France — Arrest of ex-Portsmouth player spotlights soccer as a jihadist recruitment tool

This weekend’s arrest in France of a for­mer Portsmouth FC youth cen­ter back on sus­pi­cion of being a vio­lent jihadist high­lights oppor­tu­ni­ties the beau­ti­ful game offers mil­i­tant Islamists.

Yann Nsaku was one of 11 con­verts to Islam arrest­ed in coor­di­nat­ed raids in sev­er­al French cities, includ­ing Paris, Cannes and Stras­bourg for “sus­pect­ed Islam­ic ter­ror­ist plot­ting of anti-Semit­ic attacks,” accord­ing to French police. Police said the group aimed to spark a “war across France” with the aim of impos­ing Islam­ic law. Mr. Nsaku was detained at his parental home in Cannes. 

Mr. Nsaku’s case echoes the arrest and con­vic­tion in Bel­gium almost a decade ago of Nizar ben Abde­laz­iz Tra­bel­si, a Tunisian who played for Germany’s For­tu­na Düs­sel­dorf and FC Wup­per­tal on charges of ille­gal arms pos­ses­sion and being a mem­ber of a pri­vate mili­tia. Mr. Tra­bel­si was sen­tenced to ten years in prison. 

Both cas­es spot­light the fact that jihadists often start their jour­ney as mem­bers of groups orga­nized around some sort of action like soc­cer. So does analy­sis of a series of jihadist attacks over the past decade. 

The per­pe­tra­tors of the 2003 Madrid sub­way bomb­ings, for exam­ple, played soc­cer togeth­er. Sau­di play­ers Tamer al-Thamali, Dayf Allah al-Harithi and Majid Sawat attend­ed twice a week a mil­i­tant Quran group along­side their reg­u­lar soc­cer prac­tice. They silent­ly made their way in 2003 to Iraq as the Al Qae­da-led insur­gency in that coun­try gained steam. Messrs Al-Thamali and and Al-Harithi died as sui­cide bombers. Mr. Sawat’s father rec­og­nized his son when Iraqi tele­vi­sion broad­cast his inter­ro­ga­tion by authorities. 

Sev­er­al Pales­tin­ian Hamas sui­cide bombers traced their routes to a mosque-spon­sored soc­cer team in the con­ser­v­a­tive West Bank town of Hebron. Israeli intel­li­gence believes Hamas saw the team as an ide­al recruit­ment pool – a tight-knit group that shared a pas­sion for soc­cer, a con­ser­v­a­tive, reli­gious world­view and deep-seat­ed frus­tra­tion with Pales­tin­ian impo­ten­cy in shak­ing off Israeli occupation. 

Men like assas­si­nat­ed Al Qae­da leader Osama Bin Laden, Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh and Hezbol­lah leader Has­san Nas­ral­lah were both fer­vent soc­cer fans and rec­og­nized the game’s use­ful bond­ing and recruit­ment qual­i­ties. It brings recruits into the fold, encour­ages cama­raderie and rein­forces mil­i­tan­cy among those who have already joined. The track record of soc­cer-play­ers-turned sui­cide bombers proved their point. 

Nonethe­less to Bin Laden as well as more main­stream, non-vio­lent, ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive Mus­lims, the beau­ti­ful game also posed a chal­lenge. In a swath of land stretch­ing from Cen­tral Asia to the Atlantic coast of Africa soc­cer was until the erup­tion of pop­u­lar revolts in the Mid­dle East and North Africa the only insti­tu­tion that rivaled Islam in cre­at­ing pub­lic spaces to vent pent-up anger and frustration. 

It also dis­tract­ed from the per­for­mance of reli­gious oblig­a­tions. Dur­ing the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Sau­di Arabia’s reli­gious guardians, afraid that believ­ers would for­get their dai­ly prayers dur­ing match­es broad­cast live on Sau­di TV, rolled out mobile mosques on trucks and prayer mats in front of pop­u­lar cafes where men gath­ered to watch the games. 

Mr Nsaku, a 19-year old, 6ft 2ins play­er, was signed in 1998 by Portsmouth from Cannes FC but nev­er made it into the trou­bled 2008 FA Cup win­ners’ first team. His promis­ing career end­ed last year when he suf­fered a knee injury. 

Born in the Con­go, Mr. Nsaku returned last year to Cannes in south­ern France where he is believed to have con­vert­ed to Islam and become a believ­er in its vio­lent jihadist strand under the influ­ence of 33-year old Jérémie-Louis Sid­ney, the sus­pect­ed leader of a Sal­fist group who was killed on Sat­ur­day in a shoot-out with French police in Stras­bourg. At least three French police­men were injured in the shoot-out that erupt­ed after Mr. Sid­ney opened fire. 

Sev­er­al of the arrest­ed young men were believed to have recent­ly trav­elled to Syr­ia to make con­tact with jihadist fight­ing the regime of embat­tled Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad. Sev­er­al had also been con­vict­ed in the past on charges of theft and drugs trafficking. 

Police said that many of the men arrest­ed were Salafis who want a return to a life mod­eled on the 7th cen­tu­ry peri­od of the Prophet Mohammed and his imme­di­ate suc­ces­sors. They said the men, who were of white French, North and Cen­tral African and West Indi­an ori­gin from poor- mul­ti-racial neigh­bour­hoods in France, had made wills and had main­tained a list of Jew­ish tar­gets, includ­ing Jew­ish asso­ci­a­tions and insti­tu­tions in Paris that they were plan­ning to attack. 

Police said the men had post­ed their rad­i­cal views on Face­book and dis­cussed their plans on the tele­phone. Traces of Mr. Sidney’s DNA were found on the han­dle of a home-made grenade which was thrown at a Jew­ish food shop in Sar­celles, near Paris, on Sep­tem­ber 19. 

Police in France have been on alert since March when they shot and killed 23-year old French-Alger­ian Salafist, Mohammed Mer­ah, after he had killed sev­en peo­ple, includ­ing four Jews in Toulouse and Mon­tauban in south­ern France. It was not clear whether the men arrest­ed this week­end were linked to Mr. Mer­ah, who came from a sim­i­lar back­ground. The recent arrests, how­ev­er, idol­ized him and his killing spree as the “bat­tle of Toulouse”. 

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.

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →