Somali jihadists focus on banning women’s sports rather than famine

While Al Qae­da is pro­ject­ing a kinder, gen­tler image by dis­trib­ut­ing aid to famine vic­tims, its local Soma­li affil­i­ate, the Al Shabab, are ensur­ing strict adher­ence to a five-year old ban on women’s sports. 

The empha­sis on women con­sti­tutes an expand­ed enforce­ment of the Shabab’s extreme inter­pre­ta­tion of Quran­ic guide­lines on sports that in recent years focused pri­mar­i­ly on efforts to ban soc­cer for men as well as women. 

The Shabab focus not only con­trasts with Al Qaeda’s effort to project a dif­fer­ent image after hav­ing lost much of its appeal with its attacks on Arab res­i­den­tial com­pounds and lux­u­ry hotels in the first half of the last decade and being even more side­lined by this year’s Arab revolt sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. 

It also high­lights dif­fer­ing atti­tudes with Al Qae­da and oth­er mil­i­tant Islamist groups such as Palestine’s Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbol­lah with regard to the impor­tance and the role of sports in Islamist ide­ol­o­gy and strategy. 

AL Qae­da and Al Shabab rep­re­sent two sides of mil­i­tant Islam’s love-hate rela­tion­ship with ball games. Soc­cer doesn’t fit into Al Shabab or, for that mat­ter, the Taliban’s vision of an Islamist soci­ety. Soc­cer dis­tracts the faith­ful from wor­ship­ping Allah, com­petes with the mil­i­tants for recruits and lends cre­dence to 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. It also cel­e­brates peace­ful com­pe­ti­tion and under­mines the nar­ra­tive of an inevitable clash of civ­i­liza­tions between Islam and the West. 

Al Shabab men­tor and Tal­iban ally Osama Bin Laden, like many jihadists, nonethe­less wor­shiped the game only sec­ond to Allah. He saw it as a use­ful bond­ing and recruit­ment tool that brought recruits into the fold, encour­aged cama­raderie and rein­forced mil­i­tan­cy among those who have already joined. The track record of soc­cer-play­ers-turned sui­cide bombers proves his point. 

Nonethe­less, in a break with its indis­crim­i­nate shed­ding of blood­hu­man life, Al Qae­da recent­ly sent a rep­re­sen­ta­tive to a camp of Soma­li refugees flee­ing the famine in their tor­tured coun­try to dis­trib­ute human­i­tar­i­an aid. 

Already wracked by an Islamist insur­gency whose lead­ers dif­fer lit­tle in with Afghanistan’s Tal­iban, Soma­lia recent­ly has also been hit by a famine that is worst in areas con­trolled by the Al Shabab, which five years ago aligned itself with Al Qae­da. The Unit­ed Nations esti­mates that thou­sands have already died in the famine and that some 750,000 more could lose their lives in the com­ing months. 

As a result, Al Qaeda’s dis­tri­b­u­tion of aid throws into sharp relief, Al Shabab’s refusal to allow West­ern air groups to help alle­vi­ate suf­fer­ing and its effort instead to ensure adher­ence to its strict pre­cepts that not only ban women’s sports, but soc­cer for men as well as women as well as bras and music. 

The con­tra­dic­tions were most evi­dent when Al Qae­da leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Ali Abdul­la Al Muha­jir, recent­ly presided over the dis­tri­b­u­tion of mounds of grain, pow­der­erd milk and dates in an Al Shabab-run camp on the out­skirts of marked. The food was marked “Al Qae­da cam­paign on behalf of Mar­tyr Bin Laden. Char­i­ty relief for those affect­ed by the drought,” Mr. Al Muha­jir told his starv­ing lis­ten­ers: “Our beloved broth­ers and sis­ters in Soma­lia, we are fol­low­ing your sit­u­a­tion on a dai­ly basis.” 

Speak­ing in Amer­i­can-accent­ed Eng­lish, Mr. Al Muha­jir said the aid had been pur­chased by “broth­ers in Al Qae­da” who although sep­a­rat­ed from the refugees by thou­sands of kilo­me­tres had them “con­sis­tent­ly in our thoughts and prayers.” 

The Al Shahab’s revived effort to impose a ban on women’s sports harks back to a deci­sion in 2006 by the Soma­li Islam­ic Courts Union (ICU), an Islamist group that briefly ruled Soma­lia, that con­demned it as “a her­itage of old Chris­t­ian cul­tures” and “un-Islam­ic.”

Ini­tial­ly an armed wing of the courts, the Shabab emerged as a force in their own right with the US-backed Ethiopi­an inva­sion that forced the courts out of power. 

Much like they did with soc­cer offi­cials, Al Shabab oper­a­tives have begun threat­en­ing women bas­ket­ball play­ers with death if they fail to give up the sport. The focus on bas­ket­ball is no coin­ci­dence. Bas­ket­ball is Somalia’s sec­ond most pop­u­lar sport after soc­cer and along­side soc­cer and hand­ball only one of three sports played by women in Somalia. 

Soma­li nation­al women’s bas­ket­ball team cap­tain Suweys Ali Jama is one of their favourite tar­gets. “I will only die when my life runs out – no one can kill me but Allah … I will nev­er stop my pro­fes­sion while I am still alive. Now, I am a play­er, but even if I retire I hope to be a coach — I will stop bas­ket­ball only when I per­ish,” Ms. Jama recent­ly told Inter­Press Service ( 

Ms. Jama’s deputy, Aisha Mohammed, whose moth­er once played for the nation­al team, has two strikes against her. Not only is she a woman ath­lete, but she plays for the Soma­li mil­i­tary women’s bas­ket­ball team. 

Ms. Mohammed, accord­ing to IPS, quotes the Shabab as telling her: “You are twice guilty. First, you are a woman and you are play­ing sports, which the Islam­ic rule has banned. Sec­ond, you are rep­re­sent­ing the mil­i­tary club who are pup­pets for the infi­dels. So we are tar­get­ing you wher­ev­er you are.” 

In a feisty retort, Ms. Mohammed asserts that “I am a human being and I fear, but I know that only Allah can kill me.” 

Togeth­er with the nation­al soc­cer team, Ms. Jama and Ms. Mohammed’s bas­ket­ball team trains behind the bul­let-rid­den walls sur­round­ing the Soma­li police acad­e­my. Dressed in loose fit­ting track­suits, T‑shirts and head­scarves, women play­ers sprint across the court in the pres­ence of hun­dreds of police­men. They leave the acad­e­my cov­ered to return home from train­ing as a safe­ty measure. 

Soma­li Bas­ket­ball Fed­er­a­tion deputy sec­re­tary gen­er­al Abdi Abdulle Ahmed told IPS that some women had left the nation­al team as a result of the Al Shabab threats. Sport exec­u­tives esti­mate that some 200 women stopped play­ing bas­ket­ball when the ini­tial 2006 ban was announced. 

Soma­li Bas­ket­ball Fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Hus­sein Ibrahim Ali argues that his nation­al women’s team plays for much more than a tro­phy when it com­petes internationally. 

“The world knows that Soma­lia has under­gone hard­ships. When our women play inter­na­tion­al­ly, it is great pub­lic­i­ty for the whole coun­try and, in par­tic­u­lar, for the bas­ket­ball fed­er­a­tion,” Mr Ali said. 

About The Author:
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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