Lots of sad, devastated faces today here in Lisbon. The Dakar was abruptly cancelled, with only 18 hours to go until the race’s kickoff tomorrow.
In their press release (http://www.dakar.com/indexus.html) the organizers point to specific threats from Al Qaeda that led the French government to issue a travel ban on French citizens traveling to Mauritania. That led to the withdrawal of some of the big teams from the race, the insurance coverage was revoked, etc.
As some of you know last week a family of 4 French tourists was brutally murdered in Mauritania; initially it was thought to be an armed robbery gone wrong; according to the rumor mill here in Lisbon, one of the perpetrators was caught, and turned out to be an Al Qaeda operative armed with an AK47, some explosives, satellite phone, etc. Again, according to local rumors, his interrogation led to the belief that there is an active cell and an active plot to attack the rally when it arrives in Mauritania. It appears that in response to the news/rumors, Morocco now has also closed its borders and the Dakar has no where to go.
Huge dilemma for the organizers: hundreds of competitors have waited for this moment, some of them most of their adult lives; people have used their life savings, mortgaged their homes, finagled money from sponsors, just to be able participate in this event; countries like Mauritania and Senegal, and to a lesser extent Morocco, depend on the Dakar as a major source of income, not to mention millions (hundreds of?) in committed but lost advertising Euros… But on the other hand it seems that the threat is indeed real, and it is absolutely impossible to defend a soft target such as this rally, especially in the wilderness of the Sahara, from an elusive threat like this.
You have to wonder, though, about the wisdom of giving in to terrorism: a terrorist’s goal is not necessarily to kill the enemy (that will be us) but rather to terrorize the civilian population and disturb the normal course of life. In that respect Al Qaeda won a major victory today, whether or not there was actually a plot, and whether or not they are behind it.
Like everyone else here we are devastated. “The rug being pulled from underneath your feet”, or “being kicked in the gut” are relevant descriptions of how we feel right now.
We hope to be able to participate in the 2009 Dakar (assuming there will be one?), and will keep you posted when we have more news and more clarity about our next steps.