A murderous ambush of soccer players in Angola has shown how easily insurgents can grab world headlines with attacks on soft targets and inflict international embarrassment on countries by exposing their lapses in security.
Analysts said over-confidence or poor security coordination or both were being examined as possible factors in Friday’s attack, which killed two members of Togo’s national soccer delegation and the driver of their team bus.
Security experts will watch to see if the ambush in Angola’s Cabinda enclave, staged by separatists who had been widely assumed to be in gradual decline, triggers copycat attacks in other continents.
“Radical groups monitor this kind of event and draw lessons,” Alex Vines, an Angola expert and Africa section head at Britain’s Chatham House think tank, told Reuters.
Armed groups targeting high-profile international events seek maximum destruction with the fewest possible attackers.
“When you can melt away afterwards into the rainforest, as in this case, it’s very difficult for authorities to find small numbers of individuals who are very motivated,” said Vines.
Mark Schroeder, Africa analyst with Stratfor, said the strike was an opportunistic attack by the FLEC separatist group “to say ‘Hey, we are still here'”.
Experts say FLEC (Front for the Liberation of the Enclave of Cabinda) is driven by factionalism and its gunmen may number as few as 200, but its complaint that Cabindans see few benefits from the oil produced from their land is widely heard.
The ambush of the bus shortly after it arrived from Congo Republic on its way to the African Nations Cup in Angola was particularly embarrassing for Angola because a government minister stated only on December 1 that the FLEC no longer existed.
Schroeder said the government had been “overly confident in its attempts to pacify the province” in recent years.
Angolan political analyst Fernando Macedo said the attack had shown there had been shortcomings in planning for the seven games due to be held in Cabinda. He suggested that these failings had led to insufficient security deployments.
Announcing that games were to be played in Cabinda had given the group time to plan the attack, Macedo said. “That being the case, you had to have reinforced security and to have had a very strong security strategy in Cabinda.”
Analysts said the attack also raised questions about Togo’s security preparedness because it was known in the region that northern Cabinda was still the scene of sporadic FLEC attacks.
Virgilio Santos, an official with the African Nations Cup local organising committee COCAN, said all teams had been told explicitly not to travel to the tournament by road.
“The signs were all there,” said Vines. “The problem with the Togolese was they didn’t do a proper risk assessment. It’s the one part of Angola that’s still dangerous.
The Angolans were overconfident it would be secure to drive through the north.”
“But we need to be careful not to get too hysterical about what occurred. It’s a failure of risk assessment and security, but it was in a very vulnerable and exposed part of Angola, the only part of Angola where this sort of thing could happen.”
Vines said FLEC had continued to fragment under government pressure in recent years into “even smaller cells of motivated individuals who are incredibly difficult to penetrate. I think that’s what just happened (on Friday). Angolan intelligence just didn’t see this coming and were too complacent.”
Minister without Portfolio Antonio Bento Bembe denied that Angola was complacent or had liaised poorly with Togo.
“It’s a point of view, but it’s not the reality on the ground,” he told Reuters. “The Togolese were correctly welcomed at the border. You should understand that this was terrorism a terrorist act against civilian sportsmen organised by certain elements in Cabinda in complicity with people in the diaspora.”
Friday’s attack happened five months before South Africa hosts the World Cup, the first African nation to hold the world’s biggest single-sport event. Chief World Cup organiser Danny Jordaan said the attack would have no impact on the Cup.
But security analysts say outsiders involved in the event are not likely to simply ignore the Angolan attack, and will want to review South Africa’s preparations for the tournament.
The attack shows the high stakes for governments in the Third World wanting to showcase their organisational capacity, and particularly those like Angola emerging from civil war.
“This tournament was going to be one more event designed to show Angola is coming out onto the African and world stage. This attack does not help,” Stratfor analyst Mark Schroeder said