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Targeting fans: Jihadists get World Cup fever

Source: The Long War Journal

By James M. Dorsey

It’s not just soccer 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 in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al Shabab 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 soccer as well as a degree of opportunism among all jihadists, irrespective of their attitude towards the beautiful game, in exploiting its popularity whether by seeking to maximise 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 7th century life at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors who are not jihadists, condemning soccer 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-soccer 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 starts next week were preoccupied with balancing their shopping needs with ensuring that they don’t miss a World Cup match.

In stark contrast to four years ago, when the Saudi clergy rolled out in front of cafes 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.

Source: # ولاية صلاح الدين (#Wilayat Salaheddin)

Pictures distributed by ISIL of Iraqi soldiers summarily executed in Tikrit last week show men who often unsuccessfully donned soccer jerseys, some with the images of German Turkish player Mesut Ozil or Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic who is of Bosnian extraction to escape the jihadist advance. In a morbid gesture, ISIS 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 this week to watch a World Cup match was among the targets of Al Shabab 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 Shabab in the four years between the South Africa and Brazil World Cups. The Kampala bombings prompted the US embassy in the Ugandan capital to this month warn Americans to avoid soccer-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 soccer-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 soccer matches live.

At least 21 fans were killed and 27 others injured barely a week after the security measures were announced when Boko Haram bombed a venue in Damaturu where fans had gathered to watch the match between Brazil and Mexico. A bombing a week before the announcement in Mubi in Adamawa state killed another 14 fans. Three people were killed last month in an attack on a soccer viewing venue in Jos, the capital of Plateau state and two people died in April when gunmen opened fire on a soccer-viewing venue in Yobe state.

James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He is also co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title

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