By James M. Dorsey
The United Kingdom’s search for Jihadi John, the masked, British-accented fighter who appears in videos and beheading of foreigners condemned to death by the Islamic State, the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, has highlighted the significance for militants of soccer as a recruitment and bonding tool. It has also put the spotlight of a small band of Portuguese nationals who have joined the jihadists in recent years.
The British search is focusing, according to The Sunday Times, on five East London amateur players who travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State and have since suggested on social media that at least one of them had intimate knowledge of the executions. The five are seen as potential leads to Jihadi John, who identity is believed to be known to British intelligence.
One of the five players, 28 year-old, Nero Seraiva, tweeted last year on July 11, days before the execution of American journalist James Foley, the first of the Islamic State’s Western hostages to be decapitated: “"Message to America, the Islamic State is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors." The tweet came days before the jihadist group announced Mr. Foley’s execution in a graphic You Tube video entitled A Message to America.
Jihadi John’s latest video threatened last week to execute two Japanese hostages, one of which, Hurana Yukawa, is believed to have been killed over the weekend.
Intelligence sources believe that Mr. Seraiva and his East London associates may be involved in the filming and distribution of videos of Jihadi John and the beheadings. Westerners who met the same gruesome fate as Mr. Foley include American journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines and US aid worker Peter Kassig who changed his name to Abdul-Rahman Kassig after converting to Islam.
The investigation of Mr. Seraiva’s group is likely to offer insights into the Islamic State’s appeal. The group’s five members are all Portuguese nationals with roots in Portugal’s former African colonies who migrated to Britain for study and work.
Celso Rodrigues da Costa, whose brother Edgar also is in Syria, is believed to have attended open training sessions for Arsenal, but failed to get selected. Mr. Da Costa, born in Portugal to parents from Guinea-Bissau adopted in Syria the name Abu Isa Andaluzi.
Andaluzi or Al Andalus are names adopted by several of the approximately one dozen Portuguese nationals, at least half of whom were resident in Britain, who have joined the Islamic State. The adopted names, Arabic references to the Iberian Peninsula at the time of Muslim rule, reflect a desire to return the region to Islam.
Islamic State demonstrated its understanding of the recruitment and propaganda value of soccer when it last April distributed a video in which Mr. Da Costa appeared as a masked fighter.
The video exploited the physical likeness of Mr. Da Costa to that of French international Lassana Diarra, who played for Arsenal before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow. A caption under the video posting read; “A former soccer player - Arsenal of London - who left everything for jihad.” Another text said: "He... played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah.”
On camera, Mr. Da Costa said: "My advice to you first of all is that we are in need of all types of help from those who can help in fighting the enemy. Welcome, come and find us and from those who think that they cannot fight they should also come and join us for example because it maybe that they can help us in something else, for example help with medicine, help financially, help with advice, help with any other qualities and any other skills they might have, and give and pass on this knowledge, and we will take whatever is beneficial and that way they will participate in jihad."
Mr. Da Costa and his cohorts were following in the steps of a number of European players from immigrant backgrounds who radicalized. Burak Karan, an up and coming German-Turkish soccer star, was killed during a Syrian military raid on anti-Bashar al Assad rebels near the Turkish border.
Yann Nsaku, a Congolese born convert to Islam and former Portsmouth FC youth centre back, was one of 11 converts arrested in France in 2012 on suspicion of being violent jihadists who were plotting anti-Semitic attacks. Nizar ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, a Tunisian who played for Germany’s Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Wuppertal, was arrested and convicted in Belgium a decade ago on charges of illegal arms possession and being a member of a private militia. Mr. Trabelsi was sentenced to ten years in prison.
They all shared with militant Islamist leaders such as Osama Bin Laden and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh a deep-seated passion for the sport. Their road towards militancy often involved an action-oriented activity, soccer.
Fabio Pocas, at 22 the youngest of Mr. Seraiva’s group, arrived in London in 2012, hoping to become a professional soccer player. In Lisbon, Mr. Pocas, a converted to Islam, attended the youth academy of Sporting Lisbon, the alma mater of superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo.
In London, he helped amateur league UK Football Finder FC (UKFFFC) win several divisional competitions. The Sunday Times quoted UKFFFC football director Ewemade Orobator as saying that Mr. Pocas “came here to play football seriously. In about May 2013 an agent came down and said, 'Work hard over the summer and I will get you a trial (with a professional club).'" Mr. Pocas failed to take up the offer and travelled to Syria instead where he adopted the name Abdurahman Al Andalus.
Mr. Pocas, according to The Sunday Times, has settled in the Syrian town of Manbij near Aleppo where he has taken a Dutch teenager as his bride. "Holy war is the only solution for humanity," he said in a posting on Facebook.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, a syndicated columnist, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog and a forthcoming book with the same title.