An alleged al-Qaeda militant detained in Iraq says he had talked to friends about attacking Danish and Dutch teams at the World Cup in South Africa next month to avenge insults against the Prophet Muhammad.
Iraqi security forces holding Saudi citizen identified as Abdullah Azam Saleh al-Qahtani yesterday arranged for The Associated Press to interview him at an unidentified government building in Baghdad. He said he initially came to Iraq in 2004 to fight Americans and was recruited by al-Qaeda.
An Iraqi security official with knowledge of the investigation said al-Qahtani was arrested after a joint US-Iraqi operation in April that killed the two top al-Qaeda in Iraq figures — Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The official asked not to be identified because he was not authorised to discuss details of the case.
Documents found in the house where they were killed, including a note written by al-Qahtani detailing a plan to launch attacks at the World Cup, led to his arrest on May 3. Iraqi authorities made it public on Monday. “We discussed the possibility of taking revenge for the insults of the prophet by attacking Denmark and Holland,” al-Qahtani told The AP. “The goal was to attack the Danish and the Dutch teams and their fans,” he added. “If we were not able to reach the teams, then we’d target the fans,” he said, adding that they hoped to use guns and car bombs.
It was unclear whether the militants had the ability to carry out what would have been quite a sophisticated operation — a complicated attack far from their home base. The Iraqi security official said no steps had yet been taken to put the plan into motion, such as obtaining bomb-making materials. Al-Qahtani said the plot still needed approval from the al-Qaeda chain of command, specifically the group’s No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahri.
The alleged militant, who is about 30 years old with a mustache, was wearing an orange prisoner jumpsuit and had no outward signs of injury or abuse. He did not appear nervous or fearful. Al-Qahtani said he had been captured by US forces in 2007 and held at Camp Bucca until he was released in 2009; a US military official, Keli Chevalier, confirmed that American forces had captured a man by the name of Abdullah Azam Saleh al-Qahtani and that he was held at Camp Bucca.
The US military referred all other questions about al-Qahtani to the Iraqi government. Al-Qahtani said the idea came up in late 2009 during talks with friends over some publications in Western media they deemed offensive to Muslims. In 2006, 12 cartoons of the prophet in a Danish newspaper sparked furious protests in Muslim countries. In the Netherlands, an anti-Islam party has become the country’s fastest growing political movement. Its leader, Geert Wilders, calls the Quran a “fascist book” and wants it banned in the Netherlands. His 2008 short film offended many Muslims by juxtaposing Quranic verses with images of terrorism by Islamic radicals.
He advocated taxing clothing commonly worn by Muslims, such as headscarves, because they “pollute” the Dutch landscape. Wilders’ popularity is partly a reaction to a spate of Islamic radical violence that sent shudders through the nation a few years ago. In 2004, a young Muslim murdered Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who had produced a short film portraying alleged oppression of Muslim women. Al-Qahtani said the World Cup was considered a high-profile international event and South Africa was thought to be easier to travel to than either of the two European countries they wanted to target.
South African police spokesman Colonel Vishnu Naidoo yesterday told The AP that South African officials were still awaiting word from their Iraqi counterparts about the arrest. He said the only information South African officials had was from media reports. FIFA said in a statement Tuesday it would not comment on any specific potential threats. Police last month said they were aware of al-Qaeda threats on the World Cup, particularly the match between England and the US, due to be played in Cape Town.
US and Iraqi officials have said that the deaths of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were considered a heavy blow to the terror group and its abilities to carry out attacks. Iraqi authorities have also said that materials obtained in their investigation and search of the safehouse where al-Masri and al-Baghdadi were found has led them to other members of the organization and provided them with valuable intelligence about the group.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has coordinated attacks with leaders like al-Zawahri in the past, said Brett McGurk of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “What would be a surprise is if al-Qaeda in Iraq was able to carry out an attack on this scale internationally given its weakened state in Iraq,” McGurk said.
Meanwhile,the Daily News reports SA Muslims say they will not allow al-Qaeda or any other terrorist group to turn this country’s World Cup into their political battlefield. The country’s top Muslim representative body, the Muslim Judicial Council’s (MJC) national president, Moulana Ighsan Hendricks has condemned the alleged planned attacks, saying al-Qaeda was a terrorist organisation that did not have the support of the vast majority of Muslims in South Africa.
“SA Muslims are South Africans, we were born here, we have fought very hard against apartheid to attain democracy in this country, and our responsibility is to protect South Africa. We will not allow anyone, be it al-Qaeda, a Palestinian, an Iraqi, a Pakistani, or even a verkrampte Boer, to destroy the peaceful existence in which we have been living with our fellow South Africans. We are days away from the World Cup, and we cannot allow any terrorist group, including al-Qaeda, to bring its war into our country,” Hendricks told the Daily News.
Pic: An AP photograph of Qahtani during its interview with the terror suspect