By James M Dorsey
August 19, 2016
Now that mosques are under increased surveillance, the Islamic State (IS) is turning to soccer to win new recruits. IS is also seeking to project a sense of normalcy in embattled areas under its control.
In a relaxation of policies that effectively banned the sport, young boys have been invited to play soccer in the group’s Jihad Olympics.
A Devious Scheme
Far more devious is what Abu Otaiba, the nom du guerre of a self-taught imam and Islamic State (IS) recruiter in Jordan, does. He uses soccer to attract young recruits.
“We take them to farms, or private homes. There we discuss and we organize soccer games to bring them closer to us,” Abu Otaiba told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.
Abu Otaiba said he was recruiting outside of mosques because they “are filled with intelligence officials.” Mosques serve him these days as a venue to identify potential recruits whom he approaches elsewhere.
A similar development is evident in Jordanian universities where sports clubs and dormitories have become favoured IS hunting grounds because they so far don’t figure prominently on Jordanian intelligence’s radar.
Cynics Who Hate Soccer – And Love It!
IS’s use of soccer fits in with the observation by anthropologist Scott Atran that suicide bombers often emerge from groups with an action-oriented activity.
It also underscores the jihadists’ convoluted relationship to a sport that they on the one hand view as an invention of infidels designed to distract the faithful from their religious obligations and on the other hand as a useful tool to draw in new recruits.
Attitudes towards soccer are complicated by the fact that many jihadist and militant Islamist leaders are either former players or soccer fans.
Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was a fervent soccer player while in U.S. prison in Iraq where he earned the nickname Maradona after Argentinian superstar Diego Maradona.
Bin Laden an Arsenal Man
Osama Bin Laden was believed to be an Arsenal FC fan who had his own mini-World Cup during the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Teams formed by foreign fighters based on nationality played against one another in downtime.
While in exile in Sudan, Mr. Bin Laden had two squads that trained three times a week and play on Fridays after midday prayers.
Hassan Nasrallah’s Hezbollah manages clubs in Lebanon while Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh, a former player, has organized tournaments in Gaza.
The world’s most beautiful game turns sour
An online review conducted in 2014 by Vocativ of jihadist and militant Islamist Facebook pages showed that their owners often were soccer fans.
However, jihadist empathy for the sport does not stop them from targeting local games in a geography stretching from Iraq to Nigeria as well as big ticket European and World Cup matches, whose live broadcasts hold out the promise of a worldwide audience.
An IS suicide bomber blew himself up in March in a soccer stadium south of the Iraqi capital, killing 29 people and wounding 60. The bomber chose a match in a small stadium in the city of Iskandariya, 30 miles from Baghdad.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the London-based Quilliam Foundation reported at about the same time that boys in IS military training were instructed to kick decapitated heads as soccer balls.
ISIS: Executing Soccer Players Too
Crowds in IS’s Syrian capital of Raqqa were forced in July to attend the public execution of four players of the city’s disbanded Al Shabab SC soccer team — Osama Abu Kuwait, Ihsan Al Shuwaikh, Nehad Al Hussein and Ahmed Ahawakh.
They had been charged with being spies for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish militia that is in the frontline of confronting IS on the ground in Syria.
Yet, with IS under increased military pressure in Syria and Iraq, the group, desperate to project a degree of normalcy in areas it still controls, appears to be turning to sports and soccer in particular.
Breaking with its past muddled banning of soccer despite its use of the sport as a recruiting tool, IS has urged boys in various towns including Raqqa in Syria and Mosul and Tal Afar in Iraq to participate in what it dubbed the Jihad Olympics.
Boys, despite a ban on soccer jerseys and the execution of 13 kids in early 2015 for watching an Asian Cup match on television, play soccer or tug of war during the events and are awarded sweets and balloons if their team is victorious. The boys’ families are invited to watch the games.
Soccer as A Cultural (Read: Western) Icon
IS appears to have been struggling with the notion of using soccer as a way of placating its population and projecting normalcy for some time. The group initially authorized the showing of the FC Barcelona and Real Madrid derby a week after the attacks in November 2015 in Paris that targeted a major soccer match among others.
However, by the time kick-off rolled around, it rescinded the permission and closed down cafes and venues broadcasting the match. Why did that happen? Because of a minute’s silence at the beginning of the game in the Madrid stadium in honour of the victims of the attacks in the French capital.
A Very Dialectical Relationship
A precursor to IS’s Jihad Olympics was an exemption of children from the ban on soccer as well as video clips showing fighters in a town square kicking a ball with kids.
Confusion within the group about its policy towards soccer is reflected in the fact that age limits for the exemption vary from town to town.
In Manbij, a town near Aleppo recently conquered by US-backed militias, children older than 12 were forbidden to play the game, while in Raqqa and Deir-ez-Zor in eastern Syria the age limit is believed to be 15.
Similarly, foreign fighters have been allowed to own decoders for sports channels and watch matches in the privacy of their homes.
“IS policy towards soccer is driven by opportunism and impulse. The group fundamentally despises the game, yet can’t deny that it is popular in its ranks and in territory it governs,” said a former Raqqa resident.
Adapted from The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer by James Dorsey (Oxford University Press, May 15, 2016)