Football's role as a "recruitment tool for terrorism"

Noor Huda Ismail, a consultant on the impact of religion on political violence in South East Asia, warns that football may be one of the tools that violent jihadists are using to forge an esprit de corps and links among themselves. Ismail, an Indonesian, has been doing extensive research on jihadist networks and religious extremism and is a regular contributor to newspapers ranging from the Washington Post to the Straits Times and the Jakarta Post. He is currently a British Chevening scholar undertaking postgraduate program on International Security Studies at St Andrews University, UK.

"To have a strong and cohesive group among jihadists is necessary and soccer serves this purpose perfectly," he wrote in Football recruitment tool for terrorism in today's Jakarta Post. "It facilitates personal contact and the expansion of informal networks which, in their turn, encourage individual participation and the mobilization of resources. These informal individual connections contribute to jihadist activity in a variety of ways. First, they facilitate 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 are done among individuals. Another important function of multiple informal individual relations is their contribution to the growth of feelings of mutual trust."

He provided four cases supporting his argument:

Mohammad Saifudin, the deputy of the Al Ghuraba sleeper cell in Pakistan, said in a jail interview in 2004 that besides studying, members of the cell also played sport. "Our favorite sport was soccer. We played with other study groups such as Al Bayan," he said.

The second case is from southern Thailand, last year, involving a fringe Islamic group wanting to make Pattani an independent state that had conducted a series of coordinated attacks on 11 police posts in three provinces that left at least 112 people dead. Some of attackers were from a local football team, a tight-knit group of men between the ages of 18 and 32. Many of the men had played together since they were schoolchildren. Just two days before the attack this football team beat out seven other teams to win a local tournament.

The third case can be found in Spain's jihadist network in 2005. The leader of the cell, Imad Yarkas, was known to many through informal football games among the Syrian immigrant community.

The fourth example is the fact that Osama bin Laden himself reportedly loves football, according to his former teacher at Al Thagher. Writer Steve Coll, in New Yorker magazine, described how informal tutoring using football at the school was a very powerful tool for attracting students to engage a tough subject such as memorizing the entire Koran. In Coll's article, a former student said that a teacher at the school "promised that if we stayed we could be part of a sports club, play soccer. I very much wanted to play soccer. So we began to stay after school with him from two o'clock until five".

"Thus," Ismail concluded, "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."


With the death of the Al Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, we are reminded of the profile on him published in The Observer (London) on 29 May 2005. During his Jordanian childhood, Paul Harris observed, "Zarqawi quickly became a tearaway. He spent his time scrapping and playing football in Zarqa's dusty streets and surprised no one by dropping out of school aged 17 ..."


The US Public Broadcasting System's Frontline program discussed the case of Nizar Trabelsi, the only known former professional football player to join the Al Qaeda terrorist network (25 Jan 2005). The Tunisian was convicted in 2003 of plotting to drive a car bomb into Kleine Brogel, a NATO airbase in Belgium where US military personnel work and sentanced to 10 years gaol. Trabelsi played professional football in Germany in the late 1980s and early 1990s, initially for Fortuna Düsseldorf, but then drifted from team to team, developed a cocaine habit and racked up criminal offenses.He embraced radical Islam in the mid-1990s and, during training in Afghanistan, had face-to-face meetings with Osama bin Laden.


When visiting London back in 1994, author Adam Robinson wrote in his book Bin Laden: behind the mask of a terrorist, Bin Laden is thought to have cheered on Arsenal FC at their Highbury stadium for at least two European ties, against Torino and Paris St Germain. It is even suggested he bought his son Abdullah a replica shirt in the club shop after having been blown away by the Highbury atmosphere.

And Chris Bryant refers in Spiegel (14 June) to a videotape released by the US Defence Department in December 2001 in which Bin Laden and his coterie make two references to soccer. Firstly Bin Laden recalls a prophesy that one of his own al-Qaida supporters relayed to him, "I saw in a dream, we were playing a soccer game against the Americans. When our team showed up in the field, they were all pilots!" Secondly, another man on the tape describes to Bin Laden his experience of watching the 9/11 attacks on television. "The scene was showing an Egyptian family sitting in their living room. They exploded with joy. Do you know when there is a soccer game and your team wins? It was the same expression of joy."

See also: Malaysian terrorist "was a Manchester United fan" (11 Nov 05) and Could football have lead Osama Bin Laden to an early Arsenal? (30 Sep 05)