The Swiss Federal Criminal Court has released details about three Iraqis being held on suspicion of involvement in a terrorist plot, explaining why the suspects’ requests for release have so far been denied.
The court had stated in all three cases that they had reasonable suspicion to believe that the Iraqis were supporting a terrorist organisation, the Islamic State (IS) – and that they were planning an attack in Europe. The court also found it highly likely that the men would flee and plan further illegal activities if released.
The men requested release twice, in April and July of last year. Both requests were denied and the court has said that in July, more “incriminating evidence” against the suspects had been found.
A spokesperson for the Federal Criminal Court did not explain why the details of the case are only now being released; typically, such information is made available immediately following proceedings.
The court documents released on Monday indicate the suspected timeline of events leading to the three individuals’ arrests, evidence which was used to deny their requests for release. The initial evidence to launch an investigation was largely gathered through a partner agency of the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (FIS). Beginning in mid-March of 2014, the FIS then opened a formal investigation and tapped the telephone of a wheelchair-bound retiree who had been given refugee status in Switzerland.
Hatching a plot
That retiree is suspected of having planned a terrorist attack in Switzerland or the US in collaboration with an IS activist, thought to be the ringleader among the three suspects. According to the court documents, “only one attack” was being planned.
The plotters sought to smuggle a terrorist from Syria or Saudi Arabia into Switzerland to help with the plan. The retiree is believed to have smuggled a third man to the Turkish border with Syria to pick up a hard drive containing “photos and explanations about working with and altering electronic devices, as well as details about making materials, ideally in photo and video format”. The man who was allegedly sent to retrieve the hard drive is a father who had been living in Switzerland for ten years.
As of July 2014, when the latest court documents were compiled, no such hard drive had been found.
However, the trip to Turkey did take place, according to the court records. The man sent to retrieve the hard drive first justified the trip to authorities by saying he was visiting the retiree’s mother, who was in the hospital. Later, however, he spoke of his own mother and then explained he had been in Turkey to smuggle family members and friends into Switzerland.
But the court saw those motives as not believable, since terror organisations often use smugglers to move their members to other countries. “Whoever is working as a smuggler could also be smuggling Islamic activists,” the court found.
The judge also noted that the ringleader in the plot had gone to great lengths to keep discussions with the man sent to Turkey a secret, asking him to dial into an “official” telephone line for all correspondence. The court viewed this as suspicious, stating “their interest in remaining secretive must have had another, illegal purpose”.
The third man
The third man in question was arrested at the same time as the other two, while the group was meeting for a discussion believed to be related to planning a terror attack. However, the third suspect was originally released following questioning.
About three weeks later, he was arrested again because the evaluation of his mobile phone and questioning of his colleagues had aroused suspicion that he had been involved in planning an attack as part of IS in Switzerland. Child pornography and violent images were also found on his phone.
As of April, the so-called “third man’s” function was not yet clear, but the court alluded to the fact that he could have been the terrorist smuggled in to help with the plot.
“If the meeting [among the three suspects] really had to do with planning an attack, it’s hard to imagine that…a meeting of this kind would be carried out in the presence of someone who had not been brought up to speed,” the court documents stated. In addition, the ringleader of the operation with ties to IS had been asking about the third man and had been in direct contact with him via Skype.
Then, in July, the court found that this third man was, in fact, an Iraqi who had used several aliases and was registered with Interpol as having been active in terrorist plots in Iraq. He allegedly planned and financed such plots and is a high-ranking supporting member of al-Qaeda.
Attack on US or Swiss soil
The court documents released Monday repeatedly mention that the attack allegedly being planned was to have been carried out in Switzerland or the United States. The Attorney General did not confirm recent newspaper reports that spoke of possible targets in Germany.
The Federal Criminal Court is working together with partner agencies in several other countries on the case, collaborating “especially closely” with US justice authorities.
According to the testimony of an expert witness in the proceedings, among those collaborative efforts is a mission to find out whether terms like “baking bread,” “watermelons,” “ingredients” and others “were used as code words in the past” in order to further understand the use of code words by Islamist terror cells.
The three terror suspects’ appeals for release were denied; they remain in the custody of Swiss authorities.
swissinfo.ch and agencies