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Hundreds of crews gathered in Lisbon heard at the last minute Friday that the organizers, the Amaury Sport Organization, had called off the challenging 9,000-mile Dakar Rally for the first time over terror threats. Five suspects were detained by Mauritanian intelligence over the murders of a French family of four on Dec. 24 and three soldiers. DEBKAfile’s counter-terror sources report that the suspects told interrogators in Nouakchott that Al Qaeda’s next target in the series was to be the Dakar Rally.
The jihadist group, they said, had deployed terrorist teams in a wide net across the Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal, poised to kill rally participants and take hostages. Eight of the rally’s stages transit Mauritania.
More than 600 cars, trucks, motor-cycles and their crews were set to start the 30th annual Dakar Rally, known as the Everest of off-road racing, Saturday, Jan. 5 and ending at Dakar on Jan. 20 after driving through harsh Saharan terrain. More than 80 percent of the field had invested a year’s hard work and private funds in preparing for the event.
In 2004, several stages of the Dakar Rally were called off because of terror threats in Mali - but never has al Qaeda succeeded in forcing the cancellation of an entire major sporting event. According to our counter-terror sources, al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri, who directs the movement’s Maghreb branch, is responsible for this “success.” It has aroused fears in international sporting circles that al Qaeda, having flexed its muscles in Africa, will now try and force the cancellation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics by intimidation.