2022, FIFA, World Cup, Qatar
2022 FIFA World Cup in Education City Stadium, Doha, Qatar, November 24, 2022. Photo credit: Republic of Korea / Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Jihadists threaten European soccer championship.

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In a recent sermon, ultra-conservative Egyptian religious scholar Nashaat Ahmad praised Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup for its civilizational success. He suggested that the World Cup had introduced Western soccer fans to cleanliness with the furnishing of Qatari toilets with bidets.

According to Ahmad, Western fans all bought bidets in Qatari markets to take home with them. “They were amazed. At first, they didn’t know how to use the bidet, but when it was explained to them, they were awestruck. They felt clean for the first time. Throughout their lives, they were filthy,” Ahmad said.

Leaving aside the fact that bidets were first developed in 17th century France, Ahmad’s comment is relevant not for its misreading of history and reality but for its reflection of convoluted and contradictory attitudes toward soccer among ultra-conservative Muslim scholars and militants.

For much of the last decade, discussion of soccer among ultra-conservatives faded into the background while Islamic militants appeared to set their sights elsewhere. That could change with the current European football championship and next month’s Paris Olympics. For now, the Gaza war’s mobilizing effect will likely primarily manifest itself in pro-Palestinian protests rather than violent attacks.

Even so, authorities fear that in the longer term Gaza, fuelled by perceptions of Western double standards and the images of human and physical carnage, could have a mobilizing and radicalization effect like that of the Syria war.

Whether that fear is exaggerated, or the result of security officials’ prejudice remains to be seen.

An online Islamic State group-affiliated media platform, the Al Azaim Foundation, called in May for attacks during the European quarterfinals on London’s Emirates Stadium, Paris’s Parc de Prince, and Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu. The posting featured a gunman in a balaclava, with the message, “Kill them all.”

Barely a week after the Gaza war erupted, another Islamic State group outlet, Sawt al-Zarqawi, praised a lone wolf’s killing of two Swedes and wounding of a third near a Brussels stadium where Sweden was about to play Belgium.

That is not the only reason why authorities are on alert.

“He … played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah.”

The Islamic State group is not the only militant group eyeing the European championship.

So are the Grey Wolves, militant Turkish nationalists, who see Germany’s 7 million-strong Turkish German community as fertile ground for recruitment through emotional appeal rather than violence, even if the group has in the past not shied away from violence.

The Grey Wolves constitute Germany’s second largest far-right movement with a membership of 18,000. Grey Wolf ideology marries Turkic ethnicism with Muslim religious identity.

More menacingly, the Islamic State group threat revives the specter of a decade-old long list of militant attacks on stadiums, including Paris in 2015, as well as Nigeria and Iraq, and the cancellation of soccer matches in Germany and Belgium after plots were foiled.

Fact of the matter is that ultra-conservative Muslim and jihadist attitudes towards sports, and particularly soccer, and the targeting of sporting events has long been a divisive issue in their communities.

One school of ultra-conservative and jihadist thought sees soccer as an infidel invention designed to distract the faithful from fulfilling their religious obligations. Another, that includes soccer fans and former, failed, or disaffected players, see the sport as a recruitment and bonding tool.

Men like Osama bin Laden, Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh, and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah base their advocacy of the utility of soccer on those ultra-conservative and mainstream Islamic scholars who argue that the Prophet Mohammed advocated physical exercise to maintain a healthy body as opposed to more militant students of Islam who, at best, seek to rewrite the rules of the game to Islamicize it, if not outright ban the sport.

The late, self-declared Islamic State group caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi embodied the jihadists’ double-edged attitude towards soccer. Al-Baghdadi was a passionate player in his pre-Islamic State days, Yet, the Islamic State group and its affiliates took credit for scores of attacks on stadiums.

In targeting soccer and stadiums, jihadists focused on the world’s most popular form of popular culture and the one fixture that evokes the kind of deep-seated emotion capable of rivaling passions associated with religion and sectarianism.

children, playing football, Syria

Young children playing football, dreaming of future glory, by the side of the Palmyra ruins in Syria, 2009. Photo credit: Ed Brambley / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Soccer represents a double-edged sword for jihadists. The sport offers an attractive environment for recruitment and expressions of empathy. Stadiums are ideal venues for dissent and protest as was evident in the last decade’s popular uprisings in Egypt, Algeria, and Iraq.

Yet, they also constitute useful targets. Thousands attend matches that are broadcast live to huge national, regional, and global audiences.

A successful attack on a soccer match goes a long way to achieve jihadist goals of polarizing communities, exacerbating social tensions, and driving the marginalized further into the margins, even if it’s likely to alienate large numbers of fans.

Islamic State’s sweep through northern Iraq in June 2015 during which it captured Mosul, the country’s second largest city, was preceded by a bombing campaign in which soccer pitches figured prominently.

The group positioned itself with its spate of attacks squarely in the camp of those militant Islamists, jihadists, and Salafis that argue that soccer is not one of several sports mentioned in the Quran. In doing so, the Islamic State group aligned itself with Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabab in Somalia, who both targeted venues where fans gathered to watch 2014 World Cup matches on huge television screens.

In contrast to Islamic State, Boko Haram and Al Shabab, jihadists like bin Laden, and militant Islamists like Haniyeh and Nasrallah encouraged the game as a halal pastime and useful recruitment and bonding tool. Yet, at times, they straddled the tension between a passion for soccer and a willingness to target fellow supporters.

In 1998, bin Laden authorized a plan by Algerian jihadists to attack the World Cup. Similarly, purported messages by Malaysian-born, al-Qaeda-affiliated bomb maker Noordin Mohammed Top, claimed that the bombings in 2009 of the Ritz Carlton and Marriott hotels in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta were intended to kill the visiting Manchester United team.

Soccer figured prominently in bin Laden’s imagery. Speaking to supporters about the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, he drew an analogy to soccer. “I saw in a dream, we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots! So, I wondered if that was a soccer game or a pilot game? Our players were pilots,” he said.

Twisted rulings of ultra-conservatives provided the theological underpinnings of the attitudes towards soccer of militant groups like the Taliban and Boko Haram, informed Al-Shabab’s drive to recruit soccer-playing kids in Somalia, and inspired some players to become fighters and suicide bombers in foreign lands.

Jihadist proponents of soccer’s utility recognize the fact that fans like jihadists live in a world characterized best by US President George W. Bush’s us-against-them response to 9/11.

The track record of soccer-players-turned suicide bombers proved the point. Soccer was perfect for the creation and sustenance of strong and cohesive jihadist groups. It facilitated personal contact and the expansion of informal networks which, in turn, encouraged individual participation and the mobilization of resources.

These informal individual connections contributed to jihadist activity in a variety of ways. They facilitated the circulation of information and, therefore, the speed of decision-making. In the absence of any formal coordination among jihadi organizations, recruitment, enlistment, and cooperation focused on individuals.

Another important function of multiple informal individual relationships was their contribution to the growth of feelings of mutual trust. University of Michigan professor Scott Atran noted that “a reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the Jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends.”

Atran’s yardstick is evident in analysis of past violent incidents. The perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings played soccer together, and several Hamas suicide bombers traced their roots to the same football club in the conservative West Bank town of Hebron.

Nonetheless, to men like bin Laden as well as more mainstream, nonviolent, ultra-conservative Muslims, the beautiful game also posed a challenge. In a swath of land stretching from Central Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa, soccer was the only institution that rivaled Islam with its vast network of mosques in creating public spaces to vent pent-up anger and frustration.

Soccer’s value to jihadists was illustrated by the histories of various suicide bombers and foreign fighters. 

To cite just one example, Mohammed Emwazi, who gained notoriety as Jihadi John, a Kuwaiti-born British national featured in various Islamic State group videos in 2014 and 2015 as the executioner of British and American hostages. Emwazi and his European associates were all passionate soccer fans, and some had seen their hopes dashed of becoming professional players. They all belonged to amateur teams or bonded in part by playing soccer together.

Like other disaffected youth for whom playing soccer became a steppingstone to joining a militant group or become a suicide bomber, Jihadi John and his mates traversed soccer fields on their journey. Emwazi dreamt as a child of kicking balls rather than chopping off heads.

In secondary school, Emwazi played soccer matches with five players in two teams whose members went on to become jihadists. One of the group’s members told an English high court that the group had 10 to 12 members. Several traveled to Somalia for training before returning to Britain as recruiters.

Another, a British-Lebanese national, was stripped of his British citizenship and killed in a US drone strike in Syria. The group also included two Ethiopians who were barred from returning to Britain on security grounds, a man who trained in an al-Qaeda camp, and an associate of a group that planned but failed to successfully execute attacks in London in July 2005, barely two weeks after the 7/7 bombings in London that killed 52 people.

Like Emwazi’s group, five East Londoners of Portuguese descent, who were believed to have helped produce Jihadi John’s gruesome videos, envisioned themselves as becoming soccer players rather than jihadists. One of them tweeted days before the execution of American journalist James Foley, the first of the Islamic State group’s Western hostages to be decapitated: “Message to America, the Islamic State is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors.”

Prominent among the Portuguese was Celso Rodrigues da Costa, whose brother Edgar also was in Syria, and who is believed to have attended open training sessions for British soccer club Arsenal but failed to get selected. Da Costa appeared as a masked fighter in a video in which the Islamic State group demonstrated its understanding of the recruitment and propaganda value of soccer.

The video exploited Da Costa’s physical likeness to that of French international Lassana Diarra, who played for Arsenal before moving to Russian soccer club Lokomotiv Moscow. A caption under the video posting read: “He … played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah.”

Da Costa’s appearance in the video, juxtaposed with the execution in early 2015 of 13 boys in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s Syrian capital, for watching a match between Jordan and Iraq reflects the jihadists’ convoluted attitude towards. The Syrian activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently reported that the boys were publicly executed by firing squad in a sports arena. Loudspeakers reportedly announced that their execution was intended as a message to those who violate the strict laws of the Islamic State group, which ordered that their bodies be left in the facility for all to see.

Summing it all up, soccer has weaved its way through the history of militant political Islam and jihadism since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Foreigners who fought in Afghanistan alongside the Afghan mujahedeen organized soccer matches after the Soviet withdrawal to maintain contact. Bin Laden was reported to have organized his fighters in a mini-World Cup in down times during the war in Afghanistan and to have formed two soccer teams among his followers during his years in Sudan in the 1980s.

Almost half a century later, soccer remains an ultra-conservative Muslim and jihadist conundrum.

James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.


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