Does al Qaeda Threaten the World Cup? Assessment, Context, and Implications for Understanding of the al Qaeda Network
- On June 11, the 19th World Cup will begin with an opening match between Mexico and South Africa. It will be the first World Cup hosted in Africa, a fact worth celebrating, especially given African contributions to soccer in both fan base and star athletes.
- No al Qaeda franchise or major affiliate has made public threats against the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, despite reports to the contrary. The State Department has stated that “the U.S. Government has no information on any specific, credible threat of attack that any individual or group is planning to coincide with the tournament.” South African authorities have also said “there’s no specific terror threat to South Africa” and have taken preventive security measures.
- However, in several instances over the past eight months, individuals linked to al Qaeda have made threats against or potentially planned to target the World Cup or Western interests in South Africa.
- In response to such threats, the State Department issued a travel warning for the World Cup on May 25, a step it did not take prior to or during the 2002 or 2006 World Cups or the 2004 Olympics; the U.S. Embassy in South Africa closed briefly; and Dutch authorities banned travel to South Africa by families of Dutch players.
- The global visibility of the World Cup, Al Qaeda’s ideological opposition to secular institutions such as the Cup, the competitive desire by individuals or groups in the al Qaeda network to show strength relative to other members of the network, and potential security holes in South Africa, increase the odds, albeit somewhat limited, of an al Qaeda-linked strike at the World Cup.
- Al Qaeda’s ideological opposition to secular, international institutions such as the World Cup shows that neither it nor any of its units can exist within a modern international structure, as all non-Salafist, secular institutions threaten the violent Islamist network’s eventual goal of the establishment of a caliphate.
- The choice of the World Cup as a target by individual members of al Qaeda further evidences a trend over the past year wherein al Qaeda-linked individuals have increasingly sought high-profile, international targets instead of local targets. The mutual selection by several al Qaeda-linked individuals of the World Cup as an opportunity for such a success shows that the network shares some level of strategic vision, a characteristic that can increase the level of danger following high-profile incidents such as the Times Square attack.
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Three incidents of potential plots or threats against the World Cup or Western interests in South Africa have attracted broad media attention over the past year. In September 2009, South African authorities disrupted a plot that targeted American interests in South Africa; individuals behind the plot allegedly coordinated with individuals linked to the Somali terror group al Shabaab. In early April 2010, an article appeared in an al Qaeda magazine that urged al Shabaab, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to strike the World Cup. On May 3, Iraqi authorities arrested a 30-year-old Saudi who, they claimed later that month, had devised a plot to strike at the World Cup.
None of these plots or threats carried the official approval of any al Qaeda franchises or affiliates, despite reporting to the contrary. On February 9, al Shabaab spokesman Sheikh Ali Mohamed Rage denied reports that al Shabaab was planning an attack on the World Cup, although he did not specifically deny al Shabaab’s involvement in the September 2009 plot. Second, as journalists with the Mauritanian media organizations Journal Tahalil and Akhbar Nouakchott pointed out, the article that some outlets reported as an AQIM threat to the Cup was not distributed through channels traditionally used by AQIM. Confusion may have emerged because the piece urging an attack by AQIM, al Shabaab, or AQAP appeared in an al Qaeda-friendly magazine, al Mushtaqun ila al Jannah, whose April issue happened to be dedicated to AQIM.  Finally, al Qaeda in Iraq officially denied involvement in any plot against the World Cup in a statement issued on May 25.
None of the groups or individuals linked to the three plots or threats has previously shown an ability to conduct operations in South Africa beyond the plotting stage, and the U.S. State Department has said that “the U.S. Government has no information on any specific, credible threat of attack that any individual or group is planning to coincide with the tournament.”
Despite these mitigating details, these incidents have successfully sown fear ahead of the event and have exhibited efforts by individual members of the al Qaeda network to attack the World Cup.
Targeted institutions and individuals have taken precautionary measures, thus displaying unwillingness to disregard the threats. After the disruption of the alleged al Shabaab plot in September 2009, the U.S. embassy closed for two days. On May 25, U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Americans attending the World Cup, stating that, “There is a heightened risk that extremist groups will conduct terrorist acts within South Africa in the near future.” The State Department did not take this action prior to or during the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan, the 2006 World Cup in Germany, or the 2004 Summer Olympics in Greece.
In mid-May 2010, the Dutch government banned the families of Dutch national players from traveling to South Africa due to security fears. The Dutch striker Dirk Kuyt, who plays professionally for Liverpool F.C., said:
It is terrifying. Some players don't want to pick up the news, but I do. And my first thought is this whole thing is terrifying. But I must put my faith in the security people…The positive thing, I keep telling myself, is that an Al Qaeda terrorist has been arrested. I want to tell myself the World Cup will be a well protected event. They have to monitor every situation.
Kuyt’s statement and the actions of the American and Dutch authorities show the incidents have created some fear despite their lack of strong ties to existing terror groups and the likely limited capability of those behind the threats or plots. This trepidation has had its effect – ticket sales have lagged for the World Cup at least partially due to security concerns: as many as 500,000 tickets remained unsold as of April 9.
As the threats and plots by individuals have already had a effect upon the environment surrounding the World Cup, it is worthwhile to assess the reasons behind and the context surrounding them, as well as the likelihood that an al Qaeda-linked terrorist could carry out an attack against the World Cup.
Along with other international secular institutions, the World Cup has long been seen by extremists who subscribe to the Salafist ideology followed by al Qaeda as a distraction from the pursuit of worship of Allah and from the goals put forth by al Qaeda, which aims to establish an Islamic caliphate. In October 2001, when calling for the establishment of such a caliphate, Osama bin Laden said: “So I say that, in general, our concern is that our umma unites either under the Words of the Book of God or His Prophet, and that this nation should establish the righteous caliphate of our umma, which has been prophesied by our Prophet in his authentic hadith…” An international body built around sport, rather than Islamic law, challenges and does not facilitate the creation of such a caliphate.
A Kuwaiti-based Salafist preacher specifically addressed this in the midst of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. On June 22, 2006, Sheikh Hamid bin Abdallah al Ali, who recruited Kuwaitis for and conducted fundraising for al Qaeda in Iraq and supported an al Qaeda cell in Kuwait, issued a fatwa banning the viewing of the World Cup.  Ali stated that while playing the sport was permissible, watching it distracted one from worship of Allah and welcomed other temptations, such as drinking and gambling:
The World Cup has started and with it comes the huge waves of various Fatwas in a Godly world which denounce that cross event and condemns watching it or following its results. This world exercises its holy right in giving advice and guidance. It wishes to see Allah’s Face…
So without a doubt, watching the game keeps people away from the glorification of Allah, and keeps them from their prayers. If a fan prayed, he prays unwillingly. His heart is into that sport much more than the hungry yearn for food, and the thirsty for drink. He goes to pray while he is angry, and angry praying was banned. 
Prior to the 2010 World Cup, one al Qaeda-linked group has approved of the implementation of such a fatwa. In April 2010, Somalia’s al Shabaab reportedly placed calls to clerics operating in a Somali refugee camp known as al Dadaab, located in Kenya near the Somali border, congratulating them on a ban they placed against the viewing of soccer and films.
The World Cup’s visibility on the world stage alone makes it a target for terror networks, and the perception of the World Cup as an un-Islamic institution that distracts the faithful from their worship of Allah and the establishment of the caliphate enhances the Cup’s prominence as an al Qaeda target. Successfully executing an attack against such an event would give its perpetrator instant credibility within the al Qaeda network.
DETAILS BEHIND INCIDENTS AND CONTEXT IN LINKED COUNTRIES
Groups within the al Qaeda network compete for attention, resources, and recruits. None of these groups have directly threatened the World Cup. Some of the leadership of these groups may choose not to attack the World Cup, for fear of evoking a backlash among soccer fans from nations not primarily targeted by al Qaeda. However, individuals affiliated with these groups or loosely associated with al Qaeda may be more likely to target the World Cup, fearing less damage to an established group brand name. The contexts for the al Qaeda-linked groups in Somalia, North and West Africa, and Iraq linked in media reports to the three threats or plots against the World Cup over the past year do create incentives for individuals associated with those groups or resident in those areas to conduct an attack at the World Cup (or another high-profile success).
Somalia and al Shabaab Context
The alleged al Shabaab threat became known to authorities after South African police and intelligence agents, reportedly working in conjunction with U.S. intelligence, intercepted a phone call between an individual based in Cape Town and individuals linked to al Shabaab in Somalia.  Some reports also tied individuals in Mozambique to the threat.  Allegedly, the plotters planned the attack in retaliation for the death of Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, an al Qaeda in East Africa commander sheltered by al Shabaab whom U.S. special forces killed during an operation in southern Somalia on September 14.
Al Shabaab denied planning attacks for the World Cup in February, without specifically disavowing connections to the September plot, and, in early May, South African police chief Bheki Cele told parliament that an investigation proved the al Shabaab threat to the World Cup was not credible. However, there appears to have been a connection with radical elements in Somalia and the invocation of the Nabhan killing could indicate al Shabaab’s complicity, though the limited time between the plot and Nabhan’s demise means that planning for the plot would probably need to have begun before Nabhan’s death.
The timing of the al Shabaab threat came in the midst of a still-ongoing al Shabaab campaign to convince al Qaeda’s central leadership that the group deserved a more prominent and official place in the al Qaeda network. Beginning in June 2008, al Shabaab praised Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Abu Yahya al Libi; two months before the South Africa incident, in July 2009, al Shabaab again released a message praising bin Laden and Zawahiri; and several days before the U.S. embassy in South Africa was closed due to security fears in September 2009, al Shabaab released a video entitled “At Your Service, Oh Osama.” Regardless of whether al Shabaab officially sanctioned the September South Africa plot or not, an ambitious member of al Shabaab may have sought to advance the organization in the eyes of al Qaeda’s central leadership, drive more recruits and funding to the group, and increase his or her own power by successfully hitting U.S. targets in the World Cup host country.
Article Urging AQIM, al Shabaab, AQAP to Strike
The article widely reported as a threat from AQIM does not appear to have come from the organization, but rather from an individual named Ubadah ibn al Samit who saw the World Cup as a potential target and wanted al Qaeda-linked groups to seize an opportunity for a high-profile success. The article targeted the American and British teams in particular:
How amazing could the match United States vs. Britain be when broadcasted live on air at a stadium packed with spectators when the sound of an explosion rumbles through the stands, the whole stadium is turned upside down and the number of dead bodies are in their dozens and hundreds, Allah willing. 
The statement also threatened the German, French, and Italian teams. The author’s speculated targets mirror those of AQIM, which has killed both a Briton and an American in the last two years and has kidnapped German, French, and Italian citizens during the same period. France often receives particular attention in the group’s propaganda due to the country’s colonial domination of Algeria, AQIM’s primary base.
Noting the lack of a connection to AQIM, which operates in a wide swath of territory stretching from Mauritania to Algeria to Niger and Mali, it is important to understand the context of the article. AQIM, formerly the Group for Salafist Preaching and Combat (GSPC), became an official al Qaeda franchise in September 2006 and changed its name to its current form in January 2007. Zawahiri, who approved the franchise, likely wanted to use the group as a backdoor into Europe to weaken the coalitions fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2008, he reportedly asked the group to take revenge for cartoons portraying Muhammad published in Denmark in 2005. However, despite maintaining an active insurgency in northern Algeria that continues to take a deadly toll upon the Algerian security forces and conducting high-profile kidnappings of European tourists visiting countries such as Niger and Mauritania, AQIM has not conducted an attack in Europe. Nor has the group kidnapped a Danish tourist, despite Zawahiri’s reported injunction.
During that period in which AQIM has been unable to fulfill what may have been the al Qaeda leadership’s hopes for the group, two other al Qaeda-linked groups – al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, have been able to conduct attacks on the American homeland in recent months. AQIM, or elements within it, could see the World Cup as a perfect opportunity to establish itself on the world stage, elevate the group over its competitors in the al Qaeda network, and give al Qaeda’s central leadership return on its investment.
Additionally, it should be noted that articles in al Qaeda magazines should bear much less weight than official statements from al Qaeda-linked organizations. However, the article’s threat that “al Qaeda will have a presence in the games, Allah willing” does reveal considerable support for a strike at the World Cup among the “armchair generals” of the al Qaeda network.
Threat from Saudi individual Arrested in Iraq and Context
The alleged plot by the Saudi Qahtani raises questions due to the method by which the Iraqi authorities publicized his arrest and the current political context in Iraq. Abdullah Azzam Saleh al Qahtani, the man Iraqi authorities allege plotted to attack the World Cup, likely did not conduct his planning with the backing of the al Qaeda in Iraq organization, and it is unclear how far Qahtani progressed in his plotting. Iraqi authorities announced the Qahtani plot two weeks after his arrest in the midst of ongoing post-election wrangling in Iraq. Authorities may have wished to burnish the anti-terror credentials of the Nouri al Maliki government, especially after 119 people died in a series of bombings in Baghdad and Anbar province on May 10, the deadliest day in Iraq since the beginning of 2010. South African authorities first learned of the plot through the media, and the Iraqi authorities made al Qahtani available for a press interview, two actions out of step with a traditional counter-terror investigation.  As noted above, al Qaeda in Iraq officially denied plans to target the World Cup on May 25. 
Despite the lack of a strong link to al Qaeda in Iraq, the Dutch government did take action in response to the threat. Qahtani may have decided to conduct the plot without support from an established group, although he reportedly sought approval from al Qaeda deputy Ayman al Zawahiri.  Iraqi authorities allege that Qahtani had attempted to make contact with al Zawahiri to receive approval for the operation, although Zawahiri had reportedly not approved the operation before Qahtani’s arrest. If the Zawahiri link is accurate, it would reveal a direct connection to al Qaeda’s core leadership.
Qahtani could have been acting to increase the profile of al-Qaeda-linked individuals operating from Iraq, a country where coalition forces have disrupted the al Qaeda network in the last several years. On April 19, Iraqi and U.S. forces killed al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Omar al Baghdadi and senior commander Abu Ayyub al Masri in a nighttime raid. Between April 1 and April 26, 2010, al Qaeda in Iraq conducted only 8 attacks, compared to 37 in April 2009. The deputy commander of American forces in Baghdad, Brig. Gen Ralph Baker also reported that, as of late April, Iraqi and American forces had captured as many as 404 al Qaeda in Iraq members.
The Baghdadi and Masri killings likely did not spark the plot, as Qahtani likely would have begun planning likely weeks before his May 3 arrest. However, as the statistics for al Qaeda in Iraq show, the organization’s weakened capacity could drive some of its members, associated supporters, or ideological bedfellows to make threats or begin plotting against the World Cup. Al Qaeda in Iraq has fallen from a champion on al Qaeda’s central battlefield against the U.S. to a defeated organization on the run. Striking the Dutch and Danish teams in South Africa, as Qahtani reportedly planned to do, would increase the prominence for the perpetrator among militant Islamist circles (militant Islamists have frequently targeted, both rhetorically and operationally, the individuals and countries linked to Dutchman Geert Wilder’s Fitna film and the cartoons depicting Mohammed published in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten).
SECURITY RISKS IN SOUTH AFRICA
Beyond ideological reasons to target the World Cup and the desire of individuals to show strength in countries where al Qaeda-linked groups may have failed to meet the expectations of al Qaeda’s central leadership, lax entry requirements and preexisting al Qaeda networks may lead al Qaeda-linked militants to choose the South African World Cup as a target of convenience.
Al Qaeda militants may already be in possession of South African passports. In May 2004, British authorities came upon “boxes and boxes of South African passports” in a London raid upon the home of alleged militant plotters linked to al Qaeda. One report stated that the passports could be purchased for as little as $77. Pakistani authorities found a South African passport in the possession of Rashid Rauf, who helped construct the plot to bring down transatlantic airliners in 2006. Even those without South African passports could present a threat to the games, as South Africa may have as many as five million illegal immigrants who could serve as an untraceable recruiting pool.  Professor Hussein Solomon of Pretoria University’s International Institute for Islamic Studies stated that al Qaeda has widely used South African passports and that the group would like to strike at South Africa despite the country’s role as a logistics hub for the organization. 
Al Qaeda-linked individuals have also traversed South Africa in the past. Sheikh Abdullah al Faisal, a Jamaican convert to Islam who helped inspire Christmas Day bombing suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and Times Square bombing suspect Faisal Shahzad, reportedly traveled to South Africa in recent years. In 2009, Botswana deported Faisal for allegedly recruiting individuals to strike at the World Cup in neighboring South Africa. One report claimed that, as part of this effort, he had traveled to Swaziland, which is surrounded by South Africa, and other African nations as far north as Nigeria, although Swaziland officials denied any travel by Faisal to their country. Kenya deported Faisal back to Jamaica in January 2010 for similar charges and for allegedly recruiting for Somalia’s al Shabaab.
In 2004, South African intelligence officials acknowledged the presence of some al Qaeda members in their country, following news of a CIA report that assessed that 30 al Qaeda-linked individuals were based “in and around Cape Town, Durban, and the Eastern Cape.” This coincides with reports that Haroon Aswat had lived in South Africa for years prior to his involvement in the London 7/7 bombings. In January 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department designated two South African cousins, Farhad Ahmed Dockrat and Junaid Ismail Dockrat, as terrorist entities for charges that included raising $182,000 for al Qaeda between the two of them. South Africans abroad have also had terror aims: Pakistani authorities arrested two South Africans with alleged al Qaeda links in July 2004 in Pakistan. The men reportedly had plans for attacks against various high profile targets in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, and Durban.
RESPONSE FROM SOUTH AFRICAN AUTHORITIES AND FIFA
While downplaying the likelihood of an incident, South African and FIFA authorities have taken potential threats seriously. On May 21, South African President Jacob Zuma stated that, “People should be confident that nothing bad will happen here. We’ll be able to deal with the situation and I think the arrest of that suspect indicates to many that [you can’t take chances].” A day earlier, Secretary General Jerome Valcke said that none of the intelligence agencies working with FIFA – Interpol and the police departments of the 32 countries participating in the Cup – had learned about a threat against the World Cup.
South Africa has reportedly trained 44,000 extra police for the event, and Interpol will send 200 experts to assess the tournament. Authorities have invested a reported $90 million in new equipment – including “water cannons, helicopters, speed boats, jet skis, new high-performance police cars and heavy-duty emergency rescue vehicles” to use for the event. Security services will prohibit traffic from coming within 200 to 500 meters of stadiums and will “lock down” each venue 24 hours before matches. Foreign security teams will protect teams from targeted countries such as the U.S. and England, among others (South African police have reportedly rated eight of 64 games as highly threatened). On May 17, South African security services tested their response to a crisis scenario, conducting a mock hijacking in the Sandton business district of Johannesburg. 
Preparations by South African authorities, the fact that no al Qaeda group has made a direct threat against the World Cup, and the unknown capacity of al Qaeda-linked groups to conduct operations in South Africa mean that a potential threat to the World Cup should not be overblown. However, the ideological narrative of al Qaeda that makes the World Cup a target, the desires of individuals to increase their own power or that of those linked to them through a high-profile success, the potential security gaps in South Africa, and the fact that threats or plots against the World Cup or Western interests in South Africa have emerged seemingly independently from different al Qaeda-linked individuals should create concern. The publication of a cartoon depicting Muhammad in the South African weekly newspaper Mail & Guardian on May 21 could heighten such worry should al Qaeda-linked groups choose to react to the cartoon in the same way they have reacted to the Danish cartoons. The newspaper has apologized and met with Muslim leaders in South Africa.
Regardless of the threat or lack thereof to the World Cup, the series of plots and threats by individuals linked to al Qaeda reveal that individuals and groups in al Qaeda desire to execute a high-profile attack and that many see an opportunity for such a success in the same event. This shared strategic vision increases the chance that high-profile attacks such as the Times Square attack will be followed by a heightened occurrence of threats and possible similar or copycat attacks. Additionally, al Qaeda’s ideological opposition to secular international institutions such as the World Cup shows that neither it nor any of units can exist within a modern international structure, as all non-Salafist, secular institutions threaten the network’s goal of an eventual caliphate.
Finally, the choice of the World Cup as a shared target reveal a trend within the past year – more strongly evidenced by the two most recent attacks on American soil – of al Qaeda-linked individuals and groups increasingly seeking prominent, international targets. International operations from groups in relative stagnation such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb cannot be entirely ruled out in such an environment; such groups may even be slightly more dangerous due to their increased incentive to carry out a successful, high-profile attack. The al Qaeda network has become a more internationally-focused entity whose network and internal connections deserve much greater study and appreciation in order to secure events like the World Cup and roll back the al Qaeda network across the globe.