By James M. Dorsey/(Correspondent) on February 23, 2011
Soccer star killed in Islamist suicide bombing in war-torn Somalia
An Islamist suicide bombing that killed a star international on war-torn Somalia’s U-20 soccer team and wounded two other players constitutes a setback for the squad as well as efforts by the country’s football federation to lure child soldiers with the prospect of a soccer career away from the Islamist militia.
The attack is likely to figure prominently when FIFA President Sepp Blatter meets Somali Football Federation (SFF) president Said Mahmoud Nur on Thursday at a Confederation of African Football (CAF) gathering in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. FIFA supports the SFF campaign that has succeeded in turning hundreds of Somali youngsters recruited by the militia into soccer players.
The three players were targeted by the suicide bomber when they walked home earlier this week from training in a heavily fortified police academy in Hamar Jajab District, an area of several blocks in the bullet-scarred Somali capital of Mogadishu controlled by the US-backed Transitional Federal Government (TFG) rather than the Islamist insurgents of Al Shabab, an Al Qaeda affiliate.
Under-20 international Abdi Salaan Mohamed Ali was among 11 people killed when the suicide attacker rammed his van packed with explosives into a police checkpoint. Players Mahmoud Amin Mohamed and Siid Ali Mohamed Xiis were two of the 40 people injured. Abdi Salaan was widely viewed as one of Somalia’s best young players.
Thousands have signed a book of condolence that was opened at the Somali Football Federation’s headquarters in Mogadishu.
The SFF’s FIFA-backed campaign under the slogan “Put down the gun, pick up the ball” is one of the few successful civic efforts to confront the jihadists.
“However difficult our situation is, we believe football can play a major role in helping peace and stability prevail in our country, and that is what our federation has long been striving to attain. Football is here to stay, not only as a game to be played but as a catalyst for peace and harmony in society,” says Shafi’i Moyhaddin Abokar, one of the driving forces behind the campaign.
“If we keep the young generation for football, al-Shabab can’t recruit them to fight. This is really why al-Shabab fights with us,” adds Abdulghani Sayeed, another Somali soccer executive.
Players and enthusiasts risk execution, arrest and torture in Somalia, where jihadists who control much of the country have banned soccer as un-Islamic. Militants in their trademark green jumpsuits and chequered scarves drive through towns in the south of the country in Toyota pickup trucks mounted with megaphones to enforce the ban.
Families are threatened with punishment if their children fail to enlist as fighters. Boys are plucked from makeshift soccer fields. Childless families are ordered to pay al-Shabab $50 a month, the equivalent of Somalia’s monthly per capita income. Local soccer club owners are detained and tortured on charges of misguiding youth.
James M. Dorsey authors The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog