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Geneva terror alert: what we know so far

A Swiss border guard controls the area at Geneva's Bardonnex crossing into France on December 11 Keystone

Geneva has been under alert for the past seven days. looks at the latest on the manhunt for terrorist suspects and the city’s increased threat level. As of December 16, Geneva police remain on heightened alert.

This content was published on December 16, 2015 - 11:56

How it started 

On December 10, the Geneva department of security issued a terse statement saying they were looking for ‘suspects’ in Geneva 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’. 

CIA tip-off?

Who were these suspects? Local newspapers tried to fill in the gaps reporting that on the night of December 8 a suspicious Belgian-registered vehicle had entered Geneva from France with two men who fled from a late-night police check and crossed the border back into France. Geneva's Le Temps newspaper said one of the two was a friend of Salah Abdeslam, the man wanted in connection with the Paris attacks on November 13. 

On December 11, Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga confirmed that a ‘foreign authority’ had provided the information about "a potential IS cell in the Geneva area" but said there was no indication that "a concrete attack" was planned. Two sources confirmed to Reuters the US Central Intelligence Agency had provided a photo of four men to Swiss authorities on December 9, saying they could be on Swiss territory. 

Photo of four suspects

The photo, published in several Swiss newspapers, showed four bearded men seated, with their faces blanked out and index fingers in the air. However, there are no details of their identities, nationalities, and links to Switzerland or of the potential dangers. According to the Tribune de Genève, they do not figure in the Swiss police databases. 

Le Temps, quoting a source close to the investigation, said US intelligence had identified three jihadist cells in Chicago, Toronto and Geneva. CNN also briefly reported similar information

Two Syrians charged

In a new development on December 11, two Syrian men were arrested in Geneva after traces of explosives were found in their car registered in France, Geneva’s attorney general Olivier Jornot confirmed to reporters.

Criminal proceedings have been opened against the two under a law banning groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State. But no names or other information have been given. They both deny criminal intent but they have subsequently been handed over to Swiss federal police. 

The two men, who had Syrian passports, had been stopped by Geneva police on the road between Thonon to Cologny. The attorney general's initial statement said the men were suspected of making, hiding and transporting explosives or toxic gas. Jornot clarified however that the relevant law covered both explosives and toxic gas, but there was no suspicion of gas in this case. According to the Tribune de Genève, a third man was in contact with the two prior to their arrest. 

On December 12, Jornot said there was no indication the four suspects from the photo were on Swiss territory, and no link between the various parts of investigations that had been initiated. 

Extra security measures

Since December 11, police in the Swiss city have remained on a high state of alert – level three on a scale of five. A Geneva police spokesperson said on December 16 that the level of vigilance remains unchanged with a threat still considered “real” and “doubts not lifted following last week’s reports”. 

Security has been stepped up with a visible police presence outside synagogues, the main UN building and the French ambassador's home, as well as train stations, the airport, border posts and busy public spots. France has reportedly sent 230 additional police officers to the region to help patrol the 100km Geneva border. Geneva’s bomb disposal unit has been called out on three occasions on false alarms. 

UN Director General Michael Moller said there was “no indication of any specific increased risk against the United Nations and its staff”. Nonetheless, “special precautionary security measures” remain in place with a visible presence of armed guards at the complex. 

The Geneva authorities have launched a mobile phone app “Votre Police” to help the public stay informed of developments. 

Possible collateral damage

On December 11-12, Geneva’s century-old commemoration known as Escalade, recalling a 1602 battle in which citizens repulsed Savoy invaders, went ahead as planned amid the heightened alert. Thousands of locals turned out for events, including a costume street parade through the Old Town. 

Jornot said the heightened security alert had resulted in many calls from the public and led to the arrest of another man with an “impressive arsenal" including a Kalashnikov machinegun, Glock pistols and about 30 antique muskets. The man also had Nazi flags and was not linked to the other investigations, Jornot said. In a newspaper interview on December 15, the man rejected the accusations, saying he had purchased the weapons legally. 

The Geneva authorities have also been criticised for their communication strategy and the fact that the photo of the four alleged suspects was leaked to the press. Swiss public radio, RTS, also referred to alleged tensions between the Federal Attorney General’s Office and its Geneva counterpart over the communication and investigation. In the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) newspaper on December 12, Geneva’s security minister Pierre Maudet defended his actions saying these criticisms were not serious. He also called for more border guards. On December 15, several papers reported that the Federal Office of Police had send a liaison officer to Geneva to help coordinate the investigation. 

Why Switzerland and Geneva?

Questions have been asked why Geneva or other Swiss cities are potential targets for jihadist terrorists when Switzerland is not a member of the military coalition fighting Islamic State. 

Jean-Paul Rouiller, director of the Geneva Centre for Training and Analysis of Terrorism, a Swiss private research group, said the potential danger had been highlighted in several official reports this year. He said Switzerland had also been threatened three times by the Islamic State group in the space of a year. 

Intelligence expert Jacques Baud told RTS a recent Islamic State video warning coalition countries of reprisals featured a backdrop showing 60 flags including the Swiss flag. 

Geneva is home to the European headquarters of the UN as well as 32 international organisations, such as the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It is also the base for numerous banks and multinationals. 

Currently, some 70 cases of jihadi radicalisation are being investigated in Switzerland, with criminal proceedings underway in more than 20 cases. As of October, Swiss intelligence had recorded 40 confirmed cases of jihad-motivated travel (+10 since February). Seven others have left conflict zones and some have returned to Switzerland. In addition, 31 other suspected jihadis are being monitored.  Two were reported to have died in conflict areas in October 2015, bringing the suspected total such deaths to 15.

Last year the authorities dismantled a suspected Islamic State cell in eastern Switzerland. In that case, three Iraqis between the ages of 28 and 33 were arrested in the northern canton of Schaffhausen in March and April 2014 on suspicion of planning an attack with explosives and toxic gas. They also allegedly helped about 40 jihadists in Switzerland travel to join IS in the regions it controls within Syria and Iraq.

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