World Cup terror concerns but need perspective

Published Jun. 3, 2010 9:37 a.m. EDT

If he wasn't hiding in a cave or wherever, Osama bin Laden might enjoy watching the World Cup. It's been written that before he became public enemy No.1., bin Laden attended Arsenal matches in the mid-1990s and was impressed by the passion of the London club's fans. One of his former bodyguards also says in a book newly published in France that the al-Qaida leader sometimes played football himself, as a striker.

But it is also true that bin Laden or his followers and allies would probably want to blow up the World Cup if given half the chance, because they know that an attack on such a mega-event would be felt, heard and strike terror around the globe.

Which is why the risk of a terrorist atrocity in South Africa over the next month must be taken seriously.

Just not too seriously.


History suggests that the chances are quite low that any plot would be successful. It is a reasonable bet that World Cup fans are more likely to die in traffic accidents on South Africa's chaotic roads than at the hands of Islamic extremists.

Black September gunmen did massacre Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics and anti-abortion extremist Eric Rudolph is staring at life behind bars for bombs he detonated at the 1996 Atlanta Games and other sites. Gunmen also ambushed Togo's football team at the African Cup of Nations in Angola this January, killing three people, and six policemen and a driver were killed in an attack on Sri Lanka's cricket team in March 2009 in Pakistan.

Which all goes to show that sports events and sports people, attention-magnets that they are, make attractive targets.

But it is also true that the vast majority of sports events, week-in, week-out around the world, take place without a hitch.

Musing about attacking the England-USA game on June 12 or other matches, as armchair extremists have done on militant web sites recently, and actually striking successfully are entirely different things - as plotters found out at the previous three World Cups. Mass arrests thwarted Algeria-linked militants at France '98; al-Qaida reportedly proved unable to execute plans to attack in Japan in 2002 because it had no network in the World Cup host country; and German police said heavy security at stadiums in 2006 scared away two Lebanese militants who instead planted their suitcase bombs on trains, where they failed to detonate.

The US State Department did advise on May 25 of ``a heightened risk that extremist groups will conduct terrorist acts within South Africa in the near future.'' But that warning is standard issue: The department said word-for-word the exact same thing about China ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

This time, however, it also added that ``while a number of terrorist threats against the World Cup in South Africa have appeared in the media in recent weeks and months, the U.S. Government has no information on any specific, credible threat'' - clearly giving the impression that media chatter about possible attacks may have been overblown.

``Nothing on the forums that we've seen would indicate that there is a good chance of an attack,'' says Adam Raisman, an analyst at the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group that monitors militant web sites and communications. ``There's not been a concrete threat.''

Analysts worry that militants could slip through checkpoints using fraudulently obtained South African passports, could get weapons and explosives from the criminal underworld, find safe haven in immigrant communities and target people away from well-protected World Cup sites.

But it would be condescending in the extreme to assume that South African security forces are blind to the risks. Planes will patrol the skies, boats the seas and officers the streets and stadiums. Besides, at this stage, World Cup visitors and South African fans have little real alternative than to simply hope for the best or stay home.

``A lot of planning has been done, a lot of training went into it,'' says terrorism expert Anneli Botha at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria. ``It's like taking an exam: you've done your best in preparing. What the question is going to be, you don't know.''

What is annoying is that terrorists have the World Cup on its toes without even firing a bullet or detonating a bomb. They don't actually need to attack to sow fear.

All the more reason to keep the risks in perspective and try not to be scared - which one assumes is what terrorists fear the most.


John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)