Taking aim at football fans: Jihadists get World Cup fever

Taking aim at football fans: Jihadists get World Cup fever

James M. Dorsey
Taking aim at football fans: Jihadists get World Cup fever

Kenyan football fans are seen watching Brazil play Croatia in the World Cup opening match, in a pub in Nairobi, Kenya, in this June 12 photo. AP photo

It’s not just football fans whose football fever soars during a World Cup. So does that of militant Islamists and jihadists with deadly consequences. Scores of fans have been killed since this month’s kick-off of the Cup in attacks in Iraq, Kenya and Nigeria.

The attacks by the likes of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Shabaab in Somalia and Boko Haram appear to have become a World Cup fixture with similar random slaughter having occurred during the 2010 tournament in South Africa.

They reflect the diversity of opinion among jihadists on the merits of football, as well as a degree of opportunism among all jihadists, irrespective of their attitude toward the beautiful game, in exploiting its popularity, whether by seeking to maximize publicity by targeting fans during the tournament, or using it as a recruitment tool.

The attacks occurred against the backdrop of a series of statements and fatwas, religious opinions by militant clerics, often Salafis who seek to emulate to the degree possible seventh-century life at the time of the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors who were not jihadists, condemning football as an infidel game that is intended to divert the faithful from their religious obligations, or create divisiveness.

What amounts to an anti-World Cup campaign remains, however, an uphill battle for anti-football jihadists and Salafis in the Middle East and Africa, a region that is as passionate about the game as it is about its adherence, in whatever form, to Islamic beliefs. The Saudi Gazette reported that Saudi families, in the run-up to the holy month of Ramadan that started June 28, were preoccupied with balancing their shopping needs with ensuring that they don’t miss a World Cup match.

Fever in Jeddah

In stark contrast to four years ago, when the Saudi clergy rolled out in front of cafés where men gathered to watch World Cup matches, mobile mosques on the backs of trucks to ensure that fans performed their daily prayers at the obligatory time, malls in Jeddah and facilities, associated with the Jeddah Ghair Festival, have this year set up screens broadcasting games as they are played in Brazil.

Pictures distributed by ISIL of Iraqi soldiers summarily executed in Tikrit last week show men who often unsuccessfully donned football jerseys, some with the images of German Turkish player Mesut Özil or Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who is of Bosnian extraction, to escape the jihadist advance. In a morbid gesture, ISIL sent a video link of the beheading of an off-duty policeman to the Twitter hashtags #WorldCup and #Worldcup 2014 with the words: “This is our ball … it is made of skin.”

A café in the Kenyan coastal town of Mpeketoni, where fans had gathered to watch a World Cup match, was among the targets of al-Shabaab gunmen who killed 49 people in attacks on several targets in the town. The attack was reminiscent of the bombing in 2010 of two sites in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where fans had come together to enjoy the cup’s final.

Similarly, the group, which at the time controlled substantial chunks of Somalia, had threatened to execute anyone found watching World Cup matches on television. Somali players and sports journalists have been targeted by al-Shabaab in the four years between the South Africa and Brazil World Cups.

The Kampala bombings prompted the U.S. embassy in the Ugandan capital to warn Americans this month to avoid football-viewing venues. Nigerian police marked the opening of this month’s World Cup with a warning that owners of bars, video halls and mass open-air football-screening venues and fans should be vigilant against potential attacks by Boko Haram. Authorities in Adamawa and Plateau states and the Federal Capital Territory went a step further by banning screenings of World Cup matches in public venues. Like elsewhere in Africa, those venues are the only way for fans who can’t afford cable television subscriptions to see World Cup games and other major football matches live.