ISIS terror suspect Mohamed Abrini, who was apprehended in the wake of the Brussels attacks, has told investigators that the cell the carried out the Brussels and Paris attacks intended to target the Euro 2016 soccer championship in France. Although as yet unverified, his statements come at a time when the host country is making special security preparations ahead of the Euro 2016 tournament, which is slated to kick off on 10 June. The month-long tournament, which sees 24 European teams compete for the title of European champion, is held every four years and is one of the most widely watched sporting events in the world.
Abrini, who was involved in the Brussels’ airport bombing and who has become known as the “man in the hat” in news reports, is one of six people detained in raids in Brussels on Friday.
Over the past few months, UEFA and French authorities have been working together to ensure that the tournament’s security measures account for potential terrorist attacks. The championship has already seen French authorities ramp up security at local matches and heighten police presence around stadiums in the wake of the Paris attacks last November. The attacks included three suicide bombings outside the Stade de France during a game between the French national team and Germany. In addition to the stadium, the attacks targeted the Bataclan concert venue, and cafes and restaurants in the city center and killed 130 people in the French capital. A three-month state of emergency was declared following the attacks, which was then extended for another three months, until May 26.
With the tournament less than two months away, safety remains a major concern for both the French authorities and for fans of the teams. In the run-up to the tournament, the host country already has noticeably higher security, with heavily armed police and soldiers on the streets, metal detectors in train stations, and security guards scanning bags at major shopping and transport hubs across the capital. French security forces are also carrying out mock terror simulation exercises at fan zones and venues ahead of the tournament.
Last month, ESPN reported that tournament organizers have increased the security budget by 15% to €34 million in the aftermath of the attacks, and that 10,000 people have been privately hired for security inside the stadiums, while French authorities have mobilized an additional 900 agents for each of the 51 matches to be played. Team’s hotels will also see heightened security and fans will pass through two security checks when entering stadiums. The UEFA has also made statements that games could be moved to different locations and / or played without crowds in case of terror threats. Although French authorities later made statements ruling out the possibility that games would be played with empty stadiums, UEFA Vice-President Giancarlo Abete reiterated the possibility once again in the wake of the Brussels’ attacks.
Another concern is the security of official Fan Zones, which are being planned in the 10 host cities where matches will be played across France, and which will show matches live on a giant screen. Philippe Goujon of France’s Les Republicains’ party described the gathering of 90,000 fans at the foot of the Eiffel tower every day for a month a “temptation for terrorists of all kinds.” Open to the public, the security of Fan Zones was questioned in the wake of the Paris attacks, prompting security officials to reconsider them. Since then, both UEFA and the French sports ministry have made statements that the they would be set up with revised security measures that would include police dog teams and video surveillance that would make the Fan Zones as safe as stadiums.
Although Paris has witnessed a significant drop in tourism numbers since the November attacks, tournament organizing president Jacques Lambert has said that Euro 2016 tickets sales have not been affected, and that the country is expecting 1.5 million fans to flock to France for the tournament.