Munich Olympics give way to Soccer v. Jihad - I
by James M Dorsey on 12 Jul 2022 0 Comment

In many ways, the Black September attack on the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972 discloses little about the evolution of the targeting of sporting events by political and religious militants even though it remains to date the incident with the greatest number of fatalities. If anything, the Munich attack was never replicated in scale and drama. It introduced a post-World War Two period in which secular nationalists rather than religious militants dominated the targeting of sporting events, executives, and athletes.


That may have been different if plans for attacks by religious militants had not failed or been foiled. Interestingly and more as a result of local circumstances, successful attacks on sporting events and personalities since Munich have struck a balance between having been perpetrated by secularists and religious militants. This is true even if political violence since the 1980s increasingly has been perpetrated by religious rather than secular militants.


Moreover, Munich contains few lessons for understanding the evolution of political violence in the half a century since. What the record of political violence in the last 50 years does show is a shift in the 1980s from secular and nationalist to militant religious perpetrators. The record also illustrates that the targeting of sporting events constitutes a minority of the number of trans-national incidents of political violence in the past 40 years. That picture changes when local occurrences such as attacks in Iraq and Nigeria are taken into account. Analysis further shows that the deadliest attacks have been carried out by Islamists, perhaps because Islamists are more prone to embrace death by suicide while secular perpetrators maintain the hope that they may survive the attack.


Five Decades of Attacks Targeting Sports


Osama bin Laden and Malaysian-born, Al Qaeda-affiliated bomb maker Noordin Mohammed Top would have perhaps come closest to emulating Black September’s success had their separate plans succeeded. Bin Laden authorized a plan by Algerian jihadists to attack the 1998 World Cup. The Algerians pinpointed a match between England and Tunisia scheduled to be played in Marseille as well as US matches against Germany, Iran, and Yugoslavia as targets.


The England-Tunisia match was expected to attract a worldwide television audience of half a billion people while the US match against Iran was already highly political because of the strained relations between the two countries. “This is a game that will determine the future of our planet and possibly the most important single sporting event that’s ever been played in the history of the world,” said US player Alexi Lalas referring to his squad’s match against Iran. The plan, which also included an attack on the Paris hotel of the US team, was foiled when police raided homes in seven European countries and hauled some 100 suspected associates of Algeria’s Groupe Islamique Arme (GIA) in for questioning.


Some scholars and journalists have suggested that the failure of the plot persuaded Al Qaeda to opt instead for the bombing of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in the summer of that same year in which 224 people were killed. Similarly, purported messages by Top claimed that the bombings in 2009 of the Ritz Carlton and Marriott hotels in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta were intended to kill the visiting Manchester United team. Nine people were killed, and 53 others wounded in the attacks. The bombs exploded two days before the team was scheduled to check into the Ritz and prompted it to cancel its visit.


Noor said in one of three online statements that one aim of the attacks was “to create an example for the Muslims regarding Wala’ (Loyalty) and Baro’ (Enmity), especially for the forthcoming visit of Manchester United (MU) Football Club at the hotel. Those (football) players are made up of salibis (Crusaders). Thus, it is not right that the Muslim ummah (community) devote their loyalty (wala’) and honour to these enemies of Allah.”


A double-edged sword


The absence of a major sports event-related attack since 2015 suggests that counterterrorism efforts have successfully degraded transnational religious militants’ ability to strike. It also, at least temporarily, resolves an issue that did not pose itself to the perpetrators of Munich. Sport offers an attractive environment for recruitment and expressions of empathy for both jihadists and nationalists. Not only do thousands attend matches, but the games are also broadcast live to huge national, regional and global audiences.


Jihadists and religious militants, however, in contrast to journalists, seek to polarize communities, exacerbate social tensions, and drive the marginalized further into the margins even if it is likely to alienate large numbers of fans. As a result, soccer poses an unresolved dilemma for jihadists and religious militants: it divides groups between those that see the game’s benefits and those that reject it outright and sparks contradictory attitudes among hardcore activists and fellow travellers.


The Great Mosque in Mosul, the major Iraqi city that was occupied by the Islamic State (IS), where Abu Baker Al-Baghdadi, who as a student was known as a talented soccer player, declared himself caliph in June 2015 was packed with men, many of whom were sporting soccer jerseys. Similarly, an online review by Vocativ of jihadist and militant Islamist Facebook pages showed that many continue to be soccer fans. They rooted for Algeria during the World Cup but switched their allegiance to Brazil, Italy, England and France once the Algerians had been knocked out of the tournament despite their condemnation of the Europeans as enemies of Islam. “Jihadis are in some ways like any other fans – they support the local favourites,” wrote Versha Sharama, who conducted the review.


The Islamic State emerged in the 2010s as the foremost transnational threat in recent years and remains that despite its losses in Syria, including the destruction of its territorial base. The group embodies the jihadists’ struggle with soccer and spotlights the pitch as a battlefield. The Islamic State’s initial sweep through northern Iraq in June 2015 was preceded by a bombing campaign in which soccer pitches figured prominently.


The Islamic State further signalled its dim view of soccer in a purported letter to world soccer governance body FIFA demanding that the group deprive Qatar of the right to host the 2022 World Cup. Addressing former FIFA president Sepp Blatter by his formal first name, Joseph, the letter, published on a since defunct jihadist website,, said: “We sent you a message in 2010 when you decided or were bribed by the former emir of Qatar to have the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Now, after the establishment of the Caliphate, we declare that there will be no World Cup in Qatar since Qatar will be part of the Caliphate (that) doesn’t allow corruption and diversion from Islam in the land of the Muslims. This is why we suggest that you decide to replace Qatar. The Islamic State has long-range Scud missiles that can easily reach Qatar, as the Americans already know.”


Many jihadists see soccer as an infidel invention designed to distract the faithful from fulfilling their religious obligations. Yet, others are soccer fans or former, failed, or disaffected players who see the sport as an effective recruitment and bonding tool. Men like Bin Laden, Hamas’ Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah base their advocacy of the utility of soccer on those Salafi and mainstream Islamic scholars who argue that the Prophet Mohammed advocated physical exercise to maintain a healthy body as opposed to more militant students of Islam who at best seek to re-write the rules of the game to Islamicize it, if not outright ban the sport.


Al-Baghdadi and his successors as did Bin Laden embodied the jihadists’ double-edged attitude towards soccer. A passionate player in his pre-IS days, Al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State and its affiliates took credit for scores of attacks on stadia. Had the attack on a major soccer match in Europe succeeded, it would have gone a long way to achieve the group’s goals of polarizing communities, exacerbating social tensions, and driving the marginalized further into the margins.


Straddling the fence


The Islamic State positioned itself with its spate of attacks and letter to FIFA squarely in the camp of those militant Islamists, jihadists and Salafists, puritan Muslims who want to emulate life at the time of the Prophet Mohammed and his immediate successors. In attempting to do so, they oppose soccer as an infidel creation intended to distract the faithful from their religious obligations. They argue that soccer is not one of several sports mentioned in the Qur’an.


As a result, the Islamic State joined the likes of Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabab in Somalia, an Al Qaeda affiliate, that in 2014 targetted venues where fans gathered to watch World Cup matches on huge television screens. The spate of attacks emulated Al Shabab’s bombing in 2010 of two sites in the Ugandan capital of Kampala where fans had gathered to watch the World Cup finals in South Africa.


Anti-soccer jihadists are strengthened in their resolve by fatwas or religious opinions issued by one segment of the Salafi and ultra-conservative clergy opposed to any form of entertainment which they view as a threat to the performance of religious duties. The views of these clergymen are opposed by other Salafist imams who argue that the Quran encourages sports as long as it is in line with Islamic precepts.


Twisted rulings of radical Egyptian and Saudi clergy provided the theological underpinnings of the attitudes towards soccer of militant groups like the Taliban and Boko Haram, informed Al Shabab’s drive to recruit soccer-playing kids in Somalia and inspired some players to become fighters and suicide bombers in foreign lands.


With us or against us


Jihadist proponents of soccer’s utility recognize the fact that fans like jihadists live in a world characterized best by US President George W. Bush’s us-against-them response to 9/11: “You are either with us or against us.” It is a world in which deep-seated polarization has been perpetuated by populists, the far right, and narcissists like Donald J. Trump. The track record of soccer-players-turned suicide bombers proved the point. Soccer was perfect for the creation and sustenance of strong and cohesive jihadist groups. It facilitated personal contact and the expansion of informal networks which, in their turn, encouraged individual participation and the mobilization of resources. These informal individual connections contributed to jihadist activity in a variety of ways.


They facilitated the circulation of information and therefore the speed of decision making. In the absence of any formal coordination among jihadi organizations, recruitment, enlistment, and cooperation focussed on individuals. Another important function of multiple informal individual relationships was their contribution to the growth of feelings of mutual trust, said Indonesian security consultant Noor Huda Ismail on the impact of religion on political violence. “Recruitment into most jihadi groups is not like recruitment into the police or army or college. Indeed, previous formal or informal membership in action-oriented groups such as soccer or cricket teams, and other informal ties, may facilitate the passage from radicalization into jihad and on to joining suicide attack teams,” he said.


Similarly, University of Michigan professor Scott Atran noted that “a reliable predictor of whether or not someone joins the Jihad is being a member of an action-oriented group of friends. It’s surprising how many soccer buddies join together.” Atran’s yardstick is evident in the analysis of past violent incidents. The perpetrators of the 2004 Madrid subway bombings played soccer together and some Hamas suicide bombers traced their roots to the same football club in the conservative West Bank town of Hebron.


Soccer’s value to jihadists was illustrated by the histories of various suicide bombers and foreign fighters. That was true for the biographies of Mohammed Emwazi who gained notoriety as Jihadi John, a Kuwaiti-born British national who featured in several Islamic State videos in 2014 and 2015 as the executioner of British and American hostages and his European associates. Emwazi was killed in 2015 by an American drone strike.


(To be concluded…)


This is an updated version of a working paper originally published by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the submitted-non-edited version of an article in Israel Affairs.

Courtesy The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer  

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