The now dead al-Qaeda leader laid intricate plans to target the England team during France 98 - specifically the Arsenal and Manchester United stars.
During the mid 1990s, Osama bin Laden bought a property in Wembley, in a bid to embark on a “fact finding” mission in London. As well as making contact with assorted Islamic cells, he also sampled aspects of life in the capital. In his book Terror On The Pitch, Adam Robinson revealed how bin Laden sent post cards to his extended family from both the Natural History and British museums. He also developed a strange affinity for Arsenal. Bin Laden regularly visited Highbury, as George Graham’s side embarked on European Cup Winners Cup runs.
Bin Laden’s former associates explained to Robinson how the al-Qaeda leader was struck by the sheer passion of English fans, and Arsenal striker Ian Wright especially. Neil Doyle claims Islamic terrorists take extreme views, even on sports. “Many members of al-Qaeda are talented sportsmen,” he explains. “Boxing, football and wrestling are designed to teach you self discipline and keep you fit. It’s not really there to be enjoyed.”
Bin Laden himself was a talented goalkeeper in his youth, and it gave him an outlet through which to vent his frustration about his chaotic homelife. When he eventually returned home, he took with him a signed Ian Wright shirt for one of his sons. More worryingly, he also began to ponder an attack which, had it succeeded, would have stunned the world in a manner to rival even the events on September 11th.
As preparations for the France 98 World Cup progressed, al-Qaeda planned to use an affiliated Algerian Islamist terrorist organization, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), to stage attacks against England and the USA. The most noteworthy would have occurred at the England v Tunisia match in Marseilles, which has a large Arab population.
Over a period of eight months, terrorists worked to infiltrate a dozen of their operatives into the Stade Velodrome for the match, which would take place on June 15th. Over the previous ten years, numerous other cells were set up in the French port, with members (known as “sleepers” on account of their anonymity) slipping virtually unnoticed into regular day jobs The terrorists hired for the suicide mission claimed to be passionate Marseilles fans, gained membership of the fan club, and were promptly hired as volunteer workers for the England v Tunisia game, which would have given them clear access to the pitch.
With the game in full flow, and an estimated 500 million watching around the world, one terrorist was instructed to target David Seaman with a suicide bomb. An accomplice would then bombard the England bench, targeting, amongst others, manager Glenn Hoddle, and rising stars David Beckham and Michael Owen. Another grenade was to be hurled into the clutch of England supporters behind the goal, and the last terrorist was told to storm the pitch and shoot dead Alan Shearer at point blank range.
“The Sheikh asks that we observe the movements of Seaman, Shearer, and the trainer, Hoddle. Also, his attention has been drawn to two younger players who are becoming well known, David Beckham and Michael Owen…we suggest that the point man for the mission should make his way to Seaman and blow himself up.”
Simultaneous attacks were also planned in Paris against the American team in their hotel where they were preparing for their game against Germany in the afternoon. The GIA assassins were to evade French security measures by using stolen hotel uniforms and identification. The final part of the plot would have seen three Islamic terrorists living near Poitiers hijack a passenger jet and crash it into a nearby nuclear reactor, creating a radioactive cloud which would have rivalled that of Chernobyl. Bin Laden would have wreaked terrible revenge for the West’s perceived bias against Muslims.
Fortunately, the French intelligence services had numerous spies within the GIA, and their informers revealed the names of dangerous Islamic activists in Europe, which led to the plot unravelling two months before it was due to be carried out. On the 3rd of March, 50 officers raided a Brussels house shortly before morning prayers. Most were caught unawares, but two GIA members escaped to the loft of the building, barricaded themselves in, and traded gunfire with policemen.
Four hours elapsed before the police overwhelmed the pair with tear gas, but by this time many documents had been shredded, which police later claimed could have laid bare the GIA and al-Qaeda networks. However, police did seize a huge amount of liquid explosives, detonators, thousands of dollars, and handguns. There were also hoards of fake passports, World Cup brochures and documents, including detailed maps of the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles, and pictures of the English and US football teams.
When reports of the plan first surfaced, they were met with scepticism in the west. It wasn’t until Adam Robinson obtained copies of letters written to bin Laden by Muslim cleric Abu Hamza that the gravity of what might have happened dawned. Hamza, who’d been assessing the GIA’s strengths and weaknesses on al-Qaeda’s behalf, revealed: “Please inform the Sheikh (bin Laden) of my highest wishes for his continued health and inform him that his servants in France and Europe will not fail him.”
Another al-Qaeda member, Ahmed Zaoui, revealed in a piece of correspondence that bin Laden had personally selected the targets on the England team: “The Sheikh, may God bless him, asks that we observe the movements of David Seaman, the goalkeeper, Alan Shearer, the most famous player, and the trainer, Hoddle. Also, thanks be to God, his attention has been drawn to two younger players who are becoming well known, David Beckham and Michael Owen…we suggest that the point man for the mission should make his way to Seaman and blow himself up. This will be the signal for the other Brothers to start the rest of the operation.”
Despite bin Laden’s intricate plans being thwarted on this occasion, two months later, al-Qaeda bombed US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, causing 224 deaths. Bin Laden’s biographer Yossef Bodansky claims the attacks were completed due to the “failure of the primary operation – an attack on two World Cup teams – England and the USA.” Three years later in the USA, al-Qaeda put into practice many of the ideas they’d mooted in ‘98. Middle-eastern experts, including Robinson, believe strongly that Western intelligence services ignored many of the warning signs from the World Cup plot.
“The London Olympics are an extremely tempting target. There’s evidence that the processes have already begun. Police discovered that Bacton gas terminal in East London, near where the Olympic stadium will be constructed, was being cased by suspected terrorists”
Al-Qaeda’s connections with football don’t end with “the massacre that never was.” Two days after the 9-11 attacks, Tunisian footballer Nizar Trabelsi was arrested in Belgium. Trabelsi had played in Germany before meeting FBI’s most wanted Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan. After volunteering for suicide bombing missions, Trabelsi started to organize radical Islamic cells across Europe. Phone and credit card bills confirmed his involvement, and Trabelsi admitted to planning to drive a car bomb into the Kleine Brogel US army base in Belgium. He was jailed for ten years for his involvement.
Neil Doyle believes that football, and sport in general, remains integral to al-Qaeda’s plans: “The London Olympics are an extremely tempting target. There’s evidence that the processes have already begun. Police discovered that Bacton gas terminal in East London, near where the Olympic stadium will be constructed, was being cased by suspected terrorists. It’s now under permanent guard. London, being such a cosmopolitan city, will always be open to such threats. It’s so easy for would be terrorists to slip through the net.”
Three more cases of footballers being placed in grave danger in other parts of the world….
1. In September 2006, Baghdad gunmen seized Ghanim Khudayer, a leading Iraqi player, from his home. Ghanim’s side had won the 2004/05 Iraqi Championship, and he was rumoured to be on the verge of a lucrative move to Syria. Since the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003, several sportsmen had been kidnapped, or fled abroad, to avoid the attentions of roving gangs, keen to profit from the chaos of a nation on the verge of civil war. Khudayer had recently spoken out against the spate of car bombs in Iraq, claiming “I’m not sure if Iraqis weren’t safer under Saddam.” Club spokesmen confirmed that “Gunmen wearing military uniforms and driving four wheel vehicles broke into his house and took him away.” With hundreds of Iraqis killed every week, and many more kidnapped, it’s hardly surprising that footballers, many of whom are paid in cash by their clubs, are targeted by groups. As yet Khudayer has not yet been returned, although his kidnappers announced they might release him the day after Saddam was executed. Khudayer’s disappearance is simply a reflection of the chaos reigning within the country, claimed one of his team-mates.
2. Star Torpedo Moscow striker Eduard Streltsov, having turned down numerous offers to join KGB affiliated Dinamo Moscow, and Red Army team CSKA Moscow, received a threatening letter in 1958 warning him that unless he joined one of Moscow’s “big two”, his life would “take a turn for the worst.” Streltsov again refused to heed the dire warning, and two months later was sentenced to two years in a Siberian labour camp for a crime he could not have committed. He was accused of raping a woman in his flat, even though Streltsov was able to prove that he was eating out that night, and that two other men admitted their guilt in court. Russia’s golden boy miraculously survived the sub zero gulag temperatures, partly because the warders were in awe of him, and realised he’d been fitted up. After doing his time, he returned to Torpedo, and led them to the Russian Championship ahead of city rivals Dinamo and CSKA. He even returned to the national side, although he didn’t travel to the 62 or 66 World Cups as his punishment forbade him from travelling.
3. After playing the starring role in Steau Bucharest’s 1986 European Cup triumph against Barcelona, goalkeeper Helmut Ducadam moaned at an official banquet that the car he received as a bonus was scant reward for his heroism between the sticks. Ducadam took exception to the fact that had Barca won, the Spanish side’s players would have been rewarded with £20,000 bonuses and holiday homes in the Caribbean. On the following day, Ducadam went missing, amidst rumours that Steau benefactor and Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu had had his arms lopped off as punishment for his whinging. Many Steau players, who were also rumoured to complain vociferously about the grim conditions inside Romania when they played abroad for club and country, opted to sign lucrative contracts in Western Europe, rather than risk the same fate which apparently befell Ducadam. Five years later, Ducadam miraculously reappeared, claiming – none too convincingly – that an intensive course of blood transfusions due to a genetic disorder had left him bed ridden. To this day, Ducadam has refused to reveal the full truth of what happened to him during his prolonged absence from the game.
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