World Cup Attractive for Terrorists and Criminals: Security Experts Warn Fans to Be 'Vigilant'

Hundreds of thousands of people from around the world, including more than 100,000 Americans, are pouring into South Africa to enjoy the 2010 World Cup soccer tournament, which starts Friday. But there are concerns that fans and members of the 32 national teams competing in the Cup may be targets for criminals and terrorists.

The North African Al-Qaeda group Al Maghreb, which is based in Algeria, issued a threat to the United States verses England game being played on June 12th.

In an on-line post from April, the group threatened to use a form of an 'undetectable' explosive that will cause "hundreds of deaths." The stadium hosting the match, located in Rustenberg, about 40 miles outside of Johannesburg, seats 45,000 people and is expected to be sold-out Saturday.

But the U.S. and England fans and teams aren't the only attractive target. Anneli Botha, a senior researcher on terrorism at the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, told ABC News there have been threats against the Dutch and Danish as well, because of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard's satiric depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in Denmark's Jyllands-Posten newspaper and because of Dutch support for the cartoonist. The Dutch team plays Denmark Monday, June 14, in the first match for both squads.

The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for Americans expected to travel to South Africa for the World Cup.

"Large-scale public events like the World Cup may present a wide range of attractive targets for terrorists," the warning stated. "There is a heightened risk that extremist groups will conduct terrorist acts within South Africa in the near future."

But there are some domestic and home-grown terrorism concerns as well. Radicalized Muslim groups from South Africa's Western Cape are considered a threat, as well as right-wing neo-nazi groups. There is also evidence of criminal elements within the country's substantial Pakistani and Somali communities. Last year, all U.S. embassies and consulates in the country closed down for two days after intelligence officials intercepted communication by the al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali group al Shabaab threatening the embassy.

"It's not a question of looking at only al Qaeda, but also looking at domestic groups," said Botha. But she added that these groups have historically been concerned with domestic issues only, and are unlikely to view the World Cup as an attractive target. "South African issues are very localized. I don't think the groups would start targeting the international community."

FIFA, the international soccer organization that runs the World Cup, has said it takes all threats to the tournament seriously, but will not curb or cancel the games.

'We have freedom in the world to celebrate what we want," FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke has told reporters. "As the management of the organization that governs world football, we know there is a threat. We will not stop the organization of the World Cup because we got the threat."

Law enforcement's response to the threat has been global. South African and international security and intelligence agencies have been gearing up with both visible and hidden security precautions.

"There's been a lot of support coming in from the international community, including the U.S. and the U.K. and Interpol, " said Botha. "Training has been provided by the FBI, Interpol has regional office based in Harare, Zimbabwe training police officers... they've all pledged support with helping with the World Cup," she says.

South African law enforcement officials maintain that the country is prepared in the event of a terror attack, and say that there is no greater risk of an attack at this World Cup than at any previous one. "South Africa is not unique. There were threats against France and Japan and Germany," said Botha. "The same issues apply and the same issues have been dealt with as you'd find in anywhere else in the world."

The biggest security threat to the World Cup may up end up being the most local problem of all -- crime. South Africa is considered one of the world's most dangerous countries with an average of 50 murders a day, and one of the highest rape and car-jacking rates in the world. The State Department's travel advisory to American soccer fans also advised them not to wear expensive jewelry or cash and to travel in groups: "Visitors should be aware that criminal activity, including violent crime, is prevalent throughout the country."

Most of these crimes occur in poor township areas where tourists are not likely to be, but a group of Portuguese journalists has already been robbed at gunpoint, and other journalists have reported equipment being stolen from their bags at the Johannesburg airport.

Police are being vigilant. More than 41,000 police officers have been dispatched, along with hundreds of private security operators. All will be perched at each of the stadiums and throughout host cities, vowing to crack down on any criminals.

Police aren't the only ones who need to be vigilant, say security experts, fans do too. "You can prepare as much as you want but unfortunately there's always a possibility of something happening," said Botha. "Security is the responsibility of the police yes, but... people should also be taking care of their surroundings, informing police of anything suspicious."

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That advice goes for not only thwarting potential terrorist attacks, but also protecting oneself from being a victim of crime.

"People should not be thinking, I'm only here to enjoy myself and think that nothing will happen," says Botha. "You are first and foremost responsible for your own security."

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