A week after the Swiss government beefed up its counter terrorism forces, Europeans celebrated Christmas on alert for the possibility of more attacks like those in Paris last month.
Police and military were vigilant amid fears around Europe that Christmas celebrations could be disrupted by violent extremists. France remained under a state of emergency, with soldiers in place as Parisians attended church. In Switzerland, the government said on Dec. 18 that it would create 86 new posts dedicated to fighting terrorism, which it said were needed to cope with an increased workload and more investigations in recent months.
In Rome, St. Peter’s Square was under heavy security. Even the New York City Police Department dispatched a team to help the city protect the thousands of pilgrims expected to visit for the Jubilee Year, only the 27th time in the history of the Catholic Church that there has been a holy year. Italian officials invited police from around the world to help increase patrols due to fears of more coordinated Islamist terror attacks like those in Paris that killed 130 people. Pope Francis spoke of the “brutal acts of terrorism” in the French capital and in Egypt, Beirut, Mali and Tunisia.
Geneva on alert
Geneva has been under alert since December 10 when the city said it was looking for ‘suspects’ identified by Swiss federal authorities in connection with ongoing terrorism investigations. The same day the US embassy in Bern published a security message for American citizens, warning them of the elevated threat level in Geneva and of the need to maintain a ‘high level of vigilance’.
Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga confirmed a day later that another country had provided a tip about "a potential IS cell in the Geneva area" but said there was no indication that "a concrete attack" was planned. According to news reports, the tip came from the CIA. Also that day, two Syrian men were arrested in Geneva after traces of explosives were found in their car registered in France. Security has since been stepped up outside synagogues, the European headquarters of the United Nations, train stations, the airport, border posts and busy public spots.
Swiss authorities have reported that Swiss cities are potential targets for jihadist terrorists even though Switzerland is not a member of the military coalition fighting Islamic State. Intelligence expert Jacques Baud told Swiss public broadcaster RTSexternal link (in French) that a recent Islamic State video warning coalition countries of reprisals featured a backdrop showing 60 flags including the Swiss flag.
Swiss intelligence has recorded at least 40 confirmed cases of jihad-motivated travel, including ten since February. Last year the authorities dismantled a suspected Islamic State cell in eastern Switzerland that was accused of planning an attack with explosives and toxic gas and of helping about 40 jihadists in Switzerland travel to join IS in the regions it controls within Syria and Iraq.
Swiss authorities reported last week that “another challenge is formed by the large number of new criminal investigations” that the US Federal Bureau of Investigation is conducting on behalf of the Swiss. It said there are now 70 cases in Switzerland in which people are being investigated on suspicion of supporting terrorist organizations, including 33 cases that led to the opening of criminal proceedings.
“The situation should not relax in the near future,” the cabinet reported in a statementexternal link (in French, German or Italian). “Attacks such as those perpetrated in Paris in January and November 2015 are effective advertising for Islamic terrorism and nourish the jihadi propaganda; they could inspire some radicalised people in Switzerland and make them take action.”