Terrorists Versus Soccer

While millions of people all over the planet are tuning into the World Cup this month, Somali soccer fans in the areas controlled by the rival extremist insurgent groups al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam will have to do so in secret. That's because both groups, locked in a brutal struggle with the internationally recognized Transitional Federal Government, have forbidden anyone from watching the games.

"They isolate and punish people for these types of activities, because in their twisted logic it takes you away from jihad as they see it, which is fighting the Transitional Federal Government," says Areej Noor, a research assistant at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center.

The ban on the World Cup has been upheld with lethal force. On Tuesday, Hizbul Islam members killed two people and arrested ten others for watching the games. It's not just watching soccer either -- human rights advocates say that defying the insurgents by playing soccer, or any other game, local residents risk flogging, amputations, or summary executions. Nevertheless, in an extraordinary act of mass defiance, Somalis continue to huddle near radios and satellite televisions just to catch the beautiful game.

It's not just soccer—the insurgents have sought to control all aspects of Somalis' daily lives, forcing their hardline religious views on the populace. "What we're seeing now with the soccer crackdown is happening every day, on multiple levels, in terms of the crackdown on activities, daily, routine mundane activities," says Letta Tayler, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who authored a 2010 report on human rights abuses in Somalia.

Soccer has been a particular target for violent extremists. It's not just al-Qaeda connected groups in Somalia that have targeted the sport. Al Qaeda's affiliate in Algeria has threatened to disrupt the World Cup by launching an attack on the games being held in South Africa. During the 1990s in Afghanistan, the Taliban turned the UN constructed soccer stadium in Kabul into a giant execution chamber.

Other repressive governments have attempted to tamp down soccer obsession without success -- as Franklin Foer recounts in his 2006 book, How Soccer Explains the World , the mullahs' attempts to ban soccer failed, and the regime instead attempted to co-opt Iranian love for the sport by having regime loyalists attempt to lead religious chants in the stadiums. The Mullahs were eventually forced to rescind a ban on women watching soccer on television after they began dressing as men and sneaking into games.

Conservative blogger Ilya Somin recently criticized the sport for promoting "nationalist and ethnic violence," but it's actually because of those nationalistic feelings that violent religious extremists find the sport so threatening. International soccer interferes with the extremist vision of a fundamentalist society free of secular influences in a number of ways -- most notably by cultivating a secular, national identity separate from the religious one. It showcases peaceful interaction not only between rival, even hostile nations, but between Muslims and non-Muslims, undermining the narrative of an inevitable clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. This isn't to say that soccer is necessarily a liberalizing force -- Mussolini's Italy did win the last World Cup before World War II. But the world's love for soccer offers a particularly difficult challenge for the pan-Islamist extremist ideology of groups like al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam.

"It's a time and place where conflict is suspended," says Noor. "When people in Afghanistan or Somalia get together and watch a game, how anti-Western are they being? [Soccer] cultivates a kind of affinity with the rest of the world that these people are not interested in Somalis having."

Al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam's crackdown on soccer -- along with their general callousness and brutality -- also represents the kind of cultural overreach that helps delegitimize extremist groups in the eyes of local residents. In May, hundreds of Mogadishu residents took to the streets to protest Al Shabaab's desecration of the gravesites of Sufi Muslim clerics.

"When al-Qaeda in Iraq started to come apart was when they first started imposing their cultish interpretation of Islamic law on the Western tribes," says Malcolm Nance, a former Navy Intelligence Officer who served in Iraq. AQI's brutality and indiscriminate attacks on civilians damaged their reputation among ordinary Iraqis, and led to their being driven to near-destruction by the U.S. military who were now able to enlist -- with generous sums of cash -- the aid of the Sunni Tribes. Nance says the ban on soccer also highlights something else -- the distance between traditional cultural practices and the relatively novel extremism of these groups, which he says "operate at the level of a cult." "There is nothing in the Koran about games," Nance says. "What we see as a simple innocent game, they see as a threat."

The situation in Somalia is bleak however, and despite the self-defeating brutality of al Shabaab and Hizbul Islam, the two continue to control most of the country. The Transitional Federal Government, which controls the capital, Mogadishu, is losing the war despite having embraced some of the opposition's most reprehensible practices, such as the recruitment of child soldiers. Victory for the insurgents could have drastic international consequences. Al Shabaab, which now controls more of Somalia than any other faction, emerged from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union after the ICU was deposed by the Bush administration-supported Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. The group, originally a splinter faction of ICU hardliners, has recruited more than 20 American citizens to their cause. Al Shabaab has assassinated government ministers, and others have simply resigned in frustration over the lack of progress. It's unclear whether the TFG can survive.

"The idea of global jihad has found a new bastion in Somalia, and it seems that will continue," says Areej Noor. "I don't know if there's an end in sight for that." At the moment, it's hard to imagine a future for Somalia without the brutal, Taliban-style "justice" of the insurgents. Letta Tayler is concerned that once the World Cup is over, the international community will be all too ready to once again turn its eyes away from war-torn Somalia.

"It's unfortunate that the world is only paying attention to it because it's soccer and it's now the World Cup. It's unfortunate that the world is not paying attention to this when it's a woman who is not allowed to sell cups of tea in the market because it will bring her into contact with men," Tayler says. "It's not just soccer, it's every little detail of daily life."

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