In online statements, both al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al Qaeda’s general command issued vague threats against the FIFA World Cup and its host Qatar. Islamic State supporters have additionally published their own call to arms against the small Arab state.
In all cases, however, the warnings serve as general rallying cries for supporters rather than any explicit threat against the football tournament.
Over the weekend, AQAP became the first jihadist group to issue a statement condemning the Qatari state for hosting the World Cup. In a brief communique, the al Qaeda branch chastised the Qatari state for “spreading obscenity and homosexuality” and promoting “infidels of all races” by hosting the games.
It goes on to say that “Qatar has panted for more than ten years to win this immoral and frivolous occasion, diverting efforts that could have been in the service of Islam, the issues of Muslims, or in service of its nation’s issues and problems.”
Instead, AQAP states, Qatar has “wasted billions of dollars, which were sufficient for millions of Muslims” in its efforts to “shelter infidels, Crusaders, and polytheists” and to “promote degenerates, homosexuals, and atheists.”
According to AQAP, Qatar and its Western allies are attempting to divide the Ummah [worldwide Islamic community] to create “fanaticism, strive, and division to make the loyalty [of the Ummah] be towards something not of Islam but of loyalty to the infidels.”
The regional al Qaeda branch thus warns Muslims to not attend the games and to suppress and shun them online. It also calls for Islamic scholars to issue fatwas against the World Cup.
This message was soon followed by a similar release by al Qaeda’s general command. Using similar language, AQAP’s parent organization also states that in allowing “the scum of the people of the Earth” to enter its borders, Qatar is desecrating the holiness of the Arab Peninsula.
It further goes on to accuse Qatar of “squandering the money of the Islamic Ummah” and for “opening the doors of Crusader corruption of generations of Muslims doctrinally, intellectually, and culturally.”
Al Qaeda’s global leadership provides a harsh rebuke of Qatar, saying that while it projects an image of a bastion of Islamic learning and culture, this is just a facade and its true nature is one of insidious corruption.
Al Qaeda’s leadership spends much of its bandwidth, however, on attacking FIFA and the World Cup itself. The general command says that the “World Cups are no longer mere sporting competitions, but rather an intellectual and philosophical tool to imbue pornography, corruption, and disbelief into the world.”
According to al Qaeda, Qatar and its Western allies want to use the tournament to help degrade the morals and holiness of the Arabian Peninsula.
Ending its message, al Qaeda says to its members and supporters that “your duty today is jihad, crying and complaining are not positive means to resist this danger.” It goes on to say that “whoever is able, let him strive against them [Qatar and the World Cup] with his hands, and if he is not able, then with his tongue, and if he is not able, then with his heart.”
Al Qaeda’s denouncements and chastising of both Qatar and the FIFA World Cup serve to act as a stochastic means to incite action against the games, rather than any direct threat. In doing so, it hopes to inspire people to target the World Cup on its behalf.
And not to be outdone, supporters of the Islamic State have also disseminated their own vague threats and warnings against the tournament.
For instance, one such infographic released by an outlet known as Quraish Media, encourages supporters to travel to the games in order to target Christians and Jews. It also provides advice on how to acquire weapons. The Islamic State itself has not yet officially commented on the games.
But much like with the statements from al Qaeda, the pro-Islamic State media acts more as a general incitement rather than a specific threat. The pro-Islamic State media does take it further than al Qaeda, though, as it does call for other supporters to kill Christians and Jews attending the games.
It is unclear how successful these calls to arms will be, though if the past is any indication, jihadi threats against major global sporting events will likely not amount to much.
Previous threats against other major global sporting events
Major international sporting events, particularly the World Cup and the Olympic games, have routinely been threatened and directly targeted over the past decade. Though attacks, or attempted plots, against such venues are not novel.
For instance, one of the earliest examples of militant groups targeting such major sporting events is the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. The attack, commonly known as the “Munich massacre”, was orchestrated by Black September, an affiliate of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. That attack left nine Israeli members of the country’s Olympic team dead.
In more recent years, al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups such as the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) and the Caucasus Emirate, as well as the Islamic State, have also issued similar threats, or plotted attacks against, both the Olympics and the World Cup. Others have utilized such sporting events for other attacks.
According to a 2009 U.S. Treasury report, months before the 2008 Winter Olympic games in Beijing, TIP leader Abdul Haq al Turkistani instructed the organization’s military commanders to focus attacks on Chinese cities “holding the Olympic games.”
Additionally, the organization published a video titled “fire targeted at China” which threatened public transportation at the games. In the publication, Abdullah Mansour, a senior leader within the TIP, urged Muslims to avoid “Chinese people while in the same building, in the same shop, in the same bus or the same train.” But while the TIP plotted against the games, it failed to materialize any sort of attack.
In 2013 during the build up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Caucasus Emirate, al Qaeda’s then-active wing in the North Caucasus, issued a series of warnings and threats against the games. Though the organization failed to directly target the Olympics, it did launch a series of coordinated suicide bombings in Volgograd just months before the games began.
And as noted in a Combat Terrorism Center at West Point report, the Islamic State, as well as its supporters, released numerous publications threatening the 2018 World Cup in Russia, including threats against well-known football players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
This also includes a pro-Islamic State media outlet called Al ‘Adiyat publishing a video in June 2018. That video showed Islamic State fighters from the organization’s Caucuses branch (formed by the disintegration of the aforementioned Caucasus Emirate) issuing threats against Christians, Jews and “apostates” living in Russia. No known plots were thwarted against the games, however.
While the previously mentioned organizations have directly threatened major sporting events themselves, others have specifically targeted venues showing World Cup matches. On July 12, 2010, Shabaab, al Qaeda’s branch for all of East Africa, conducted two suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, that killed more than 70 people watching the final match of that year’s World Cup.
And on June 15, 2014, Shabaab targeted a resort in Mpeketoni, Kenya as locals and tourists watched a World Cup match, killing more than 50 people. In both the Mpeketoni and earlier Kampala attacks, however, Shabaab used large gatherings of people watching the World Cup as a means to inflict the most damage rather than as a means to attack the games by proxy.
International policymakers should take seriously the recent threats made by al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s supporters against this year’s World Cup in Qatar. However, these vague threats and warnings should be taken into context that though jihadi groups routinely plot and threaten such major global sporting events, actual attacks against them have so far failed to materialize.
Tangential attacks, such as the July 2010 suicide bombings in Kampala, Uganda, or the Dec. 2013 suicide bombings in Volgograd, Russia, in which the World Cup was used as an operational or ideological pretext, have been much more common than direct attacks against the games themselves.
Given that both al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s vast supporter network have so far settled on an approach more akin to stochastic terrorism for this year’s World Cup, relevant policymakers and security officials should also be considerate of the additional dangers and implications of such indirect incitement in planning or preparing for any such attack scenario.
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