What happened to the British medical students who went to work for ISIS?

by 1389 on July 13, 2015

in 1389 (blog admin), Islamic State (of Iraq and ash-Sham/Levant/ISIS/ISIL/Daesh), jihad recruitment, medical, UK

Guardian (UK) wants to know:

The Observer revealed in March that nine British medical students had crossed the Turkish border into Islamic State territory. As their families despair of seeing them again, what happened next?

The man leans forward in the video, a stethoscope dangling from his neck, and urges: “All the people in England, I ask you again, all the Muslims over there, leave the land of England and come to make hijrah [the journey] here. There is a great cause being fought here, the caravan is leaving.”

The speaker is Ahmed Sami Khader, 23, from south-east London, and the caravan left in the spring. It is almost four months since this newspaper revealed that he and eight other British-Sudanese doctors had crossed the Syrian border at Tel Abyad to join Islamic State and answer its call for doctors.

Since the Britons disappeared into Isis’s self-proclaimed caliphate, the Observer has collated testimony from family members, friends and former classmates – speaking for the first time, on condition of anonymity – in an attempt to reconstruct what happened to the five women and four men. Were they safe? Did they want to come home?

Their accounts reveal high-level talks took place to rescue the nine, that they remain in contact with their parents, and that more young British medics than previously thought may have travelled from the Sudanese capital to join Isis.

They also indicate that all were indoctrinated during their studies at Khartoum’s private University of Medical Sciences and Technology by a seemingly benign Islamic organisation that friends claim was a well-oiled “base operation” for Isis to recruit young medics. More young doctors, they say, have been brainwashed by Isis and remain in Khartoum. Two weeks ago a second group of 12 medical students from the university, including seven Britons, arrived in Turkey in an attempt to cross into Syria.

So far, two brothers from Leicester have been intercepted on their way to the Syrian border and last week were returned to Khartoum. On Saturday night The Foreign Office confirmed it was working with Turkish police to try to prevent the remaining five Britons reaching Isis. At least 17 young British doctors are known to have attempted the journey from Khartoum to Syria. How many more are ready to follow?

“What is concerning is that the students who have gone are not the only ones recruited; there are reports of more students currently studying there who have been indoctrinated but have not been told to go,” said a sibling of one of the nine medics inside Syria.

But what was it that persuaded that initial batch of nine to abandon their families and to travel more than 1,200 miles north to serve a regime that has become synonymous with brutality?

Life for foreign students on the Khartoum university’s sweeping campus is austere by western standards. Extracurricular activities are few, an exception being the Islamic Cultural Association, a low-key group founded in 2006 to help western students become closer to their religion. The seemingly innocent organisation is accused of being the machine from which Isis has recruited at least 24 medical students. “It became a front for a recruitment operation that focused on recruiting into Islamic State,” said one of the medics’ siblings. The association became increasingly hardline after 2011, when Mohammed Fakhri, from Teesside, became its president.

Speaking from Khartoum, one former student described how the ICA regulars who joined Isis became increasingly distant: “You wouldn’t really hear from them, a few brief salaams from a distance.” Other control tactics were used. “They would slowly isolate the individuals from their original friends and family so that they only trusted and respected the inner circle.”

Light entertainment events became pious affairs. Open mic nights promoted by the ICA were, according to one ex-student, held in an “awkward atmosphere, women and men sat apart”. Applause was prohibited; poetry was celebrated with chants of “Allahu Akbar” [God is greatest].

Colleagues became concerned that elements within the ICA were promoting extremism. One friend of Lena Mamoun Abdelgadir, the 19-year-old medical student from Norfolk who was among those who joined Isis, said: “Some of the conversations between members of the inner circle depict heated arguments about how to kill sinners who have committed apostasy, adultery. Not if they should kill them, but how.”

Siblings of the nine believe the ICA – 1,202 Facebook likes at the time of writing – was targeted by Isis as a way to source young, impressionable but highly prized female medics. Peers say that women wearing the full niqab met every Wednesday outside the university’s Abdel-Kariem hall. They say Fakhri was often at such meetings, leading to speculation he might have helped radicalise the women. His father said that he knew nothing about such claims and refused to respond to claims that Fakhri was the first of the nine medics to visit Syria in 2014.

Another British Khartoum university student who also reportedly travelled to Syria last year, but is unconnected to the ICA medics, was charged in connection with a UK terror plot.

One theory among the families is that Isis targeted the medics long before the caliphate came into being. “The idea was that there is a pure Islamic state forming in the future and that there will be a signal given when they can go,” said one relative, who has investigated the ICA. Last summer, as Isis began calling for recruits to bolster its ranks, the ICA appeared to embrace Palestinian-American cleric Ahmad Musa Jibril, named by experts as the world’s most powerful recruiter for westerners looking to join Isis. During Ramadan last year, the ICA’s Facebook page hosted eight videos from Jibril over two weeks – now removed as part of a concerted response by the university, which promotes itself as secularist and progressive – that show increased monitoring and the introduction of student guidance sessions. The British embassy in Khartoum is in contact with the university administration “to address these concerns”.

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