on November 2nd . They were held in the northeastern town of Winterthur, in canton Zürich.

READ MORE: Swiss suspects in Vienna attack 'already faced terror charges'

The town’s An'Nur mosque had been long suspected of having played a role in the radicalisation of several of its young worshipers. A dozen of them left for Syria to join Islamic State jihadist groups. In 2017, the mosque was closed and the Islamic association that headed it was dissolved.

One of the mosque’s imams was arrested for urging the murder of non-practicing Muslims. He was eventually given an 18-month suspended prison sentence, before being deported to Somalia.

More recently, another person connected with the mosque was sentenced to 50 months in prison for supporting and recruiting for Islamic State.

What about the so-called ‘jihadist travellers’ — people from Switzerland who are indoctrinated abroad?

More than a dozen Swiss sympathisers of the jihadist cause were known to go to Middle-Eastern regions to be radicalized, but they are no longer considered a present or emerging threat.

“The sixteen individuals who had previously returned to Switzerland from Syria and Iraq are, with a few exceptions, keeping a low profile”, FIS noted.




Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence

Swiss government has devised three contingency plans that could be implemented to fight a new outbreak. What are they?

Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence
Authorities want to prevent overcrowded hospitals if new wave comes. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Although Switzerland relaxed a number of coronavirus rules from June 26th and 28th, “the pandemic is not over”, as Health Minister Alain Berset said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Berset said Switzerland should not become complacent, with last summer a warning against feeling that the battle is won. 

He added, however, that the new wave is unlikely to be as large as the previous ones due to the country’s vaccination campaign.

This situation leaves a degree of uncertainty for which the government wants to be prepared as well as possible, Berset noted.

The Federal Council established a “just-in-case” procedure on Wednesday for three possible scenarios that could take place in the autumn and winter. 

These plans focus mainly on the rapid detection of variants and the continuation of vaccination, testing, and tracing.

The best-case scenario: status quo

In this scenario, the number of cases remains at a low level, though small outbreaks are still possible.

The number of infections may increase slightly due to seasonal factors — the virus is known to spread slower in summer and faster in autumn and winter—  but does not place a significant burden on the health system.

If this happens, no measures beyond those already in place would be necessary.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is Switzerland lifting its Covid-19 restrictions too quickly?

Not so good: more contaminations

In this second scenario, there is an increase in the number of cases in autumn or winter.

There may be several reasons for this, for example the large proportion of unvaccinated people, seasonal effects — people tend to stay indoors together in cold weather, and contaminations are easier — or the appearance of new, more infectious variants.

This situation could overburden the health system and require the reintroduction of certain measures, such as the obligation to wear a mask outdoors.

Booster vaccinations may also be necessary.

The worst: new virus mutations

In scenario three, one or more new variants appear, against which the vaccine or the post-recovery immunity are less effective or no longer effective.

A new wave of pandemic emerges, requiring strong intervention by the public authorities and a new vaccination.

Which of the three scenarios is most likely to happen?

The government hasn’t said, but judging by the comments of health officials, the latter two are the strongest contenders.

Firstly, because the highly contagious Delta mutation, which is spreading quickly through many countries, is expected to be dominant in Switzerland within a few weeks.

It is expected that the virus will spread mostly to those who are not vaccinated and, to a lesser degree, to people who have only had one shot of the vaccine, according to Andreas Cerny, epidemiologist at the University of Bern

READ MORE: How Switzerland plans to contain the Delta variant

Another concern is related to the appearance of the new variants which could be as or possibly even more contagious than Delta and not as responsive to the current vaccines.

The government said the best chance of avoiding the second or third scenarios is to ensure people are vaccinated. 

“Widespread vaccination of the population is crucial to relieve the burden on the healthcare system and to manage the epidemic. A possible increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the autumn will largely depend on the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated,” the government wrote in a press statement.

The government has also indicating it is preparing for booster vaccinations to take place in 2022 and are encouraging cantons to keep their vaccine infrastructures in place.