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National security Swiss officials press for greater urgency with counter-terrorism

A Swiss flag flies at half mast over the foreign ministry in Bern in the wake of the Brussels attacks


Switzerland's defence minister says terrorism is a long-term threat. The security director for Geneva calls Switzerland "deaf and blind in the fight against terrorism", while the Swiss army chief warns of a rising terror threat. Is it time to start worrying more?

Defence Minister Guy Parmelin says intelligence estimates show that "jihadist terrorism is unfortunately a fact that will occupy us in the long run" and more attacks like those in Brussels and Paris are likely. Even the demise of the Islamic State group would not automatically spell an end to the threat, Parmelin told Blick newspaper in a story published online late on Sunday, but Swiss intelligence and police work have prevented some attacks.

Pierre Maudet, Geneva’s head of the department of security and economic affairsexternal link, on Sunday urged the Swiss cabinet to focus more on fighting terrorism – and said it would not be a bad idea for the army and police to hold national exercises on how to respond to an attack in one or more Swiss cities.

"We must not be naive," Maudet said in an interview published by the SonntagsZeitung and Schweiz am Sonntag newspapers. "We have to prepare for new threats."

His main concern is for Geneva, which he describes as a target for radical groups because it is the European home of the United Nationsexternal link and many other international organisations. However, according to him, all of Switzerland lags behind other nations in its preparedness and intelligence gathering – and must do more to monitor against terror plots.

"With the information, there is a give and take," says Maudet. "If we can offer nothing to other nations, they are not particularly interested in working with us."

Intelligence gathering

The Federal Intelligence Service (FIS)external link maintains that Switzerland is not a primary target of Islamic-motivated attackers, but is a potential target as an affluent Western nation.

The FIS also warns that the Brussels attacks, and those in Paris in November, could inspire radicalised people in Switzerland to copy them, and that terrorists may try to use Switzerland as a logistical base or transit country.

Earlier this month, justice authorities in Switzerland were given permission to secretly install computer surveillance programmes to investigate serious crimes. The change came when both chambers of parliament agreed to amend the law on the surveillance of telecommunication.

However, opponents said they would challenge the reform to a nationwide vote. The law allows prosecutors to bug Internet-facilitated telephone communications, including Skype. It also will oblige companies such as Facebook or Swisscom, as well as providers of Wi-Fi connections, to cooperate with Swiss authorities.

While data protection and Internet privacy laws are particularly strict in Switzerland, the law requires that the data have to be stored for up to six months at the disposal of criminal investigations. Last year, parliament also approved a proposal to boost the powers of the country’s intelligence service.

On Sunday, several politicians called for emergency legislation to expand further the surveillance powers of the FIS, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper reportedexternal link.

They cited a constitutional provision allowing the cabinet, in cases of "imminent serious incidents" to impose temporary emergency measures such as monitoring suspects in private buildings, intercepting communications and accessing computers. But some actions require approval from an administrative court and cabinet’s security committee.

“It’s crazy how the intelligence service’s hands are tied,” said centre-right Christian Democrat senator Isidor Baumann, from the central canton of Uri.

But parliamentarian Rebecca Ruiz, a criminologist from Switzerland’s third-largest canton of Vaud, said there is no need for emergency law because "democratic processes must be respected" and the new intelligence law, if adopted and put into effect as soon as possible, would suffice.

An army role

The head of Switzerland’s armed forces for the past eight years, André Blattmannexternal link, also warned of a heightened terrorist threat and the potential for an attack to cause economic crisis and social unrest.

In an article for Schweiz am Sonntagexternal link, Blattmann, who will step down from his post at the end of this month, argues that the Swiss militia army – a system built upon "self-reliant citizens" – provides an important and much-needed "margin of safety" against modern risks and threat.

Neutral Switzerland operates mainly on land and in the air. Under the country's militia systemexternal link, professional soldiers constitute about 5% of the military. The rest are conscripts or volunteers, aged 19 to 34.

"The terrorist threat is increasing; hybrid wars are being fought around the globe," says Blattmann, citing related challenges to the economy and dealing with Europe’s refugee crisis. "We would therefore do well to prepare ourselves for conflicts, crises and disasters."

Cabinet steps up

Two weeks after the deadly attacks by jihadists in France in January 2015, the Swiss government said it was hiring additional staff for the FIS and topping up financial support for the cantonal state security authorities to boost the fight against suspected terrorism.

It created six posts, limited to three years, to enhance information gathering and analysis as part of a preventive anti-terrorism campaign, and decided to provide over the past year an extra CHF2 million ($2.3 million) in funding for the 26 cantons.

In 2014, the ministry spent CHF62.9 million on the intelligence services and the government banned the militant al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups. It also set up a task force investigating cases of suspected jihadists returning to Switzerland.

More recently, in December, the government announced the creation of 86 new posts dedicated to fighting terrorism that will be shared mainly between the FIS, the Federal Office of Police and Swiss border guards.

It said there had been a sharp rise in the number and range of counter-terrorism tasks over the past few months, including more investigations into suspicious communications and intelligence, more police and intelligence reporting and analysis, and international coordination.

Security also was beefed up at federal and foreign diplomatic buildings amid what the government said were investigations into some 70 cases of jihadi radicalisation in Switzerland and criminal proceedings underway in 33 cases. Dozens of other suspected jihadis were also being monitored and the government said the situation was expected to remain tense for the near future.

The Islamic State group has allegedly threatened Switzerland three times in the space of a year, the government said in December, while an Islamic State video from November warning coalition countries of reprisals featured a backdrop showing 60 flags including the Swiss flag.

Looking ahead to his presidency in 2016, the Swiss economics minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said, "while terrorism in Europe isn’t new, the Paris attacks introduced a new dimension. We shouldn’t see a criminal behind every refugee. However, we should proceed with caution and pay close attention to who exactly is coming".

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