Net of Suspicion

Did Osama Bin Laden really plan a series of terrorist attacks targeting the U.S. and England teams at the 1998 World Cup?

By Michael Bertin

Illustration by David Plunkert

Note from the editor: This story appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.

Osama Bin Laden was behind a plot to blow up the 1998 World Cup. Possibly.

The details of how he might have planned to do it, uncovered in an obscure book by a journalist writing under a pseudonym, are so spectacularly outlandish that at first reading it’s hard to fathom how it never became a gigantic story. After all, this is the world’s most popular sporting event. And it was targeted by the world’s most infamous person.

I came across the details of this plot while toying with pitches relating to the anniversary to the belated Al Qaeda leader’s capture. There are a few soccer episodes that color the Bin Laden narrative, the most famous of which is his supposed attendance at a handful of Arsenal games at Highbury in 1994. I figured there might be a story.

The earliest reference I could find to the Highbury claims were from the English papers in November of 2001. They cited a Bin Laden biography by someone named Adam Robinson. I saw he had written a subsequent book. The title: Terror on the Pitch: How Bin Laden Targeted Beckham and the England Football Team.

What? How had this not made the front page of newspapers around the world?

I bought a used copy on Amazon (where it is still available as an e-book) and plowed through it within hours of its arrival. The plot Robinson described was scary, daring, and utterly bizarre. It was also based on somewhat problematic sources: letters he had obtained from a contact, purportedly written by an Islamist activist Ahmed Zaoui in conjunction with Bin Laden.

One of the letters sets out the basics of the attack in alarmingly plain language. It would start with one man, who would secure a job as a steward at the Stade Velodrome in Marseilles, where England was due to play Tunisia in a group stage game on June 15. On game day, the letter says, “We suggest that the point man for the mission should make his way to [England goalkeeper David] Seaman and blow himself up next to him. This will be the signal for the other Brothers to start the rest of the operation.”

THERE WOULD BE A LETHAL ATTACK ON THE U.S. TEAM AT THEIR HOTEL IN PARIS AS THEY PREPARED FOR THEIR GAME AGAINST GERMANY, ROBINSON ASSERTS. A PLANE WAS TO BE FLOWN INTO A POWER PLANT. THE U.S. EMBASSY IN PARIS WAS TO BE BOMBED.

The rest of the operation, Robinson reports, gets even bloodier. Another gunman at the other end of the pitch would target team England’s field players. A third assailant would lob a grenade at the England bench. Another grenade would be thrown at England’s fans.

On the same day, Robinson asserts, there would be a lethal attack on the U.S. team at their hotel in Paris as they prepared for their game against Germany. There were non-soccer elements, too. A plane was to be flown into a power plant in order to cause a meltdown. The U.S. embassy in Paris was to be bombed.

Thankfully, none of it ever happened. But after digesting Robinson’s claims, I began to have doubts that such an enormous, outlandish plot had ever been in the works at all. Just because letters are reprinted in a book doesn’t mean they are legitimate, and just because Zaoui was identified as the author does not mean that was actually the case. Besides, I had never heard of Robinson. The promotional material for his two books lists him as a journalist based in the middle east, yet those books appeared to be his only works published anywhere.

It turns out that similar doubts were raised over a decade ago — in New Zealand newspaper, of all places. The Press, based in Christchurch, published a series of pieces questioning the veracity of Robinson’s book in February 2004. At that time, Zaoui’s status had become a hot topic in New Zealand, where he had been jailed after turning up in the country in 2002 with a fake passport and a request for asylum from persecutors in Algeria and France.

Now came Robinson’s book, full of outlandish allegations that Zaoui had personally met with Bin Laden and created the World Cup 98 plan side-by-side with the Al-Quaeda leader. All of a sudden, according to The Press, Terror on the Pitch had found its way into the hands of some of New Zealand’s top lawmakers, including the office of the prime minister.

The journalist and author Simon Kuper had read it as well. In his book Football Against the Enemy, Kuper calls the book “curiously ignored,” and says that Adam Robinson is the journalist’s pseudonym. He points out that on March 3, 1998, seven Algerian terrorists were arrested at a house in Belgium. On May 26, almost 100 people were brought in for questioning by police in seven European countries. “Now we can approach the World Cup more serenely,” says a spokesperson for the French government later that day. “It is possible to dismiss this as a terrorist wish list,” Kuper writes, “but we now know that these people aren’t dreamers.”

All the same, with input from lawyers and experts in Middle Eastern politics, The Press made a compelling case that Robinson’s claims about Zaoui were, at best, extremely unlikely. The reasons delve too deep into the machinery of political and terrorist activity to examine here, but “for a start,” Zaoui’s lawyer Deborah Manning told the paper, “Zaoui is a big soccer fan.”


Ultimately, there was only one person who could give me a definitive idea of just how real this plot might have been: Robinson himself. I reached out to his publisher, Mainstream Press in Edinburgh, a division of Random House, in an attempt to contact the author. The publisher said they would pass on my request. To whom — Robinson, his agent? — they did not say. I never heard back.

The New Zealand government had already tried something similar, with the same results. “I can’t find out anything about the journalist, so the journalist may have no credibility at all,” former New Zealand Immigration Minister Lianne Dalziel told The Press. The paper itself tried its own inquiries, e-mailing Robinson several times and calling his associates.

“I’m afraid Adam does seem to be out of touch at the moment,” his literary agent, Guy Rose, told The Press. “I have left messages, but he does have to make a lot of trips around the Middle East. As soon as he replies, I’ll tell him to respond to your various queries.”

That was the last mention of Robinson published in the paper. I haven’t heard back from him either.


For the only other thing resembling evidence of a plot, I had Julian Assange to thank. I had the Wikileaks dump of all the Guantanamo files on my hard drive for another project, and one day when I was searching on my computer for something “World Cup” related, amongst the returns was one of the prisoner files.

Huh?

But there it was: Ridouane Khalid, Number 3, section d, fifth bullet point: “French authorities arrested detainee in 1998 as being an Islamic extremist suspected of creating a logistical support network … in connection with threats against the world cup [sic] held in France in 1998.”

This was the closest I had come to a government explicitly acknowledging that the plot was something that happened. Or was it? A little more poking around turned up another prisoner with a similar charge against him. And that turned up the lawyer defending him.

“This never figured in the case against [the inmate] in habeas corpus, and like a lot of the claptrap that makes it into DOD documents it was never formally pursued anywhere, that I can recall,” she said. “I assume it was, like so many things in Gitmo, a piece of fabrication from one of Gitmo’s many, many jailhouse snitches.” Not the most reliable sources, to be sure. And as it turns out, Robinson may have been just as unreliable.

Possibly.


Michael Bertin is a contributor to the magazine. His work has also appeared in Grantland, FiveThirtyEight, and DeadSpin. Follow him on Twitter at @bertinbertin. David Plunkert is an award-winning illustrator. See more of his portfolio here.