- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2008

PARIS (AP) — 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 Qaeda-linked attack pushed the element of risk to levels organizers deemed unacceptable. They canceled the epic race yesterday, 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 September 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.

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,” Mr. 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 Qaeda’s new north African affiliate. The roughly 550 competitors were to have embarked today from Lisbon on the 16-day, 5,760-mile trek through remote and hostile dunes and scrub to Dakar, Senegal in West Africa. At least two dozen competitors have died in crashes and other mishaps in previous runnings.

Organizers of the rally, once known as the Paris-Dakar, cited warnings from the French government about safety after the al Qaeda-linked Dec. 24 slaying of a family of French tourists in Mauritania — where most of the competition was 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 Qaeda is mentioned, you don’t ask for details,” said Patrice Clerc, who heads the company that organizes the rally. “It was enough for me to hear my government say ‘Beware, the danger is at a maximum.’ ”

Security analysts said al Qaeda’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.

Adam Raisman, senior analyst at the SITE Institute (Search for International Terrorist Entities) in Washington, said “the jihadist Internet community is quite happy with the closing, seeing it as a victory.”

Al Qaeda in Islamic North Africa is the rebranded name of an Algeria-based insurgent group known as the Salafist Group for Call and Combat. The group took responsibility for twin suicide bombings last month in Algeria’s capital that hit U.N. offices and a government building, killing 37 persons — including 17 U.N. staff members.

Al Qaeda 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.”

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 both an organizational headache and a main ingredient of its charm.

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.

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.

Terrorism fears have previously forced organizers to cancel 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 terrorism threats in Mali.

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