Terror and hooligan threats overshadow Russia's World Cup

    Abdulaziz Sobh

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    Russia deployed air defense systems and strict background checks on the fans in a security operation to counter the twin threats of terrorist attacks and vandalism in the World Cup.

    The country was already intensely guarded when it was controversially granted the right to host the event in 2010, but subsequent reprisals saw hooligans seek refuge and corporate barons reduced the operations of factories that process hazardous materials for fear of being attacked.

    Fans traveling to Russia must register with the police upon arrival in one of the 12 host cities and even reduce ship traffic in order to make it easier for the authorities to monitor everything that moves.

    At least 30,000 security forces will be deployed throughout Moscow when the hosts start on Thursday against Saudi Arabia at the Luzhniki Stadium.

    Squadrons of fighter jets will be on hold near the capital and air defenses will be alert for suspicious aircraft.

    "After long years of preparations, we have created a clear security plan," said FSB national security service deputy head Alexei Lavrishchev. "We are ready to avoid and overcome any security threat."


    The 64 matches broadcast around the world will give President Vladimir Putin the opportunity to project Russia as a modern state that has regained the superpower status of its Soviet past.

    But Putin is not the only one who tries to take advantage of the unparalleled platform of a World Cup.

    Security experts noted that the Islamic State (IS) group threatens to make its presence felt in Russia.

    The propaganda branch of IS began publishing images of social networks late last year showing superstars like Lionel Messi and Neymar dressed in orange suits used for video executions.

    The message that accompanies the images was explicit: "You will not enjoy security until we live in Muslim countries."

    Analysts said the size of the World Cup would have made it a target, even if Russia had not launched a bombing campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015.

    But Russia's role in fighting ISIS and other militant groups in Chechnya and other parts of the northern Caucasus, mostly Muslim, has made it a major target.

    In the months before the tournament, Russian state television regularly transmits images of combat operations against suspected militants that end with suspects lying in pools of blood or uttering confessions.

    Russia has also witnessed an avalanche of suicide bombings claimed by Islamists that have killed dozens in public transport over the past eight years.

    "There were numerous successful terrorist attacks or frustrated conspiracies in Russia by terrorists linked or inspired by the Islamic State," wrote the US Military Academy. UU At West Point in a report prepared by its anti-terrorist center last month.

    "This suggests that the group may have the ability to launch attacks in Russia during the World Cup."


    Hooliganism was a brutally violent problem but largely ignored in Russia until 150 of the team's supporters - most of them with shaved and muscular heads - rushed at the Englishmen in the French port of Marseille during Euro 2016.

    The bloody scenes that followed shocked Europe and saw Russian fans proclaim themselves kings of the underworld of football.

    "It was like winning against Brazil in football," said an amateur who took part, called Andrei, to AFP.

    "It was our last chance to show us before the World Cup because we knew that Putin would take tough measures to make sure none of that happens in Russia."

    Andrei and dozens of others who fought the English since then have spent time in Russian prisons or have been forced to sign promises by the police not to cause any problems in the coming weeks.

    Few expect Russian thugs to risk embarrassing Putin with the world watching.

    Organizers have also tried to avoid undesirable elements by presenting fan identification cards that everyone must purchase along with a ticket.

    The Russian police conduct background checks with the help of their foreign counterparts and eliminate possible troublemakers.

    About 500 people have already been denied entry.

    However, there is little that can prevent groups of bored fanatics from concentrating on fights between themselves or with locals who might lose control.

    The top British football police officer could have taken this into account when he warned 10,000 or more supporters in England who were traveling against showing the flag of St. George.

    "I think people should be very careful with flags," said Mark Roberts. "It may seem almost imperialistic."



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