2008 Dakar Rally cancelled over terrorist threat

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Saturday, January 5, 2008 File:Dakar 2006 Hummer Gordon.jpg

A file photo of a Hummer H3 competing in the 2006 event
(Image missing from Commons: image; log)

The threat of terrorism has caused the cancellation yesterday of the 2008 Dakar Rally, due to start today. The race, which was to be the 30th consecutive rally, was to start in Lisbon, Portugal and end on January 20 in Dakar, Senegal having crossed the Sahara Desert.

The endurance event is the world’s biggest off-road rally and Paris-based organisers Amaury Sport Organisation had said as late as Thursday that more than 500 cars, trucks, motorcycles and quads from fifty different countries were ready to go as scheduled. However, the organisation changed its mind under pressure from the French government.

Al-Qaida-linked groups are believed to have planned to attack the rally, and it is reported that specific threats were made against it by al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb, a regional African offshoot. The day before Christmas a French family on holiday in Mauritania was murdered and al-Qaida are believed to be responsible; the rally was scheduled to spend eight days in Mauritania.

Al-Qaida in the Islamic Magreb have recently seen a crackdown by authorities, but are continuing their operations and are now seeking to strike international targets. Last month they bombed the United Nations headquarters in Algiers; that attack killed 37.

The Mauritanian government had promised a 3,000-strong security force to protect the competitors but the remote location of the desert and scrubland involved would make effective security arrangements almost impossible. French security consultant Louis Caprioli, former anti-terrorism head at the Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, said “You would need really incredible security precautions, and I don’t think it’s possible with the new techniques of attack, such as suicide bombings.”

A Kamaz truck at the rally in 2004.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said yesterday that Amuary had been warned by government officials that it would be too dangerous to go ahead with the plan. After last-minute meetings with ministry officials. “No other decision but the cancellation of the sporting event could be taken,” said a statement on Amuary’s website.

Caprioli said the terrorists intended to prove “They can chase out the infidels. The cancellation was wise. But it gives the impression that the terrorists have won.”

Patrice Clerc, head of Amuary, stated “When you are told of direct threats against the event and when the sinister name of al-Qaeda is mentioned, you don’t ask for details. It was enough for me to hear my government say the danger is at a maximum.”

Security has caused many concerns for the race over the years. Extremists tend to view the race as a prime target, as it is highly covered by the media, and is a rare concentration of Westerners. As a result, major security measures have had to be undertaken by French and African authorities. Almost 50 people have been killed, several of whom at the hands of African fighters. Although there are fears for the future of the race, Amuary said that the event would continue in the future. “The Dakar is a symbol, and nothing can destroy symbols,” they said. “The cancellation of the 2008 edition does not endanger the future of the Dakar.” However, they have confirmed that it is unlikely Mauritania will be a destination in future events. Competitors in the event, however, are less optimistic, with many saying that they feel the race will not go ahead next year. Newspapers in Senegal have described the cancellation as a death sentence. Meanwhile, the town of Portimao in Portugal, intended to be the rally’s first scheduled stop, are considering filing for damages against Amuary.

Victor Anderes, vice-president of a New York firm specialising in high-profile event security, called the cancellation an unprecedented one in sporting history, saying “Smaller cultural events have been cancelled , but this hasn’t happened with such a major international event.” However, he did accept that “The threat is significant. It would be almost impossible to secure the entire course.”