Africa

Why do terrorists hate the World Cup?

By Simon Allison 19 June 2014

Earlier this week in Nigeria, 21 people died when a rickshaw-bomb exploded at a World Cup viewing centre. This isn’t the first time World Cup watchers have been targeted, in Nigeria or elsewhere. What is it about the World Cup that makes it such an attractive target? By SIMON ALLISON.

It happened just a few minutes after the start of Brazil’s World Cup group match against Mexico on Tuesday night. The small crowd at the open air viewing area in Damaturu, in northern Nigeria, had watched the stirring national anthems, had seen the Mexicans start strongly and the Brazilians respond in kind. That was all they saw.

A suicide bomber in a three-wheeled rickshaw taxi pressed his button, detonating a bomb that killed at 21 people and left at least 27 seriously injured.

“The bomb just threw me and I didn’t even know where I was,” said one survivor. The match was over.

There is something particularly poignant about tragedies like this, especially for an outside audience. Yes, northern Nigeria is a dangerous place at the best of times, and bombings and attacks are all-too regular occurrences. But to attack a World Cup watching venue seems particularly brutal. This is somewhere that people gather to relax, to have fun, to temporarily forget about their pain and the worries of everyday life; it’s an experience we can all relate to. For most of us, football is escapism, but in Damaturu the real world intruded with fatal consequences.

This is not the first time that World Cup or football-watching fans have been targeted in Nigeria. As Robyn Dixon reports: “The bomb blast follows several similar attacks in northern Nigeria in recent months. Just over two weeks ago, 14 people were killed in a bomb attack on a bar in the town of Mubi in Adamawa state, where people were watching soccer. In May, three people were killed at a soccer viewing venue in Jos, the capital of Plateau state. In April, two people died when gunmen opened fire on a soccer-viewing venue in Yobe state.”

Nor is this off-field violence restricted to Nigeria. On Sunday, in the 5-hour long attack by Al Shabaab gunmen on a Kenyan coastal town, fans watching World Cup action in their local bar were among the 48 victims.

And who can forget the twin explosions, also courtesy of Al Shabaab, that went off in Uganda’s capital Kampala during the 2010 World Cup final, targeting fans watching at a local rugby club and an Ethiopian restaurant. 74 people died. “Can you link it to the World Cup? I don’t know…” said FIFA President Sepp Blatter at the time, clearly wishing to distance his showpiece event from violence on this scale. But it keeps happening, so there must be a link; if not specifically between terrorist attacks and the World Cup, then certainly between terrorist attacks and the Beautiful Game itself.

No matter where they are, big sporting events always present major security concerns. The combination of lots of people and worldwide attention is an irresistible one. Attacking sporting events tends to generate far more publicity than other, similar attacks. Take for example last year’s Boston Marathon bombing. Just two people died – making it a relatively minor incident in the grand scheme of things – yet it dominated world headlines.

Protecting sporting events themselves is a major undertaking (and also big business for the firms involved). Researcher Christopher McMichael describes the immense scale of the operation in Brazil: “In conjunction with the deployment of more than 170,000 of the country’s security forces, stadiums will be patrolled by Israeli-made drones, US-manufactured surveillance robots and officers equipped with facial recognition glasses reporting back to surveillance centres. Brazilian forces have also received training from the mercenary firm Blackwater / Academi, notorious for its violence against Iraqis during the US occupation,” he writes in the Con Mag. “This kind of display is not unique to Brazil. Mega sporting events, and particularly the World Cup and the Olympics, have become increasingly fortified and policed with each new tournament.”

Of course, it’s impossible to police the whole world (much as control-hungry FIFA might want to), but attacking World Cup-related events does well on the publicity stakes too.

But it’s not just about publicity. There’s another reason that groups like Boko Haram and Al Shabaab might consider World Cup and football-related events to be legitimate targets in the context of their twisted ideology. If you are a violent extremist group with a pronounced aversion to the western world – and both Boko Haram and Al Shabaab fall firmly into this camp – then is there a better symbol of the excess, corruption and profiteering of the Western world than the World Cup?

If you haven’t seen it already, watch this clip of comedian John Oliver explaining all that’s wrong with the international football showpiece. He ruthlessly exposes how FIFA forces countries to give it massive tax exemptions, and leaves with huge profits; how corporate sponsors are given priority over basic health and safety regulations; and how endemic corruption permeates the organisation’s inner workings. He also points out the stunning hypocrisy that many South Africans will already be familiar with: that governments of countries with massive poverty are prepared to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on temporary infrastructure and white elephant stadiums, money that should be going towards health and education and housing and other things that will make a real difference in people’s lives.

There’s something wrong with any person or group prepared to kill innocent people at a football match. But we should also acknowledge that there’s something wrong with the World Cup itself. While we all condemn suicide bombers, unreservedly, perhaps we should be reconsidering our enthusiastic support of an event which is fast becoming a symbol of corruption and inequality. DM

Photo: Hands of a victim are seen under the plastic sheet at a makeshift mortuary in the small coastal town of Mpeketoni near Lamu, Kenya, 16 June 2014. EPA/DAI KUROKAWA

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