ANALYSIS - Terrorism could be threat to World Cup
JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The World Cup could be vulnerable to a terrorist attack, despite repeated South African assurances that the tournament is safe and the discovery of what looks like a half-baked plot hatched in Iraq.
The recent arrest in Iraq of Abdullah Azzam al-Qahtani, an alleged al Qaeda supporter who says he was planning an attack on the Dutch and Danish teams, has revived debate on whether the soccer spectacular in South Africa faces a threat of this kind.
South African officials have long said their respected non-aligned status and the lack of any substantial local support for militant groups should insulate them from terrorism.
Both the government and soccer's governing body FIFA, which is cooperating with foreign security agencies and Interpol, say no viable threat has been identified.
Although most experts say Qahtani's scheme appeared far from posing a serious threat, they believe terrorism cannot be ruled out because of the huge attention that even a small attack would get during the June 11-July 11 World Cup.
"It is the biggest sports event in the world. Although South Africa might think we are beyond the interests of groups like al Qaeda, the event is the target, not the country," said Anneli Botha, from the Institute of Security Studies in Pretoria.
"What makes South Africa so unique? Yes, we are not involved in Iraq or Afghanistan, but unfortunately the tremendous media coverage you are going to get will definitely attract not only al Qaeda but I think even smaller groups," she told Reuters.
Like previous violence at big sporting events, an attack on the Togo team bus during the African Nations Cup in Angola in January attracted global headlines and thrust a small and largely forgotten separatist group back into the limelight.
Two members of the Togo delegation and a driver were killed.
Police have trained in how to react to an attack, including one using chemical or biological weapons, and the force's chief, Bheki Cele, says they will pay particular attention to potential targets, including the United States v England match on June 12.
Far more time has been spent on combating the threat from South Africa's frightening rates of crime which make it one of the world's most violent countries outside a war zone.
South African police reacted to the Qahtani arrest by saying they would ensure the safety of all visitors and teams although officials seemed caught unawares by the case and local media have accused them of being dangerously out of the loop.
While South Africa has not been targeted in recent years, several militants involved in attacks around the world are known to have spent time in this country, which experts say has acted as a safe haven and staging post for operations elsewhere.
Critics say widespread corruption among police and officials, including the sale of South African passports, has undermined counter terrorism efforts.
Professor Hussein Solomon, head of the International Institute of Islamic Studies in Pretoria identifies corruption as a major weakness.
"I strongly suspect that foreign countries are reluctant to share information with us on their operations," he said.
Other experts say foreign agencies are sharing a great deal of intelligence with Pretoria ahead of the tournament.
"There are concerns regarding the ability of the South Africans to handle security threats, but the Americans as well as others know it is in their paramount interest to share credible intelligence. It does no good to bypass the South Africans," said Mark Schroeder of Stratfor strategic analysis company.
Nevertheless, experts believe the World Cup is too tempting a target for international militants to ignore.
"Al Qaeda has not been able to pull off a major attack in recent years. A terrorist group is only as effective as its last attack," Botha said.
She added that militant attacks had been foiled around the last three World Cups in France, Japan and South Korea and Germany.
The lack of any sign of an attack was no guarantee, she said. "If you raise any concern, if you raise any alarm, your plot is dead."
South African Muslims have not been radicalised and are quick to deny any support for terror plots, but Somali and Pakistani immigrants have remained somewhat isolated from the rest of society and were targets of brutal xenophobic attacks two years ago, increasing a sense of alienation.
The Islamic community was angered on Friday when the weekly Mail & Guardian news magazine published a cartoon showing the Prophet Mohammad, which is offensive to Muslims, raising fears it might encourage an attack on the World Cup.
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)
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