For the first time in more than two
decades, matches are being played at night, teams travel in relative
safety within the country and war-ravaged sports facilities, including
Mogadishu’s national stadium, once one of East Africa’s most impressive
filled with 70,000 passionate fans during games that was used by the Al
Shabab as an arms depot and training facility, are being refurbished.
Scores cheered Somalia’s Under-17 national
team after it last month defeated Sudan in an African youth
championship, playing without its goalkeeper, Abdulkader Dheer Hussein,
who was assassinated in April as part of an Al Shabab assassination
campaign that increasingly targets not only athletes and officials but
also sports journalists.
The campaign illustrates that Al Shabab
may be down and out as it loses control of territory but by far not
defeated. Al Shabab is adjusting to a new reality by shifting gears to
focus on hit and run guerrilla tactics. In doing so, it is learning from
its experience six years ago when it emerged from the bosom of the
Islamic Courts Union that was in 2006 forced out of Somali cities by
US-backed invading Ethiopian forces.
Al Shabab’s rejection of soccer and the
partial focus on the sport of its hit and run attacks is rooted in the
view among some militant Islamist groups that include the Taliban in
Afghanistan and at least one Salafi school of thought in Saudi Arabia
and Egypt that sports poses a threat to political and social control.
Youth are often this school’s main target
because of their sheer number and the fact that in the words of
sociologist Asef Bayat “youth habitus is characterized by a greater
tendency for experimentation, adventurism, idealism, drive for autonomy,
mobility, and change…. This might help explain why globalizing
youngsters more than others cause fear and fury among Islamist (and
non-Islamist) anti-fun adversaries, especially when much of what these
youths practice is informed by Western technologies of fun and is framed
in terms of ‘Western cultural import.”
For Mr. Bayat, suppression of fun is an
effort to preserve power. “In other words, at stake is not necessarily
the disruption of the moral order, as often claimed, but rather the
undermining of the hegemony, the regime of power on which certain
strands of moral and political authority rest… The adversaries’ fear of
fun, I conclude, revolves ultimately around the fear of exit from the
paradigm that frames their mastery; it is about anxiety over loss of
their ‘paradigm power.’”
The fear of soccer is however by no means
universal among militant Islamists. Both Sunni militants like
assassinated Al Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden and Hamas’ Gaza leader,
Ismail Haniyeh and Shiites like Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah are
fervent soccer fans who recognize the game’s bonding and recruitment
Jihadists often start their journey as
members of groups organized around some sort of action like soccer. The
perpetrators of the 2003 Madrid subway bombings played soccer together.
Saudi players Tamer al-Thamali, Dayf Allah al-Harithi and Majid Sawat
attended twice a week a militant Quran group alongside their regular
soccer practice. Silently they made their way a decade ago to Iraq as
the Al Qaeda-led insurgency gained steam. Tamer and Dayf died as suicide
bombers. Majid’s father recognized his son when Iraqi television
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. Israeli intelligence believes
Hamas saw the team as an ideal recruitment pool – a tight-knit group
that shared a passion for soccer, a conservative, religious worldview
and deep-seated frustration with Palestinian impotency in shaking off
The game’s qualities are lost on Al Shabab,
which denounces soccer as a sport of the infidels designed to distract
believers from their religious obligations, give credence to the concept
of national borders at the expense of pan-Islamist aspirations for the
return of the Caliph who would rule the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims as
one, celebrates peaceful competition and undermines the narrative of an
inevitable clash of civilizations between Islam and the West.
For much of the last two years, Al
Shabab’s targets were players like Mr. Hussein and Under-20
international Abdi Salaan Mohamed Ali as well as former Somali Olympic
Committee vice-president Abdulkader Yahye Sheik Ali killed in July and
SFA president Said Mohamed Nur, who spearheaded the campaign to win back
child soldiers and was murdered in April.
This year as Al Shabab has lost control of
major chunks of territory and urban centers under pressure of advancing
African Union and Kenyan forces and retreats into hiding, its campaign
of hit and run terror targets not only senior political officials such
as Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who last month survived an assassination
attempt two days after he was elected president, but also sports
journalists who glorify “satanic” games.
Fourteen sports journalists have been
killed this year alone, including Abdirahman Mohamed Ali whose
decapitated body was last month dumped next to a restaurant a day after
he was kidnapped; Hassan Yusuf Absuge shot that same day by masked
gunmen as he returned home from work; Mahmoud Ali Buneyste killed in
August while filming a soccer match in Mogadishu hours after he attended
the funeral of a murdered colleague Yusuf Ali Osman.
Al Shabab has claimed responsibility for
their deaths with a leader of the militants telling a Somali radio
station that “God is great. We have killed spy journalists. They were
the real enemies of Islam” and that their demise constituted “one of the
victories that Islam gained, and such operations will continue.” Despite
such statements, the facts in lawless Somalia remain murky with some
analysts keeping open the option that they may have been victims of
personal feuds or rogue armed groups.
Irrespective of who is responsible for the
killing of journalists, Al Shabab’s ability to target senior political
officials as well as soccer demonstrates its continued ability to strike
and its determination to impose its moral and social code if not by
territorial control than by a campaign of fear and terror.
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.