In Switzerland’s biggest operation against Islamic terrorism, police have arrested eight suspected accomplices in May’s Al Qaeda car-bomb attack against expatriate housing compounds in Saudi Arabia, authorities said Friday.
About 100 police officers conducted raids and questioned 20 people Thursday, law enforcement officials said. The arrests took place in the cantons of Geneva, Zurich, Bern, Vaud and Aargau. The suspects could be charged with giving logistical support to a criminal organization, authorities said.
“The police action was in the context of terrorism investigations, especially in connection with the May 12 attack in Riyadh,” federal police said in a statement.
Teams of car bombers hit three housing compounds in the attack in the Saudi capital, killing 26 people, including a Swiss citizen. The nine assailants also died. Until now, most of the suspects identified by police have been Saudis apprehended in their native country and accused of acting on the orders of top Al Qaeda figures. But soon after the attacks, Saudi officials said a number of key suspects had escaped to Europe or the U.S.
The people rounded up in Switzerland were all foreigners, said authorities, who declined to describe the alleged role of the suspects in the bombings or give other details.
A European law enforcement official familiar with the case said the suspects in Swiss custody included Moroccans and Tunisians active in a European network that had provided support to Al Qaeda’s far-flung operatives.
Although the idea of operatives in tranquil Switzerland participating in an attack in the Middle East might seem unusual, officials say Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the Al Qaeda operational mastermind captured in March in Pakistan, apparently worked with accomplices and front companies in Switzerland as he allegedly concocted two terrorist plots.
Surveillance by European and U.S. agents indicated that Mohammed communicated with suspected accomplices in Switzerland to organize the flow of funds and instructions to a terrorist who carried out the suicide bombing of a synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba in April 2002. Mohammed allegedly used a Swiss cellphone while he was a fugitive in Pakistan.
Mohammed also allegedly directed the movements of Jose Padilla, a U.S.-born convert to Islam who was arrested in Chicago in May 2002 in an alleged plot involving a radioactive “dirty bomb,” investigators say. Padilla stopped in Zurich on his way to the United States; authorities suspect he may have received money and assistance from an Al Qaeda logistical cell set up by Mohammed in Switzerland.
Wiretaps of Mohammed’s phone calls, combined with evidence seized during his capture, gave police key clues about suspected terrorist activity in Switzerland. Thursday’s arrests may have been aided by that evidence and, the European law enforcement official said, are likely to involve other cases as well.
Swiss investigators have frozen bank accounts worth $28 million that are allegedly connected to Islamic extremism. But this week’s police operation appears to have focused on ground-level logistical networks, not Middle Eastern bankers accused of taking advantage of the secretive Swiss financial system to aid terrorists, the law enforcement official said.