Ominous Silence: Why Has al-Shabaab Refrained From Condemning This Year’s World Cup?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 14

A World Cup watch party in Mogadishu in 2010

Al-Shabaab insists on a strict interpretation of sharia in areas of southern Somalia that it controls. This typically means that the group prohibits watching the World Cup, but the hardline al-Qaeda affiliate has, unusually, not pronounced a ban on watching this year’s event.

Given that several months ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup militants forced the closure of 20 stadiums and playgrounds near the Somali capital Mogadishu, arguing that people had called for a ban, their silence now may be significant (The Standard, March 8) Some speculate that, with its leadership currently in disarray, the militant group is on the verge of defeat at the hands of the forces of the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and its international backers.

Some analysts have interpreted the silence as an indication that the group is losing its grip on its territory (Capital FM, June 17; Daily Nation, January 27).  Others have also suggested the silence may be part of a strategy to boost the group’s popularity, which has been badly damaged by recent attacks in which large numbers of civilians have been killed. One attack in October last year at a road junction in Mogadishu left an estimated 500 people dead, which seriously damaged the group’s reputation (Daily Nation, January 27).

On High Alert

Ahead of the Russia 2018 World Cup, security agencies had warned of possible al-Shabaab attacks during the tournament, encouraging vigilance by patrons and proprietors of venues showing the matches (Capital FM, June 17). During previous such events, the group has targeted makeshift cinemas and small hotels in Mogadishu and towns in southern Somalia where it has found screenings of the final matches taking place.

In 2010, at least 50 people were killed in Uganda when three synchronized blasts hit gatherings of World Cup fans watching the final on outdoor screens in Kampala city. The bombs struck a popular Ethiopian restaurant and a rugby field in a separate neighborhood where hundreds were watching the match.

During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the militants shot randomly at fans watching the matches in bars and hotels in the Kenyan coastal town of Mpeketoni in Lamu, leaving at least 49 people dead (Daily Nation, June 16, 2014).

However, this year the group is on the back foot, struggling financially, militarily and politically. These challenges have continued to hurt the group, amid speculation that its top leader Ahmed Umar Abu Ubaidah (a.k.a. Ahmed Diriye) is dead or close to death as a result of a deadly kidney disease or stomach cancer (Shabelle News Network, June 27).

For several years, African armies and their international backers have hammered the militant group, forcing its fighters to flee their frontlines in southern Somalia. The action has forced the group out of strategic territories, towns and seaports. That has seen its revenue shrink as it frequently shifted its bases and turned more toward guerrilla tactics and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

In the last few months, the use of IEDs has risen in Kenya’s northeastern counties, bordering Somalia. In the latest series of attacks, six police officers were injured when an IED struck their vehicle in Masalani area in Garissa County (The Standard, July 4). On June 6, at least five officers belonging to Kenya’s paramilitary unit—the General Service Unit (GSU)—were killed when their vehicle hit an IED in Liboi in Garissa while on routine patrol in the area (Daily Nation, June 6).

However, with al-Shabaab leader Umar allegedly on his deathbed, analysts say that some of his commands are going unheeded and that infighting over his succession has widened within the jihadist group (Intelligence Briefs, June 14). Already, some reports suggest that the elusive hardliner has died, possibly from stomach cancer, at an al-Shabaab base in Jilib, about 410 kilometers south of Mogadishu (The East African, June 18). Although al-Shabaab has denied the allegation, analysts say that, if confirmed, it would significantly damage the militant group’s organizational structure (Garowe Online, June 27).

‘Unclean’ Entertainment

In April, al-Shabaab carried out an attack on a soccer stadium in the port of Barawe, claiming responsibility for a blast that killed five spectators and wounded seven others. The bomb, which had been buried in a sandy area near the pitch, went off during a match, apparently detonated by remote control (The Standard, April 13; The East African, April 13).

Justifying such attacks through its radical interpretation of sharia, al-Shabaab maintains that the Quran forbids watching soccer, as well as other forms of “unclean” secular entertainment such as music, dancing and watching movies. Mohamed Osman Arus, a leader of the Somali Islamist group Hizbul Islam, which later folded into al-Shabaab, once asserted that true Muslims should not be “pre-occupied with semi-nude, crazy men jumping up and down who are chasing an inflated object”  (The National, June 26, 2010).

Since then, however, there may have been a shift, with a government official saying that militants in fact want to play soccer and have been attending soccer matches, although he gave few details (Tuko, 2016). Al-Shabaab apparently commands those playing soccer to wear long pants when they go out on the pitch.

In Kenya, the group is alleged to have been distributing jihadist material and recruiting at sports tournaments. The recruiters have moved from mosques, schools and madrassa—traditional areas of recruitment—and instead in northeastern Kenya have allegedly been posing as soccer coaches and encouraging young people to join the militant group (The Star, April 16, 2015).

Following the deadly attack on soccer fans in a town in Lamu in 2014 and the synchronized attacks in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, in 2010, al-Shabaab’s apparent unwillingness to condemn this year’s World Cup has prompted speculation is that all is not well with the group.

While its top leader is allegedly critically ill, and its top commanders are fighting over succession, the apparent failure (as at the time of writing) to attack screenings of World Cup matches or issue an outright ban on watching the tournament may be seen both as a sign of weakness and as an attempt by the group to reclaim some of its diminishing popularity.