The United Kingdom's search for Jihadi John, the masked, British-accented fighter who appears in videos and beheadings of foreigners condemned to death by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, has highlighted the significance for militants of football as a recruitment and bonding tool. It has also put the spotlight on a small band of Portuguese nationals who have joined the jihadists in recent years.
The British search is focusing, according to The Sunday Times, on five East London amateur players who traveled to Syria to join ISIL.
One of the five players, 28-year-old Nero Seraiva, on July 11, 2014, days before the execution of American journalist James Foley, the first of ISIL's Western hostages to be decapitated, tweeted: ""Message to America, the Islamic State [ISIL] is making a new movie. Thank u for the actors." The tweet came days before the jihadist group announced Mr. Foley's execution in a graphic YouTube video entitled "A Message to America." Jihadi John's latest video threatened to execute two Japanese hostages last week, one of which, Hurana Yukawa, is believed to have been killed.
Link with executions
Intelligence sources believe that Mr. Seraiva and his East London associates may be involved in the filming and distribution of videos of Jihadi John and the beheadings. Westerners who have met the same gruesome fate as Mr. Foley include American journalist Steven Sotloff, British aid workers Alan Henning and David Haines and U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig, who changed his name to Abdul-Rahman Kassig after converting to Islam.
The investigation of Mr. Seraiva's group is likely to offer insights into ISIL's appeal. The group's five members are all Portuguese nationals with roots in Portugal's former African colonies who 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. Mr. da Costa, born in Portugal to parents from Guinea-Bissau, adopted the name Abu Isa Andaluzi in Syria. Al-Andalus or Andaluzi are names adopted by several of the approximately one dozen Portuguese nationals, at least half of whom were residents of Britain, who have joined ISIL. The adopted names, Arabic references to the Iberian Peninsula at the time of Muslim rule, reflect a desire to return the region to Islam. ISIL demonstrated its understanding of the recruitment and propaganda value of football when it distributed a video last April, in which Mr. da Costa appeared as a masked fighter.
The video exploited the physical likeness of Mr. 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 football player - Arsenal of London - who left everything for jihad." On camera, Mr. 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. We will take whatever is beneficial and that way they will participate in jihad."
Mr. da Costa and his cohorts were following in the steps of a number of European players from immigrant backgrounds that radicalized. Burak Karan, an up-and-coming German-Turkish football star, was killed during a Syrian military raid on anti-Bashar al-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. Mr. Trabelsi was sentenced to ten years in prison.
They all shared with militant Islamist leaders such as Osama bin Laden and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh a deep-seated passion for the sport. Their road towards militancy often involved an action-oriented activity: football. Fabio Pocas, at 22 years old the youngest of Mr. Seraiva's group, arrived in London in 2012, hoping to become a professional football player.
In Lisbon, Mr. Pocas, a convert to Islam, attended the youth academy of Sporting Lisbon. In London, he helped amateur league UK Football Finder FC win several competitions. In about May 2013, an agent came down and said, 'Work hard and I will get you a trial (with a professional club).'" Mr. Pocas failed to take up the offer and travelled to Syria instead, where he adopted the name Abdurahman al-Andalus.
Mr. 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. - Istanbul