In Ghana, Student’s Radicalization Prompts Fears ISIS Is Infiltrating Universities

Ghana is situated in a turbulent neighborhood, but has managed to stay free from signs of extremist behavior -- until this week, when officials confirmed at least two citizens have joined the Islamic State.

Islamic State Parade

Between Boko Haram and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, North and West Africa have in recent years fallen victim to an epidemic of Islamist extremism that threatens the stability of the entire region.

But as Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria, and other turbulent nations came under attacks by militants in those groups, nearby Ghana took comfort in its relative freedom from the violence and chaos sparked by the other Islamist insurgencies.

That all changed this week, when Ghanaian National Security Coordinator Yaw Donkor confirmed that at least two Ghanaian citizens have left the country to join the Islamic State. One of them, Mohammad Nazir Nortei Alema, a 25-year-old university student, contacted his family via WhatsApp on Aug. 16 to tell them he had joined the Islamist extremists.  Donkor did not reveal the identity of the second individual who allegedly joined the group, but the cases are the first ever reported in Ghana.

According to Donkor, who spoke to state media, Alema likely traveled through neighboring Burkina Faso or nearby Nigeria before reaching a training camp in Niger and then moving forward to Turkey or Syria. Donkor also confirmed that Alema was radicalized in an online forum, raising fears that the Islamic State is using social media to persuade other Ghanaian university students to join the group in Iraq or Syria — or potentially, return home to take up arms in Ghana itself.

Alema’s family has been vocal about his departure, speaking to multiple international news outlets about his choice to join the extremists, and reiterating that he was radicalized online, not in a mosque in Ghana. Alema, who reportedly finished a government internship in July, displayed no signs of outwardly supporting radical Islam, his family members have said. His brother told Reuters that two weeks after telling his family he was traveling from Accra to a mining town in the country’s west, they received WhatsApp messages revealing he left the country to join the group and abandon what he called “the corrupt system.”

“He said he loves us so much and that we should forgive him for not making his intentions known to us from the beginning,” his brother told the news agency.

According to a spring report from the United Nations, more than 25,000 foreign fighters — many of whom were similarly radicalized online — have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State. Both male militants and women who joined the group to marry the extremists are among the thousands of radical supporters from an estimated 100 countries now represented in the group’s self-declared caliphate, which stretches between Syria and Iraq. Speaking to the BBC Tuesday, Alema’s father said hearing his son joined the group was like hearing “someone in the family has died.”

The presence of sophisticated Islamic State training camps in Niger where Donkor claims Alema was trained is particularly frightening because Niger, which borders Libya, is not only under repeated attack by Boko Haram extremists but is also a passover stop for many migrants attempting to reach Europe through North Africa.

For such camps to exist in Niger poses an added threat as the country is already facing considerable social and political turbulence. Boko Haram, which is based in Nigeria but launches attacks in Niger, Cameroon, and Chad, declared allegiance to the Islamic State in March, and now refers to itself as the self-declared caliphate’s “West African Province” although whatever ties may exist between the two groups remain murky.

Donkor said that Alema’s case has sparked an investigation by Ghanaian authorities into any possible links between the country’s universities and the Islamic State. But he also insisted that there only a “handful” of cases in Ghana, and there is “no reason to fear” large scale radicalization there.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

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