DECEMBER 30, 2003
The threat of terrorism in Bahrain
Much has been made in recent days of the threat of a potential terrorist attack on the Grand Prix in Bahrain in April next year. The first appearance of Formula 1 in the Middle East could constitute a tempting target for Islamic terrorists, keen to strike at the western world. No specific threat has been received but the race organizers are aware that security will need to be tight. Security is tight at every Grand Prix around the world and this means that it will be very difficult for any potential attacker to get anywhere near the inner sanctums of Grand Prix racing although with a large crowd expected, there is always going to be a danger of suicide bombings similar to those which occur in Israel on a daily basis, despite the highest levels of security.
The influence of the West in Bahrain is a source of annoyance to Islamic fundamentalists not least because Bahrain is the home of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. The base hosts around 6,000 people in normal operation but this increases dramatically when big ships are in the port. This week, for example, it is reckoned that there are 11,000 US citizens in Bahrain as the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and the guided-missile cruiser USS Gettysburg are visiting. In the last few days the American Embassy in Bahrain has issued a warning, urging American citizens to avoid places where Westerners congregate and to reduce unnecessary travel because of the threat of a possible terrorist attack.
The threat of terrorism in Bahrain is not new. In March the Foreign Office revised its travel advice for Bahrain and instructed British nationals to consider leaving unless their presence was essential. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa tried to improve the situation by offering Saddam Hussein sanctuary to avert war in the region but once the US-led war began, Bahrain soon expelled an Iraqi diplomat who had been linked to an explosion outside the US naval base.
In October the authorities in Bahrain acknowledged that there was a threat to security from Islamic insurgents and Bahraini troops were put into training alongside US forces to learn anti-terrorism techniques. In November the British Embassy in Bahrain warned UK citizens that there was a high threat of a "terrorist" attacks against Western targets in Bahrain and a few days later the Bahraini Cabinet drafted tough new anti-terroroist legislation.
The Foreign Office maintains its fears about terrorist attacks, the current advice to travellers being that they should "remain vigilant, particularly in public places" and indicating that "we are particularly concerned about potential threats to places where westerners might gather".
There are 7,000 British nationals living in Bahrain but a Grand Prix would boost this number to around 9,000.
The Formula One Administration is keeping in close contact with the Bahrain authorities but in the F1 world the feeling is that it is still too early to assess whether or not it is a bad idea to take the Formula 1 circus to Bahrain, with four months still to go there is time for a decision to be made.
There are some who argue that Bahrain would be wise to postpone the race a year because the country is still not truly ready for the visitors expected. Hotel rooms are in short supply and the construction of new hotels is not yet sufficiently advanced to be finished in time. Holding a race could therefore result in negative publicity for Bahrain.
From the Formula 1 perspective there is also pressure for the race to be dropped because of the predicament in which France now finds itself. The French say that they now have the money to hold a Grand Prix but not if they must pay $20m to be the 18th race on the World Championship calendar. If Bahrain were to drop out for a year, France would be back on.
The Formula 1 world has long tried to ignore real world politics and to behave as normal but in the past there have never been situations in which the threat is as clear as it is today. But for the moment at least no decision is going to be taken on the matter.
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