Both cases spotlight the fact that jihadists often start
their journey as members of groups organized around some sort of action like
soccer. So does analysis of a series of jihadist attacks over the past decade.
The perpetrators of the 2003
Madrid subway bombings, for example, played soccer together. Saudi
players like Tamer al-Thamali, Dayf Allah al-Harithi and Majid Sawat
attended a militant Quran group twice a week alongside their regular
soccer practice. They silently made their way in 2003 to Iraq as the Al
Qaeda-led insurgency gained steam in that country. Messrs Al-Thamali and
Al-Harithi died as suicide bombers. Sawat’s father recognized his son
when Iraqi television did broadcast his interrogation by authorities.
Several Palestinian Hamas* suicide bombers
traced their routes to a mosque-sponsored soccer team in the
conservative West Bank town of Hebron. To the belief of Israeli
intelligence, Hamas - a tight-knit group that shared a passion for
soccer, a conservative, religious worldview and deep-seated frustration
with Palestinian impotency in shaking off Israeli occupation - saw the
team as an ideal recruitment pool.
Men like assassinated Al Qaeda leader
Osama Bin Laden, Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbollah leader
Hassan Nasrallah were both fervent soccer fans and recognized the game’s
useful bonding and recruitment qualities. It brings recruits into the
fold, encourages camaraderie and reinforces militancy among those who
have already joined. The track record of soccer players turned suicide
bombers proved this point.
Nonetheless to Bin Laden as well as more
mainstream, non-violent, 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, until the eruption of
popular revolts in the Middle East and North Africa, the only
institution that rivalled Islam in creating public spaces to vent
pent-up anger and frustration.
It also distracted from the performance of
religious obligations. During the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Saudi
Arabia’s religious guardians, afraid that believers would forget their
daily prayers during matches broadcast live on Saudi TV, rolled out
mobile mosques on trucks and prayer mats in front of popular cafes where
men gathered to watch the games.
Nsaku, a 19-year old, 6ft 2ins player, was
signed in 1998 by Portsmouth from Cannes FC but never made it into the
troubled 2008 FA Cup winners' first team. His promising career ended
last year when he suffered a knee injury.
Born in the Congo, Nsaku returned last
year to Cannes in southern France where he is believed to have converted
to Islam and become a believer in its violent jihadist strand under the
influence of 33-year old Jérémie-Louis Sidney, the suspected leader of a
Salfist group who was killed on Saturday in a shoot-out with French
police in Strasbourg. At least three French policemen were injured in
the shoot-out that erupted after Mr. Sidney opened fire.
Several of the arrested young men were
believed to have recently travelled to Syria to make contact with
jihadists fighting the regime of embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
Several had also been convicted in the past on charges of theft and
Police said that many of the men arrested
were Salafis who wanted a return to a life modelled on the 7th century
period of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors. They said,
the men, who were of white French, North and Central African and West
Indian origin from poor- multi-racial neighbourhoods in France, had made
wills and had maintained a list of Jewish targets,
associations and institutions in Paris that they were planning to
Police said, the men had posted their
radical views on Facebook and discussed their plans on the telephone.
Traces of Mr. Sidney’s DNA were found on the handle of a home-made
grenade which was thrown at a Jewish food shop in Sarcelles, near Paris,
on September 19.
Police in France have been on alert since
March when they shot and killed 23-year old French-Algerian Salafist,
Mohammed Merah, killer of seven people including four Jews in Toulouse
and Montauban in southern France. It was not clear whether the men
arrested recently were linked to Merah, who came from a similar
background. The recent arrests, however, idolized him and his killing
spree as the "battle of Toulouse".
*Hamas, as described in the
Wikipedea, is the Palestinian Sunni Islamic or Islamist political party
that governs the Gaza Strip. Hamas also has a military wing, the Izz
ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. Since June 2007 Hamas has governed the Gaza
portion of the Palestinian Territories, after it won a majority of seats
in the Palestinian Parliament in the January 2006 Palestinian
parliamentary elections and then defeated the Fatah political
organization in a series of violent clashes. The European Union, the
United States, Canada, Israel and Japan classify Hamas as a terrorist
organization, while the Arab nations, as well as some other countries
including Russia and Turkey do not.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow
at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang
Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The
Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.