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In many ways, the Black September attack on the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 discloses little about the evolution of the targeting of sporting events by political and religious militants even though it remains to date the incident with the greatest number of fatalities. If anything, the Munich attack was never replicated in scale and drama. It introduced a post-World War Two period in which secular nationalists rather than religious militants dominated the targeting of sporting events, executives, and athletes. That may have been different if plans for attacks by religious militants had not failed or been foiled. Interestingly and more as a result of local circumstances, successful attacks on sporting events and personalities since Munich have struck a balance between having been perpetrated by secularists and religious militants. This is true even if political violence since the 1980s increasingly has been perpetrated by religious rather than secular militants.
Moreover, Munich contains few lessons for understanding the evolution of political violence in the half a century since. What the record of political violence in the last 50 years does show is a shift in the 1980s from secular and nationalist to militant religious perpetrators. The record also illustrates that the targeting of sporting events constitutes a minority of the number of trans-national incidents of political violence in the past 40 years. That picture changes when local occurrences such as attacks in Iraq and Nigeria are taken into account. Analysis further shows that the deadliest attacks have been carried out by Islamists, perhaps because Islamists are more prone to embrace death by suicide while secular perpetrators maintain the hope that they may survive the attack.
Five Decades of Attacks Targeting Sports
Osama bin Laden and Malaysian-born, Al Qaeda-affiliated bomb maker Noordin Mohammed Top would have perhaps come closest to emulating Black September’s success had their separate plans succeeded. Bin Laden authorized a plan by Algerian jihadists to attack the 1998 World Cup. The Algerians pinpointed a match between England and Tunisia scheduled to be played in Marseille as well as US matches against Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia as targets. The England-Tunisia match was expected to attract a worldwide television audience of half a billion people while the US match against Iran was already highly political because of the strained relations between the two countries. “This is a game that will determine the future of our planet and possibly the most important single sporting event that’s ever been played in the history of the world,” said US player Alexi Lalas referring to his squad’s match against Iran. The plan, which also included an attack on the Paris hotel of the US team, was foiled when police raided homes in seven European countries and hauled some 100 suspected associates of Algeria’s Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) in for questioning.
Some scholars and journalists have suggested that the failure of the plot persuaded Al Qaeda to opt instead for the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the summer of that same year in which 224 people were killed.[iii] Similarly, purported messages by 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. Nine people were killed, and 53 others wounded in the attacks. The bombs exploded two days before the team was scheduled to check into the Ritz and prompted it to cancel its visit.
Noor said in one of three online statements that one aim of the attacks was “to create an example for the Muslims regarding Wala' (Loyalty) and Baro' (Enmity), especially for the forthcoming visit of Manchester United (MU) Football Club at the hotel. Those (football) players are made up of salibis (Crusaders). Thus, it is not right that the Muslim ummah (community) devote their loyalty (wala’) and honour to these enemies of Allah.”
A double-edged sword
The absence of a major sports event-related attack since 2015 suggests that counterterrorism efforts have successful degraded transnational religious militants’ ability to strike. It also, at least temporarily, resolves an issue that did not pose itself to the perpetrators of Munich. Sport offers an attractive environment for recruitment and expressions of empathy for both jihadists and nationalists. Not only do thousands attend matches, but the games are also broadcast live to huge national, regional and global audiences.
Jihadists and religious militants, however, in contrast to journalists, seek to polarize communities, exacerbate social tensions, and drive the marginalized further into the margins even if is likely to alienate large numbers of fans. As a result, soccer poses an unresolved dilemma for jihadists and religious militants: it divides groups between those that see the game’s benefits and those that reject it outright and sparking contradictory attitudes among hardcore activists and fellow travellers.
The Great Mosque in Mosul, the major Iraqi city that was occupied by the Islamic State (IS), where Abu Baker Al-Baghdadi, who as a student was known as a talented soccer player, declared himself caliph in June 2015 was packed with men, many of whom were sporting soccer jerseys. Similarly, an online review by Vocativ of jihadist and militant Islamist Facebook pages showed that many continue to be soccer fans. They rooted for Algeria during the World Cup but switched their allegiance to Brazil, Italy, England ,and France once the Algerians had been knocked out of the tournament despite their condemnation of the Europeans as enemies of Islam. “Jihadis are in some ways like any other fans – they support the local favourites,” wrote Versha Sharama, who conducted the review.
The Islamic State emerged in the 2010s as the foremost transnational threat in recent years and remains that despite its losses in Syria, including the destruction of its territorial base. The group embodies the jihadists’ struggle with soccer and spotlights the pitch as a battlefield. The Islamic State’s initial sweep through northern Iraq in June 2015 was preceded by a bombing campaign in which soccer pitches figured prominently.
The Islamic State further signalled its dim view of soccer in a purported letter to world soccer governance body FIFA demanding that the group deprive Qatar of the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Addressing former FIFA president Sepp Blatter by his formal first name, Joseph, the letter, published on a since defunct jihadist website, Alplatformmedia.com, said: “We sent you a message in 2010 when you decided or were bribed by the former emir of Qatar to have the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Now, after the establishment of the Caliphate, we declare that there will be no World Cup in Qatar since Qatar will be part of the Caliphate (that) doesn’t allow corruption and diversion from Islam in the land of the Muslims. This is why we suggest that you decide to replace Qatar. The Islamic State has long-range Scud missiles that can easily reach Qatar, as the Americans already know.”
Many jihadists see soccer as an infidel invention designed to distract the faithful from fulfilling their religious obligations. Yet, others are soccer fans or former, failed, or disaffected players who see the sport as an effective recruitment and bonding tool. Men like Bin Laden, Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah base their advocacy of the utility of soccer on those Salafi 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 re-write the rules of the game to Islamicize it, if not outright ban the sport.
Al-Baghdadi and his successors as did Bin Laden embodied the jihadists’ double-edged attitude towards soccer. A passionate player in his pre-IS days, Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State and its affiliates took credit for scores of attacks on stadia. Had the attack on a major soccer match in Europe, would have gone a long way to achieve the group’s goals of polarizing communities, exacerbating social tensions, and driving the marginalized further into the margins.
Straddling the fence
The Islamic State positioned itself with its spate of attacks and letter to FIFA squarely in the camp of those militant Islamists, jihadists and Salafists, puritan Muslims who want to emulate life at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors. In attempting to do so, they oppose soccer as an infidel creation intended to distract the faithful from their religious obligations. They argue that soccer is not one of several sports mentioned in the Qur’an. As a result, the Islamic State joined the likes of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabab in Somalia, an Al Qaeda affiliate, that in 2014 targeted venues where fans gathered to watch World Cup matches on huge television screens. The spate of attacks emulated Al Shabab’s bombing in 2010 of two sites in the Ugandan capital of Kampala where fans had gathered to watch the World Cup finals in South Africa.
Anti-soccer jihadists are strengthened in their resolve by fatwas or religious opinions issued by one segment of the Salafi and ultra-conservative clergy opposed to any form of entertainment which they view as a threat to the performance of religious duties. The views of these clergymen are opposed by other Salafist imams who argue that the Quran encourages sports as long as it is in line with Islamic precepts.
Twisted rulings of radical Egyptian and Saudi clergy 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.
With us or against us
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: “You are either with us or against us.” It is a world in which deep-seated polarization has been perpetuated by populists, the far right, and narcissists like Donald J. Trump. 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 their 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 focussed on individuals. Another important function of multiple informal individual relationships was their contribution to the growth of feelings of mutual trust," said Indonesian security consultant Noor Huda Ismail, a consultant on the impact of religion on political violence. “Recruitment into most jihadi groups is not like recruitment into the police or army or college. Indeed, previous formal or informal membership in action-oriented groups such as soccer or cricket teams, and other informal ties, may facilitate the passage from radicalization into jihad and on to joining suicide attack teams," he said.
Similarly, 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. It’s surprising how many soccer buddies join together.” Atran’s yardstick is evident in the analysis of past violent incidents. The perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings played soccer together[iv] and some Hamas suicide bombers traced their roots to the same football club in the conservative West Bank town of Hebron.
Soccer’s value to jihadists was illustrated by the histories of various, suicide bombers and foreign fighters. That was true for the biographies of Mohammed Emwazi who gained notoriety as Jihadi John, a Kuwaiti-born British national who featured in several Islamic State videos in 2014 and 2015 as the executioner of British and American hostages and his European associates. Emwazi was killed in 2015 by an American drone strike.
Political grievances v. religiosity
The jihadist dilemma posed by soccer as a recruitment and bonding tool on the one hand and a convenient target on the other was symbolized by expressions in stadia of the appeal of jihadist groups like the Islamic State that reflects more often than not domestic political grievances or a conspiratorial worldview rooted in puritan interpretations of Islam such as Wahhabism rather than an ideological commitment to jihadism. The dichotomy was evident when Turkish fans twice in late 2015 disrupted moments of silence for victims of Islamic State attacks in Ankara and Paris. Boos and jeers were also heard during a minute's silence in Dublin at a Euro 2016 play-off between Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The interruptions demonstrated the kind of intolerance bred by religiously-cloaked authoritarianism in countries like Turkey and Saudi Arabia that fails to ensure that all segments of society have a stake in the existing order.
The Turkish fans shouting of Allahu Akbar, God is Great, during moments of silence at the beginning of two soccer matches represented more than simple identification with the jihadist group or evidence of a substantial support base in Turkey. It signalled a shift in attitudes among some segments of Turkish society as a result of 12 years of rule by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of modern Turkey’s most important leaders that increasingly has been infused with notions of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ In Turkey, them often refers to Kurds, who account for up to 23 per cent of the population. Kurds were prominent among the 102 victims in Ankara in October 2015 and an earlier Islamic State attack in July of that year in the south-eastern Turkish town of Suruc. The Suruc attack sparked renewed hostilities between the Turkish military and the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a low-intensity war in southeast Turkey since 1984 in which tens of thousands have died.
Erdogan’s polarization persuaded Diyarbakır Büyükşehir Belediyespor, the Kurdish club in Diyarbakir, a city that is viewed as the capital of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to change its name in 2015 to Amed. Amed is the long-banned Kurdish name of Diyarbakir. The club also adopted as its identity the colours of the Kurdish flag, yellow, red, and green of the Kurdish flag. The move constituted part of Kurdish resistance to long-standing restrictions on the use of their languages and expressions of ethnic or national identity.
The Turkish fan’s provocative disrespect for innocent victims of political violence resembled tweets by conservative followers of Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia’s austere interpretation of Islam described by dissident Saudi scholar Madawi Al-Rasheed as “militarized religious nationalism.” On Twitter, these Saudis projected the downing of a Russian airliner in 2015 and that year’s attacks in Paris, including a stadium, as legitimate revenge for atrocities committed by French colonial rule in Algeria and Russia in its wars in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.
Turkish fan disrespect for the victims of IS violence “reflects an alarming sense of estrangement from the victims and the communities to which they belong. This lack of empathy could well stem from the callousness of excluding ‘the other’ (and possibly lead to one’s own sense of exclusion being transformed into radical hostility expressed in violent action) … The whistles and chants, which continued during the Greek national anthem, demonstrate how Turkey’s political culture has changed since President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002,” said Al-Monitor columnist Kadir Gursel.
Supporters of Nacacililar Konyaspor, a club in the conservative Anatolian city of Konya, expressed that sense of estrangement in their justification of their disruption of the honouring of the victims during a soccer match. They published a video on their Facebook page that asserted “the moment of silence was not allowed in Konya.” It described the Ankara victims who died while participating in a peace march as “peace-loving traitors.”
Like many incidents of expression of sympathy for jihadism or jihadist activism, the Turkish soccer manifestations are shrouded in controversy that stems from governments in various Islamic countries viewing the militants as a force to be utilized for their own political purposes rather than a reflection of societal problems that need to be addressed. In the case of Turkey, which has long been accused of turning a blind eye to the Islamic State in the hope that it would check the revival of Kurdish nationalism in neighbouring Syria, Cumhuriyet newspaper reported that the youth wing of Erdogan’s ruling party whose members had been granted free access to the stadium had instigated the booing of a moment of silence for the 130 victims of the Paris attacks at the beginning of a match in Istanbul. Two of Cumhurriyet’s top journalists were indicted in November 2015 on charges of espionage for disclosing that trucks belonging to the Turkish intelligence agency MIT had been used to ferry weapons to Islamist opposition groups in Syria.
Turkish-American soccer blogger John Blasing said the fan disrespect represented “a nationalist/Islamist undercurrent within Turkish society that has occasionally raised its head with disastrous consequences, and one that now wants to equate all Kurds and leftists with the labels ‘terrorists’ and ‘traitor.’ It is, for lack of a better term, a dangerous latent Islamo-fascism lying just beneath the surface of Turkish society. It is the same undercurrent that expresses itself in the Turkish state’s ambivalence towards ISIS,” a reference to the Islamic State’s former name.
The alleged government connection to the Turkish incidents like a French decision in the wake of the Paris attacks to temporarily ban fans from travelling to their team’s away from home matches recognized the mobilization aspect of the sport that jihadist leaders see.
French fears were grounded in a degree of alienation among segments of youth with an immigrant background that has prompted them to refuse to support the French national team in a manifestation of their sense that there is no equal place for them in French society. French fears were also rooted in a history of immigrant soccer violence irrespective of whether the French team wins or not dating back to France’s winning of the World Cup in 1998 with a team that brought together a generation of players who all had their origins outside France and was widely seen as a symbol of successful French integration of minorities. Days earlier, police in France and four other European countries had arrested 100 people of Algerian descent associated with the Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA), a militant Islamist group fighting in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s that left at least 100,000 people dead.
Eleven years later, some 12,000 youths of Algerian descent poured into Paris Champs Elysees for celebrations to celebrate Algeria’s defeat of Egypt in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum rather than support France which was preparing for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Ireland. The celebrations degenerated into clashes with police prompting a student to tell Andrew Hussey, a scholar who has charted French-North African relations and the soccer politics of French communities of North African origin: “I can't believe it. I've never seen anything like it. It's not just about football. It has to be about something else.” Hussey argued that the riots were not simply about perceived racism in France but harked back to French colonial rule that viewed Algeria as an integral part of France but treated Algerians as second-class citizens.
It is those societal divisions that the Islamic State targeted with its attack on the Stade de France and its alleged plots in Germany. In doing so, the group was seeking to exploit a perception of prejudice, discrimination and abandonment that stretches far beyond France and is not restricted to communities that feel disenfranchised and hopeless. Ironically, that may have failed with French and other Muslims far more assertive in their condemnation of the Paris attacks than of the assault in January 2015 on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket.
However, mixed with the abhorrence felt by French Muslims at the carnage in Paris was a sense among many soccer fans that Muslims are being stereotyped and targeted whether at home or in countries far and near. That sense evident across Europe is reinforced by Europe’s military and law enforcement-focused response to jihadism and Islamist militancy. Said a French taxi driver of Algerian descent who supports Paris Saint-Germaine: “Nothing justified what happened. These people are beasts. But France and others can’t go round the world bombing countries and leaving ordinary people to pick up the pieces. It’s logical that there would be a reaction. This, however, was not the way to do it.”
The blurry lines between hardcore jihadists and soccer fans for whom the Islamic State constitutes primarily a symbol of resistance as well as the mix of rejection and a degree of empathy were also evident in a one-minute video clip on YouTube that left little doubt about support for IS among supporters of storied Moroccan soccer club Raja Club Athletic. A video clip on the Internet showed fans of the Casablanca club that prides itself on its nationalist credentials dating back to opposition to colonial French rule and its reputation as the team of ordinary Moroccans chanting: “Daesh, Daesh,” the Arabic acronym for Islamic State and “God is Great, let’s go on jihad.”
The clip appeared to reaffirm the Islamic State’s widespread emotional appeal to a segment of youth across the Middle East and North Africa rather than a willingness to actually become a foreign fighter in Syria or Iraq. “We have a high rate of unemployment. Young people want politicians to think about them… Some of them can’t understand… They are too impatient,” Moncef Mazrouki, the former president of Tunisia, the Arab country with the largest number of Arab foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, said in an interview with Al Jazeera.
While Raja Athletic’s management failed to respond to the video on its official website and Facebook page that has more than 3.1 million followers, supporters of the club sought to minimize the clip’s significance. Writing on their Facebook page with its 118,830 likes, supporters quipped: “We are terrorists… Our goal is to bomb other clubs. We do not want land or oil, we want titles” below a mock picture of Islamic State fighters with the inscription, “Raja’s Volunteer Championship.”
The supporters asserted elsewhere on their Facebook page that “we will not start to argue and beg people to believe that this is a sarcastic action and a joke.” Some supporters dismissed the video as a public relations stunt. They insisted that they were demanding reform, not radical change. To emphasize the point, the supporters posted two days after the appearance of the video an image of Osama Bin Laden with the words: “Rest in Pieces Motherf*****r.”
The Islamic State’s appeal as a symbol for Moroccan youth is rooted in the gap in perceptions of King Mohammad VI. The monarch, unlike most of the region’s rulers, neutralized anti-government protests in 2011 by endorsing a new constitution that brought limited change but kept the country’s basic political structure in place. As a result, foreign media have described Mohammed VI as the King of Cool. Moroccans however have seen little change in their economic, social and political prospects while journalists and activists face increased repression.
The 1972 Black September attack on the Olympic Village in Munich represents an era of political violence that has been superseded by religious militancy. Militants in the 1970s and the 1980s were driven by secular nationalist grievances and aspirations. Perpetrators of political violence saw their actions as a way to force governments and international public opinion to pay attention and recognize the legitimacy of their cause. They accepted the risk of dying but retained hope that they would survive the attacks they carried out. Arguably, Palestinian attacks in Israel, Europe and elsewhere and the hijacking of aeroplanes moved their aspirations centre stage.
By contrast, jihadist perpetrators of political violence that targets sports were seeking to exploit existing societal wedges and aggravate social tensions to attract frustrated Muslim youth and converts. Osama bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks succeeded in undermining multi-cultural policies in relatively ethnically and religiously homogeneous European societies that struggled with migration from other continents, ethnicities, and religious backgrounds. In doing so, the attacks reshaped global politics and attitudes towards large numbers of people fleeing political and economic collapse as “the other”—instead of viewing them as victims of misconceived Western policies that backfired in countries governed and mismanaged by corrupt politicians and political and economic structures.
Analysis of the different goals and approaches leads to the conclusion that groups like the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and various of its constituent elements successfully used violence in Munich and operations since to create political opportunities for fulfilling their aspirations and garnering mass support. By contrast, jihadists successfully exploited tensions, recruited marginalized youth, spread fear, and sparked revulsion but proved unable and/or uninterested in creating opportunities for solutions to social, economic, and political problems and failed to win hearts and minds among significant segments of Muslim youth.
Launched 12 years ago, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, offers, to borrow a phrase from an early proprietor of The Observer, ‘the scoop of interpretation.’ The column continues to have significant impact. It is republished by news websites, blogs, and newsletters across the globe. Maintaining free distribution is key to maintaining the column’s impact. However, to do so, I rely on those readers who value the column and its impact by voluntarily becoming paid subscribers. If you are able and willing to support the column, please become a paid Medium member or subscriber by clicking on Substack on the subscription button and choosing one of the subscription options. If you prefer, you can also make a donation Thank you for your continued interest, readership, and support.
This chapter is an updated version of a working paper originally published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the submitted-non-edited version of an article in Israel Affairs.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.