Opinion: Take the terrorism threat to the soccer World Cup seriously


Iraqi security officials have announced that they have arrested a Saudi national, Abdullah Azzam Saleh Misfar al-Qahtani, who claims to have been involved in planning an attack on the FIFA 2010 Soccer World Cup in South Africa, allegedly in direct collusion with Al Qaeda number two Ayman Al Zawahiri.

Some analysts have dismissed the claim as a transparent propaganda ploy on the part of a struggling Iraqi government. Is the terrorist threat to the World Cup something that should be taken seriously?

The finals of the 19th FIFA World Cup kick off on June 11 when hosts South Africa take on Mexico in Africa’s largest stadium, the nearly 95 000 seat Soccer City located in Soweto, just outside Johannesburg. Held every four years, the FIFA World Cup is the world’s biggest sporting event, rivalled only by the Summer Olympics. This is the first time the event has ever been hosted on African soil, and its success or failure is widely seen as a major test of the ‘new’ South Africa, 16 years after that nation first emerged from under the yoke of Apartheid.
Reason for concern

There are significant reasons to be concerned. A little over a month before the big day, 120 000 tickets remained unsold, and analysts are already calling this the most expensive World Cup ever. Despite official assurances to the contrary, elements of South Africa’s ‘strike-happy’ workforce are likely see disrupting the World Cup as a heaven-sent blackmail opportunity. And in a country with one of the world’s highest rates of violent crime, the likelihood of foreign tourists falling prey to the criminal underworld must be considered to be very high indeed.

All these issues have received significant press coverage in South Africa and in the international media. What seems to have been little considered, however, is the potential terrorist threat to the event. In early April Ronald Noble, Secretary-General of Interpol, stated confidently during a visit to South Africa that no direct terrorist threat had been linked to the FIFA 2010 World Cup. And the coordinators of the security effort for the big event have, in response to the Iraqi government’s announcement, been quick to downplay the threat. Should we believe them? No we should not.

Within a few days of Noble’s comments, FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valke publicly admitted that a post on a jihadist website called “Yearners for Paradise” had described as ‘beautiful’ an account given there of an allegedly unstoppable bomb attack touted to take place during the June 12 USA vs England game. While the author of the post, who calls himself Ubada bin Al-Samit, disclaims any connection to Al Qaeda, it is hard to imagine that team Bin Laden has not noted the potential of such an attack, and indeed the latest revelations seem to confirm this. It has been some time since the AQ brand has pulled off something spectacular, and given the increasing pressure being placed on them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, an attack on the world’s biggest sporting event would unquestionably enhance their flagging credibility.

US v UK v jihadists

Still, there are reasons to think that the threatened June 12 attack is unlikely. The match is scheduled to take place in the Royal Bafokeng Stadium, which is located in the town of Phokeng, the capital of the Royal Bafokeng Nation, in South Africa’s North West Province. The site is relatively isolated (and therefore easier to police) and the town itself is small and ethnically homogenous, meaning that outsiders planning an attack there would have difficulty doing so without drawing attention to themselves. The tournament planners are to be commended for choosing this location for the match which has the greatest potential to draw terrorist interest.

But there is no shortage of easier targets to hit. While the stadiums and participating teams will probably be well protected (FIFA will make sure of that), it will be nigh on impossible for South Africa’s security forces to ensure the safety of the hundreds of thousands of Western tourists who will pour into South Africa to enjoy the beaches, game reserves, mountains and the soccer. The recently revealed plot involving al-Qahtani was to be directed at the Dutch or Danish teams. With chilling logic al-Qahtani told The Associated Press that “If we were not able to reach the teams, then we’d target the fans.”

Arguably more worrying than the “Yearners for Paradise” posting and the now (perhaps) disrupted Al Qaeda plot, was the report leaked in October 2009 to South Africa’s Sunday Independent (among the country’s more respectable news sources) that intelligence officials had intercepted a call to an undisclosed (though probably Somali) East African based Al Qaeda-linked militant group.

The call allegedly made reference to a planned bombing attack on US interests, possibly during the FIFA 2010 World Cup. Though South Africa’s internal intelligence service, the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), was quick to distance itself from the report, it certainly seems to be credible, particularly given the fact that the US Diplomatic Mission in South Africa took the extreme and unexplained step of closing all its facilities in South Africa for two days less than a month prior to this information becoming public.

A significant number of Somalis have migrated to South Africa in recent years, and many have been the target of xenophobic attacks by South African nationals angry at having to compete with them for very limited economic resources. Added to poverty, this xenophobic hostility makes for fertile ground for anyone seeking to radicalise displaced Somalis living in South Africa. Furthermore, given that groups like al-Shabaab are currently on the back foot and seeking funding and other support through alliance with Al Qaeda, such a move would seem to be very much in their interests.
Home threats

There is also some danger of attacks being carried out by home-grown terrorists. Many seem to have forgotten that between 1998 and 2002, a cell of a Cape Town based Islamic organisation, the ‘G-Force’ unit of PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism and Drugs) carried out over 100 bomb attacks and numerous shootings in and around Cape Town. While PAGAD was originally formed as a vigilante organisation, G-Force’s targets soon broadened to include attacks on government buildings, synagogues, gay bars and targets considered to be symbolic of the West (such as the Planet Hollywood Restaurant, which was bombed in August of 1998, killing 2 and injuring 26).

Though PAGAD’s membership is drawn entirely from the approximately 200,000 Muslims who are part of the so-called ‘Coloured’ community of the Western Cape, it has been suggested in some quarters that links were formed between G-Force and Middle Eastern militant groups. The end of G-Force’s campaign of violence was claimed as an intelligence victory by the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the NIA, though there is some evidence that it had more to do with internal splits than effective action by the security forces. PAGAD itself, which has consistently denied complicity in the attacks, continues to exist, though its activities have been less public in recent years.

A home-grown attack could also come from another direction. In the wake of the recent murder of right-wing extremist and founder of the neo-Nazi Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (Afrikaner Resistance Movement), Eugene Terre’Blanche, who was beaten to death by two disgruntled black farmworkers over an alleged pay dispute, racial tensions have been raised significantly in South Africa’s already racially polarised society. In early May Police Minister Nathi Mthetwa announced that the police had ‘broken up’ a plot by white supremacists to unleash a bombing campaign in South Africa’s black townships, presumably in response to Terre’Blanche’s killing. While there is no indication that this particular plot was specifically directed at the FIFA 2010 World Cup, the same reasons that would make the soccer spectacle appealing to Islamic extremists would apply just as much to white extremists seeking attention for their “cause”.
Security assurances

Police commissioner General Bheki Cele recently sought to reassure the public regarding the country’s 2010 Security Plan. He announced that over 40 000 police would be deployed under the plan – an average of just under 4500 for each of the nine host cities. In effect however, the number will be lower than that, given that many of these police officers will be deployed to airports, sea ports and no fewer than 54 land border crossing points. Considering that these police, who are generally of relatively low quality by Western standards, will have to deal with over 2.2 million soccer fans (around 300 000 of whom will be foreign tourists) against the backdrop of a highly criminalised society, it is questionable how reassuring General Cele’s announcement should be.

On the plus side, however, specialised police units are well trained and equipped, and it is likely that the security plan will also involve well respected South African National Defence Force Special Forces units. The broader plan involves South African Air Force BAE Systems Hawk and SAAB Gripen fighter aircraft enforcing restricted flight zones in the airspace around the stadiums, and South African Navy Valour-class frigates and smaller vessels patrolling the maritime domain adjacent to coastal World Cup host cities. While the plan seems likely to be successful in mitigating against a 9/11 style attack, it is more questionable whether the Navy’s limited number of platforms would be adequate to prevent a Mumbai style attack from the sea, particularly given how busy ports like Durban, Port Elizabeth and Cape Town are.

A further security measure that is frequently referred to is the recent implementation of South African Army patrols on the national borders. But this ignores the fact that this deployment has little to do with the World Cup, represents a commitment of little more than four companies of troops, and is likely to have very little impact on securing nearly 5000 kilometers of notoriously poorly guarded land borders.

The biggest problem with the security measures that are being put in place for the World Cup is that they do little to address deeper problems which offer significant advantages to would-be attackers. High levels of corruption, relatively ineffective policing and porous borders represent a permissive environment for those with terrorist ambitions. It has long been known that Al Qaeda militants and other terrorists have made significant use of South African passports obtained from criminal syndicates, and that South Africa, with its large ethnically South Asian population has been a popular transit point for international would-be jihadists headed for Pakistan and Afghanistan. Last year concerns about the security of South African passports led the British government to implement a visa requirement for South Africans travelling to the UK – the first time in the history of British-South African relations.

Firearms, including AK-47’s and other automatic weapons, are readily available to those with connections to the criminal underworld. Commercial explosives pilfered from South Africa’s mines can also be relatively easily obtained, as evidenced by the number of criminally-motivated ATM bombings that have taken place in the country in recent years (over 1000 in 2008 alone). Time has also been on any would-be attackers’ side. At kick-off, it will have been over seven years since South Africa was confirmed as hosts of the FIFA 2010 World Cup. By way of comparison, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed told his interrogators that planning for the highly sophisticated 9/11 attacks started in 1996, just five years before the attacks were carried out.

Cele recently joked with South Africa’s Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Policing that his ‘prayer’ is that the US team will not make it through to the second round of the World Cup, as that way he will probably not have to deal with a visit by President Obama, which South African security officials have been advised is a real possibility if the US team performs well. A visit by Obama, claims Cele, would require as much work for South Africa’s security forces as preparing for all of the other 43 visiting heads of state put together. Despite Cele’s flippancy, that level of security preparation would, given the potential threat, seem to be entirely justified. Indeed, President Obama may well be better off joining the many American ticket holders who are opting, in the face of soaring prices for flights and hotels, to revise their plans and instead stay home and watch the tournament on TV. Those who stay home may save more than just money; they may inadvertently be saving their lives.

About the Author:

Deane-Peter Baker is a member of the Irregular Warfare Working Group and the Africa Forum at the US Naval Academy, where he teaches in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law. He is also a 2010-2011 Academic Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Dr Baker has served in the British Army and later as a reservist in the South African Army. Before moving to the United States Dr Baker was Director of the Strategic Studies Group of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, where he taught for eleven years. Dr Baker is editor of the African Security Review, the leading research journal on African security matters, and has published widely on issues including terrorism, counterinsurgency, strategy and military ethics.
All opinions expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not represent the position of the US Naval Academy, the US Navy or the US Government.

Pic: Greenpoint stadium in Cape Town