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.