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 sands.
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 gunmen.
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 Turin, 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 terrorist organizations.”
“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 maximum.”’
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, 2006.
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 in Algeria.
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 first: “We don’t have the right to play games with safety.”
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 Mali.
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 past.
“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.
Associated Press writers Ahmed Mohamed in Nouakchott, Mauritania, John Leicester and Elaine Ganley in Paris, and Lily Hindy in New York contributed to this report.