PARIS -- 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
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
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 Torino,
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.
"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
"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
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."
Adam 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,
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.
But the group has adopted al-Qaida techniques to increase its
impact. It claimed responsibility for twin suicide bombings last
month in Algeria's capital that hit U.N. offices and a government
building, killing 37 people -- including 17 U.N. staff members. That
attack was the most dramatic in a string of recent suicide bombings
Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and terrorism expert who
works at the Brookings Institution, called al-Qaida in Islamic
North Africa "a threat to be reckoned with."
Rally organizer Clerc, in the AP interview, said ,"Yes, we
perhaps bowed to terrorism," but that security needed to come
"We don't have the right to play games with safety," Clerc said.
Al-Qaida in Islamic North Africa, in a Dec. 29 statement posted
on an Internet site it often uses, criticized Mauritania's
government for "providing suitable environments to the infidels
for the rally." It did not directly call for attacks on the race
or its participants.
For would-be racers, teams, vehicle manufacturers and sponsors,
the disappointment was palpable.
"While canceling is obviously the right thing to do for safety
and security reasons, there's no reason why we couldn't have raced
a few stages in Morocco or Portugal where there wasn't the same
risk," American driver Robby Gordon said in a statement.
Organizers vowed that the cancellation did not mean the death of
the Dakar, but it cast doubt on the rally's long-term future. The
race's tough geography is a both an organizational headache and a
main ingredient of its charm.
"Unless you want to turn this into a yacht race, I don't see an
alternative," Clerc said.
The vast desert region stretching from southern Algeria through
Mali and Mauritania has long been a prime haunt for traffickers in
arms, cigarettes, drugs and other contraband and a GSPC redoubt.
A terror and smuggling chieftain in the region, Mokhtar Bel
Mokhtar, was said to have been behind threats against the rally
several years ago.
The United States has had the lawless border zones in its sights
for years. In 2004, the U.S. government began a counterterrorism
training program in Mauritania and three other Sahara countries as
part of efforts to fight infiltration by militant groups.
The government of France, where race organizer Amaury Sports
Organization is based, urged the rally to avoid Mauritania, a
largely peaceful Islamic republic, after four French tourists were
killed last month in a town 150 miles east of the Mauritanian
capital as they picnicked on a roadside. Days later, three
Mauritanian soldiers manning a checkpoint were killed.
Authorities blamed a terror "sleeper cell" linked to al-Qaida
in Islamic North Africa for the tourists' murders. The group
claimed responsibility for the killing of the soldiers in an audio
tape released to Al-Arabiya TV station.
Terrorism fears have previously forced organizers to cancel
individual stages or reroute the race. In 2000, several legs were
scrapped after a threat forced organizers to airlift the entire
race from Niger to Libya to avoid danger zones. Several stages were
also called off in 2004, reportedly because of terror threats in
Rally director Etienne Lavigne only recently approved the
Mauritanian legs after two stages planned for Mali were scrapped
over concerns about al-Qaida's north Africa affiliate.
French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said he did not want to "stigmatize" Mauritania but warned on French radio RTL that
there were risks "in a very uncertain region and one crossed by
the networks of al-Qaida in North Africa."
Mauritania's government said last week that it would mobilize a
3,000-man security force to ensure race safety. Its foreign
minister complained the cancellation was not justified.
"We have taken every measure to ensure that the rally goes
forward without incident," Babah Sidi Abdallah said on RTL TV.
Clerc suggested the threat this year was different from in years
"This year -- and only in very recent days -- the nature of the
threat changed, and neither the Mauritanians, the French nor anyone
had the means to respond," he said.