The hunt for Jihadi John has cast a spotlight over football as a recruitment tool for jihadists.
The United Kingdom’s search for “Jihadi John” — the masked, British-accented fighter who appears in beheading videos of foreigners condemned to death by the Islamic State (IS) — has highlighted the significance of football as a recruitment and bonding tool for militants. It has also put the spotlight on a small band of Portuguese nationals who have joined jihadists.
The British search is focusing, according to The Sunday Times, on five East London-based amateur footballers who traveled to Syria to join IS and have since suggested on social media that at least one of them has intimate knowledge of the executions. The five are seen as potential leads to Jihadi John, whose identity is believed to be known by British intelligence.
One of the five players, 28-year-old Nero Seraiva, tweeted on July 11, 2014: “Message to America, the Islamic State is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors.” The tweet came days before the jihadist group announced the execution of American journalist James Foley, the first of IS’ Western hostages to be decapitated.
Jihadi John’s latest video threatened to execute two Japanese hostages, one of which, Hurana Yukawa, is believed to have been killed over the weekend.
Intelligence sources believe that Seraiva and his East London associates may be involved in the filming and distribution of videos of Jihadi John and the beheadings. Westerners who met the same gruesome fate as Foley include American journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines, and US aid worker Peter Kassig who changed his name to Abdul-Rahman Kassig after converting to Islam.
The investigation of Seraiva’s group is likely to offer insights into the Islamic State’s appeal. The five players are all Portuguese nationals with roots in Portugal’s former African colonies. They migrated to Britain for study and work.
Celso Rodrigues da Costa, whose brother Edgar is also in Syria, is believed to have attended open training sessions for Arsenal but failed to get selected. Da Costa, born in Portugal to parents from Guinea-Bissau, took the name Abu Isa Andalusi after traveling to Syria.
Andalusi or al-Andalus are names adopted by several of the approximately one dozen Portuguese nationals — at least half of whom were resident in Britain — who have joined IS. The names, which are Arabic references to the Iberian Peninsula at the time of Muslim rule, reflect a desire to return the region to Islam.
The Islamic State demonstrated its understanding of the recruitment and propaganda value of football when, in April 2014, it distributed a video in which da Costa appeared as a masked fighter. The video exploited the physical likeness of da Costa to that of French international Lassana Diarra, who played for Arsenal before moving to Lokomotiv Moscow. A caption under the video posting read: “A former soccer player — Arsenal of London — who left everything for jihad.” Another text said: “He … played for Arsenal in London and left soccer, money and the European way of life to follow the path of Allah.” On camera, da Costa said:
“My advice to you first of all is that we are in need of all types of help from those who can help in fighting the enemy. Welcome, come and find us and from those who think that they cannot fight, they should also come and join us, for example because it maybe that they can help us in something else; for example help with medicine, help financially, help with advice, help with any other qualities and any other skills they might have, and give and pass on this knowledge, and we will take whatever is beneficial and that way they will participate in jihad.”
Da Costa and his cohorts were following in the footsteps of other European players from immigrant backgrounds who have been radicalized. Burak Karan, an up-and-coming German-Turkish footballer, was killed during a Syrian military raid on anti-Assad rebels near the Turkish border. Yann Nsaku, a Congolese-born convert to Islam and former Portsmouth FC youth center-back, was one of 11 converts arrested in France in 2012 on suspicion of being violent jihadists who were plotting anti-Semitic attacks. Nizar Ben Abdelaziz Trabelsi, a Tunisian who played for Germany’s Fortuna Düsseldorf and FC Wuppertal, was arrested and convicted in Belgium a decade ago on charges of illegal arms possession and being a member of a private militia. Trabelsi was sentenced to ten years in prison.
All of these players shared with militant Islamists such as Osama bin Laden and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh a deep-seated passion for sport. Their road toward militancy often involved an action-oriented activity such as football.
Fabio Pocas, the youngest of Seraiva’s group at 22 years old, arrived in London in 2012, hoping to become a professional football player. In Lisbon, Pocas, a convert to Islam, attended the youth academy of Sporting Lisbon, the alma mater of superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo. In London, Pocas helped amateur league UK Football Finder FC (UKFFFC) win several divisional competitions. The Sunday Times quoted UKFFFC Football Director Ewemade Orobator as saying: “[Pocas] came here to play football seriously. In about May 2013 an agent came down and said, ‘Work hard over the summer and I will get you a trial (with a professional club).’” Pocas failed to take up the offer and traveled to Syria instead, where he adopted the name Abdurahman al-Andalus.
Pocas, according to The Sunday Times, has settled in the Syrian town of Manbij near Aleppo, where he has taken a Dutch teenager as his bride. “Holy war is the only solution for humanity,” he said in a posting on Facebook.
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