The British media has levelled a number of accusations against the State of Qatar in the wake of FIFA's selection of the tiny Muslim nation as host of the 2022 World Cup. However, the latest charge that FIFA ignored Qatar's "high risk" for a terrorist attack is the most questionable to date. Citing a confidential assessment by former South African police chief Andre Pruis, British media is trying to make the case that Qatar is too vulnerable to terrorism to serve as host. As someone who has worked on counter-terrorism issues for nearly 20 years, I find this argument wrong for three key reasons.
First, the expert assessments of risk managers say otherwise. The UK Foreign Office's foreign travel advice calls attacks in Qatar "unlikely"; and the 2014 assessment by firms Aon Risk Solutions and The Risk Advisory Group rates the risk of terrorism and political violence in Qatar as "negligible" (the only country in the Middle East and North Africa with this rating). For comparison, Qatar rates better in the 2014 assessment than both the United States and the UK, where the risk is considered "low."
According to recent media claims, Pruis' threat assessment was "based on American anti-terrorism information," yet the only reference to the level of threat in Qatar in the US State Department's 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism is that "terrorist activity historically has been low in Qatar." This is reaffirmed by the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, which shows that from 1982-2012, there were only six terrorist attacks, resulting in a total of seven deaths and twelve injuries. This is significantly lower than in Great Britain, which suffered 431 attacks in the same period, at a much higher human cost (if we add Northern Ireland, the number is substantially higher).
British media have also emphasised that Pruis told the FIFA Executive Committee that the "threat against Qatar relates to its location-its proximity to countries with inter alia an al-Qaeda presence." If proximity had a causal relationship with attacks, Qatar should have been inundated with terrorism long ago, yet we have not seen an increase in terrorist attacks in the country.
Apprehension among counter-terrorism experts and government officials in Europe about jihadist "bleed out" from Syria-the return of foreign fighters to their countries of origin where they could initiate attacks-also seems to undercut the proximity argument. Hundreds of British nationals have traveled to fight in Syria, and senior UK officials have raised serious concerns about the consequent threat. In contrast, there are no indications that a similar threat exists for Qatar, despite its closer proximity to Syria.
Second, British media's claim that the concentration of main World Cup venues in a radius of 60 kilometres poses security challenges for crowd control, traffic, and impact on multiple venues in the event of an attack, seems out of context and incomplete. There are specific challenges to concentrated venues, admittedly, but there are also advantages to compact emergency management and infrastructure protection. We already know that, according to the U.S. State Department, the Qataris are "well-positioned to respond to incidents with rapid reaction forces and trained internal security forces that routinely pursue and engage in structured counterterrorism training and exercises," so why would we suddenly assume that in the next eight years they will not build additional resiliency to manage the World Cup? Indeed, Pruis qualified his judgment by saying that an attack "may" create these security challenges; it is not imminent and there is time to plan and mitigate.
Finally, Mr. Pruis clearly did not conduct a thorough review. According to media reports, "FIFA told Pruis to report within days" and directed him to "work alone and discreetly." In the U.S., an assessment of this magnitude for a high profile sporting event involves multiple agencies (Department of Defense, CIA, FBI, State Department, U.S. Treasury, etc.) and dozens of individuals, taking months to complete. Yet British media appears to question whether Qatar should host the World Cup based on the judgment of a single individual who took only a few days to review the risk profiles of five bidding nations. Mr. Pruis may be good, but no one is that good.
My point is not to discredit Mr. Pruis or impugn his expertise. My concern is about reporting that appears to mislead rather than inform. Indeed, I would not be surprised if Mr. Pruis has serious issues with how British media have used and characterised his assessment (Pruis was not interviewed). I also question why publications have been so selective in their citations from the "report," which appear to have been more of a briefing. Perhaps they should publish the full text. In the context of a series of British media stories critical of Qatar as the 2022 host, this most recent accusation appears to be more of a smear campaign than honest journalism.
Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz served as President Obama's senior advisor on countering violent extremism and held two senior positions at the National Security Council at the White House. He has nearly 20 years experience in the field of counter-terrorism and has published widely on the subject, including "Radical Islam Rising," a book about radicalisation in the UK.