While the drama of the World Cup is enthralling a global television audience of billions, it is also attracting a deadly enemy: soccer-hating extremists whose bombs and guns are killing scores of World Cup fans.
Two attacks this week in Kenya and Nigeria, and an even more lethal bombing in 2010 in Uganda, have killed nearly 150 people who had gathered to watch World Cup matches.
The most recent attacks had been expected. Western intelligence analysts have been warning of the threat. A tweet by the Canadian government last Friday urged Canadians in Africa to be “extremely vigilant” in any public venue showing World Cup matches.
A bomb in northern Nigeria killed at least 21 people as they watched the Brazil-Mexico match on television on Tuesday night. Another 48 people were killed in Kenya on Sunday night as gunmen attacked a crowd watching a World Cup broadcast. Similar bombings have killed dozens of Nigerians watching soccer matches before the World Cup began this year, and some districts have banned World Cup screenings for fear of further attacks.
The attacks have left Africans pondering a question: Why do terrorists hate the World Cup so much? The answers help explain the strategy and ideology of the Islamist radical groups that have gained ground in West Africa and East Africa in recent years.
Part of the answer is simply that the World Cup crowds are an easy target. In soccer-mad Africa, where millions don’t have televisions or even electricity at home, the crowds watching the matches at outdoor venues are so big that they cannot be all protected.
But there is also a long history of Islamist extremists condemning soccer as “un-Islamic” and morally corrupt. Radical clerics have issued fatwas against soccer, denouncing it as “frivolity” and a game of “infidels.”
An early Islamist militant group in Somalia, the Islamic Courts Union, banned World Cup broadcasts after gaining control of most of Somalia in 2006. It ordered the closing of outdoor cinemas broadcasting the World Cup, describing soccer as “satanic.”
Four years later, another Islamist extremist group in Somalia killed two young men who were secretly watching a World Cup match. And another Somalian radical group, al-Shabab, converted soccer stadiums into markets or even execution grounds.
Al-Shabab claimed responsibility for bombs that killed at least 79 people in Uganda who were watching broadcasts of the final match of the World Cup in 2010.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a U.S.-based terrorism analyst, said the extremist groups have two main ideological reasons for opposing soccer. First, they see it as encouraging “idle time” – a frivolous distraction from religious studies. Second, they condemn soccer for encouraging “un-Islamic” clothing: shorts that expose skin above the knee, for example.
Boko Haram, the extremist group that is believed responsible for a wave of bombings of soccer crowds in Nigeria this year, including the latest bombing on Tuesday, has released videos in which its leader, Abubakar Shekau, denounced soccer and music as a Western plot to distract Muslims from their religion. Because of the danger of attacks, many Nigerians have decided to watch the World Cup at home this month.
Yet despite the warnings from the extremists, millions of Africans are closely following the World Cup. Five African countries have teams in the tournament this year: Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Algeria, Cameroon and Ghana.
A survey released on Wednesday estimated that 17.5 million Nigerian adults – about a fifth of its adult population – watched Nigeria’s opening match against Iran. In the five countries covered by the survey by the GeoPoll company, a total of about 25 million people watched the Nigerian match, which ended in a scoreless draw.