Brittle fracture processes were hypothesized by several researches to cause a damage zone around an underground excavation in sulfate-rich clay rock when the stress exceeds the crack initiation threshold, and may promote swelling by crystal growth in newly formed fractures. In this study, laboratory experiments such as unconfined and confined compression tests with acoustic emission monitoring, and microstructural and mineralogical analyses are used to explain brittle fracture processes in sulfate-rich clay rock from the Gipskeuper formation in Switzerland. This rock type typically shows a heterogeneous rock fabric consisting of distinct clayey layers and stiff heterogeneities such as anhydrite layers, veins or nodules. The study showed that at low deviatoric stress, the failure behavior is dominated by the strength of the clayey matrix where microcracks are initiated. With increasing deviatoric stress or strain, growing microcracks eventually are arrested at anhydrite veins, and cracks develop either aligned with the interface between clayey layers and anhydrite veins, or penetrate anhydrite veins. These cracks often link micro-fractured regions in the specimen. This study also suggest that fracture localization in sulfate-rich clay rocks, which typically show a heterogeneous rock fabric, does not take place in the pre-peak range and renders unstable crack propagation less likely. Sulfate-rich clay rocks typically contain anhydrite veins at various scales. At the scale of a tunnel, anhydrite layers or veins may arrest growing fractures and prevent the disintegration of the rock mass. The rock mass may be damaged when the threshold stress for microcrack initiation is exceeded, thus promoting swelling by crystal growth in extension fractures, but the self-supporting capacity of the rock mass may be maintained rendering the possibility for rapidly propagating instability less likely.