Islamist militants on the edge of the Middle East and North Africa, where soccer fans have played key roles in sweeping authoritarian leaders from power, are targeting soccer and the Olympics as un-Islamic in a bid to return the jihadist movement to center stage. Protests in the Middle East and North Africa have so far toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali and shaken the regime of Libyan Col. Moammar Gadaffi to its core, prompting it to brutally crackdown on protesters. The demonstrations of people power have largely side lined radical Islamist forces seeking to establish an Islamic government with a campaign of terror. In a bid to put themselves back in the spotlight, Somali Islamists associated with Al Qaeda earlier this week killed a star international on war-torn Somalia’s U-20 soccer team and wounded two other players in a suicide bombing in which 11 people died and 40 others were injured. Islamic militants in southern Russia, which frames the Middle East in the north, are increasingly launching attacks closer to the Black Sea resort of Sochi that is scheduled to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. The attacks have prompted calls by local officials for a temporary halt to tourism in the area. Russian military aircraft struck last week at militant targets in Kabardino-Balkaria in the Caucasus following the February 18 killing of Russian tourists at a ski-resort in the region. The attack occurred on the same day that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev were hosting Jean-Claude Killy, head of the International Olympic Committee’s 2014 organizing commission, in Sochi 150 miles (240 kilometers) to the west of Kabardino-Balkaria to tout the city’s preparations for the tournament. Islamists are expected to step up their attacks the region in advance of the Olympics. Russian officials say more than 300 militants have been killed in the last year by security forces who suffered 268 casualties. The number of bombings in Kabardino-Balkaria has more than tripled to 41 in the last year, according to Caucasian Knot, a Moscow-based news and analysis group that tracks the situation in the North and South Caucasus. The Russian government is investing $15 billion to develop tourism in the region. “The successful turnover of elites in the Middle East is mesmerizing not just militants, but also hundreds of thousands of practicing Muslims” in the region, says Caucasian Knot chief editor Grigory Shvedov. The International Olympic Committee has expressed confidence in the ability of Russian authorities to ensure security and put a halt to the attacks. “We have no doubts that the Russian authorities will be up to the task,” the Lausanne, Switzerland-based group said in a response by email to questions addressed to Killy by Bloomberg.
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