The 2019 Swiss Security Network Exercise: More Than an Exercise

The Swiss are testing their preparedness for meeting a major terrorist attack.

The 2019 Swiss Security Network Exercise (SNE 19) is a national effort, conducted by the country’s federal authorities and its cantons; it takes place every four years and is a total defence exercise involving the government (including the armed forces), the private sector and the wider public. Since terrorism has long been recognised as one of the major threats to Switzerland, the exercise is of great interest to the security actors concerned. Consequently, the Confederation and the cantons decided to practice responses to terrorist threats and attacks in SNE 19.

Following this decision, the SNE 19 leadership team, assisted by the Federal Intelligence Service, developed the scenario: a fictitious terrorist adversary, the Global Liberation Front (GLF), operating out of the invented weak state of Agraria. The scenario illustrates a complex variety of threats.

Since terrorists are most likely to use current modi operandi, SNE 19 is based on known terrorist attack patterns. However, exercises should also look towards the future, as the challenges for crisis management are greatest when an event not only comes as a surprise, but also contains new elements that have not been experienced before. And terrorism is a dynamic phenomenon that is constantly evolving. Future terrorist attacks are likely to involve several coordinated attacks and may last for a longer period, as opposed to single-attack strikes. The Mumbai attack in 2008 and the 2015 Paris terror attacks illustrate these conclusions. We must also expect terrorists to use radiological, biological or chemical agents, which would significantly increase the impact of an attack and make it more difficult to mitigate. If this should ever happen, prior practice will be invaluable.


In the SNE 2019 scenario, the imaginary GLF enjoys capabilities that can threaten Switzerland over a longer period. In this fictional story, the GLF is targeting Switzerland because of its active role in ending a hostage-taking incident at the UN in Geneva in November 2017, which resulted in a number of casualties. Switzerland is the most frequent subject of GLF propaganda against the West, and the arrest of three of the attackers from Geneva makes it a primary tactical target under the slogan 'Free the Geneva Three'.

In the autumn of 2017, civil protection, police and armed forces partners told the SNE 19 leadership that they wanted to be able to familiarise themselves with the exercise beforehand. As a result, the SNE 19 consists of two stages: the initial stage, comprising four situation reports providing the participants with the opportunity to assess the scenario, and the second stage comprising the joint exercise.

The situation reports describe the current threats posed by the Global Liberation Front and the capabilities of the police, military and civil protection units. The first situation report describes the situation in Switzerland about five months after the terrorist acts in Geneva. From summer 2018, the GLF has increased pressure on Switzerland by murdering a cantonal council member and seriously injuring a national councillor. By revealing that it has a list with the names and addresses of 450 politicians and other public figures, the GLF will challenge the security authorities of the Confederation and cantons throughout Switzerland.

From the safe haven of Agraria and with the support of sympathisers in Switzerland, the organisation can prepare long-range attacks, develop cyber weapons, smuggle explosives, firearms and radiological, chemical or biological agents across the border into Switzerland or acquire them illegally in Switzerland.

The situation reports describe how the Global Liberation Front is reorganising its members and their tasks ahead of the trial of the Geneva Three at the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona in November 2019, and how its ability to launch complex attacks constantly increases thanks to illegal procurement of armed and banned chemical, biological and radiological substances. Its strategic goal is to prevent the trial of the Geneva Three and to free them.

Testing the Endurance of the Overall Security System

The joint exercise in November 2019 marks the completion of this broader drill. It serves to test the action taken in a crisis under time pressure. Up to present, 75 authorities at federal, cantonal and city levels and critical infrastructure agencies have confirmed that they will participate. A team of about 90 in Bern, the federal capital, will lead the joint exercise. The participants will be based in and act from their regular locations.

Although the exercise is important as a test of endurance for Switzerland’s security system as a whole, SNE 19 is more than that. Intensive work with the scenario of an increasing terrorist threat makes it possible to identify the critical aspects of an acute and long-lasting crisis. Frictions and coordination problems can thus be resolved on an ongoing basis. Agreements and efforts to ensure smooth cooperation between the Confederation and the cantons and between the police, civil protection and the armed forces have already produced valuable results ahead of the actual exercise. This makes SNE 19 more than a conventional exercise. It is a joint security-policy project of the Confederation and the cantons to strengthen the national defences against hybrid threats in general and terrorism in particular.

Hans-Jürg Käser is director of the 2019 Security Network Exercise.

Bernhard Wigger is project leader of the 2019 Security Network Exercise.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


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