Yesterday, the Somali militant group Al Shabaab killed nearly 50 people during a World Cup-watching party in Mpeketoni, Kenya. The Al Qaeda-linked group has pulled off dozens of attacks on civilian targets, like last year’s assault on an upscale Nairobi shopping mall which killed over 60. And it’s the latest chapter in Al Shabaab’s long-standing and often murderous hostility towards The Beautiful Game and what it represents.
Al Shabaab’s largest terrorist attack on foreign soil was simultaneous bombing of venues showing the 2010 World Cup final in the Ugandan capital of Kampala. Over 70 people were killed in an attack that was purportedly in retaliation for Uganda’s participation in a multinational African Union force fighting Al Shabaab.
Soccer and radical jihad are both forces that transcend international borders, but global soccer is open and cosmopolitan in a way Al Shabaab does not tolerate.
After it took over much of Somalia in 2010 and 2011, the group banned soccer playing on Mogadishu’s beach. It firebombed cinemas and video salons showing the 2010 World Cup, claiming that soccer distracted young men from Jihad. It turned the Somali capital’s soccer stadium into a base of operations, where it “dug trenches to avoid guns and mortar fire” (the stadium was swiftly renovated and re-opened not long after Al Shabaab was ejected from the city in late 2011).
Al Shabaab’s hostility towards Somalia’s most popular sport only emphasised the seemingly-foreign nature of the organisation, which swiftly took over a country with little modern history of Islamic radicalism and claimed a connection to an outside terrorist group. Despite its military defeats and its alienation of much of Somalia, however, Al Shabaab still controls significant parts of the country.
But the group may finally have realised it can’t keep soccer completely out of Somalis’ lives, allowing a version of the game it deems halal.
As Hamza Mohamed reported in Al Jazeera:
About 40 young men have put their heavy weapons aside and changed from their camouflage uniforms to football jerseys — Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Chelsea jerseys among them. Arsenal’s jersey is the most preferred among al-Shabab fighters.
But the rules of the game here are different to those set by the football governing body FIFA and followed across the globe.
No shorts are allowed. Players wear tracksuits which must reach below the knee. Even though it is warm, thanks to the sun and the warm ocean breeze, players aren’t allowed to play without tops or wear vests — all jerseys must reach elbows.
Games must finish at least 15 minutes before prayer time no matter how many minutes of a match are left on the clock.
Even if they now allow people to play the sport, Al Shabaab still sees the World Cup as a chance to spread violence and mayhem. And it still views soccer as a potential danger to its hardcore jihadist worldview.
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