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Terror threat cancels Dakar Rally

Daily Staff Report

By Jamey KeatenAssociated Press WriterPARIS – Danger and the Dakar Rally have long been synonymous: Dozens have died racing from Europe across some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain to the western tip of Africa.But the threat of an al-Qaida-linked attack pushed the element of risk to levels organizers deemed unacceptable. They canceled the epic race on Friday, meaning terrorists have ensured there will be no spectacular images this year of dune buggies throwing up clouds of dust and lone motorcycle riders spinning their wheels in Saharan sands.It was the first time that the 30-year-old rally, one of the biggest competitions in automobile racing, has been called off. The Dakar is one of the most prominent public events to be canceled since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, when many sports events in the United States were canceled or postponed – some as a result of airport closings or in mourning for the victims.The cancellation of such a world-renowned sports event is rare, particularly as a pre-emptive measure against terrorism. Even the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich continued, following a 34-hour pause, after 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed by Palestinian gunmen.Victor Anderes, vice president of special projects at Global Security Associates, a New York-based firm that provides security for high-profile events including the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, called the cancellation unprecedented.”Smaller cultural events have been canceled before because of terror threats, but this hasn’t happened with such a major international event,” he said.’Threat is signicant'”The threat is significant,” Anderes said. “It would be almost impossible to secure the entire course.” He said the race is particularly vulnerable because it crosses different countries and large, unpopulated areas.The Dakar Rally was deemed too inviting a target for al-Qaida’s new north African affiliate. The roughly 550 competitors were to have embarked on Saturday from Lisbon, Portugal on the 16-day, 5,760-mile trek through remote and hostile dunes and scrub to Dakar in Senegal, west Africa. At least two dozen competitors have died in crashes and other mishaps in previous editions.Organizers of the rally, once known as the Paris-Dakar, cited warnings from the French government about safety after the al-Qaida-linked Dec. 24 slaying of a family of French tourists in Mauritania – where eight of the competition’s 15 stages were to be held – and “threats launched directly against the race by terrorist organizations.””When you are told of direct threats against the event and when the sinister name of al-Qaida is mentioned, you don’t ask for details,” Patrice Clerc, who heads the company that organizes the rally, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “It was enough for me to hear my government say ‘Beware, the danger is at a maximum.”‘Experts cautioned – as Western governments have often warned – that bowing to terror threats could encourage more violence. They said al-Qaida’s North African wing had scored propaganda points as it seeks to increase its reach in the region.”They scored a media victory without firing a shot,” said Louis Caprioli, a former assistant director at France’s counterintelligence agency DST. “Everybody gets the impression that they are very powerful, when they in fact represent a small number of people in this region.”Jihadists happy with closingAdam Raisman, senior analyst at the SITE Institute in Washington, said “the jihadist Internet community is quite happy with the closing, seeing it as a victory.”Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa is the rebranded name of an Algeria-based insurgent group known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat, or GSPC. Al-Qaida’s No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, first recognized a “blessed union” between the two groups on Sept. 11, 2006.The terrorist group counts several hundred members in Algeria and a few dozen in Mauritania, said Caprioli, who now works for risk-management company Geos.


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