Soccer: A barometer of Al Shabab’s retreat in Somalia

Al Shabab fighters chant God is Great in Mogadishu Stadium before losing control of the city a year ago

By James M. Dorsey

Soccer is one barometer of the increasingly successful drive to deprive militant Al Shabab fighters of their grip on large chunks of war-torn Somalia.

With the recent withdrawal of the Al Qaida-linked militants from the port city of Kismayo, the last major rebel-held town, the increasing return of soccer to a football-crazy country where under Al Shahab rule enthusiasm for the beautiful game involved a greater act of courage and defiance than perhaps anywhere else in the world and soccer became a front line in the battle against the Islamists, football highlights the country’s changing battle lines.

The extent of Al Shabab’s retreat is evident from the fact that a campaign that started with the Somali Football Association (SFA) backed by local businessmen and world soccer body FIFA luring child soldiers away from Al Shabab which banned the playing and watching of soccer, and turning them into national youth team stars has mushroomed into the revival of national and regional competitions. 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 potential.

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 Israeli occupation.

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 and some of the journalists 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.


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