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Sudan Seeks Answers After Medical Students Join Islamic State

  • Gabe Joselow

In March, a group of British-Sudanese medical students abandoned their studies in Khartoum and took off in secret to join the Islamic State militant group in Syria. The school is now re-examining what went wrong and what can be done to prevent radicalization on campus.

The group of four medical students and five companions started their journey to jihad at the University of Medical Sciences and Technology in Khartoum.

The prestigious institution, set on a breezy, tree-covered campus in the center of the city, hosts 4,000 students, many from abroad, and has no reputation for religious extremism.

Student recruitment

For Ahmed Babaker, dean of students at the university, it remains a bit of a mystery how this group of current and former students was drawn to Islamic State.

“The kids are very, very smart kids; very polite, very young, most of them have British passports. And we, from our side, we learn from this lesson at the university. We’d like to know how these students were recruited, how they were influenced in the campus,” said Babaker.

Signs of the students' changing views began about two years ago, according to a friend of three women in the group.

The friend, who declined to give his name, said he noticed the women were dressing more conservatively and had stopped shaking hands when greeting men. They also began preaching, urging other Muslim women to become more religious.

An Islamic Civilization Society also began operating on the campus. The women's friend and other acquaintances say the society was hosting speakers with extremist views.

Babaker acknowledged that in previous years, some radical sheikhs were known to have given talks at the university.

“Some of them started in campus, but usually it is the policy of my office to send some of my assistants to follow what these sheikhs are saying, so that if they deviating from some talks or propagating some jihadist ideas we can stop them, and this is what we did in the last two years,” he said.

Islamic Civilization Society

Babaker said the Islamic Civilization Society continues to operate on campus, but the university now keeps a closer eye on its activities.

The students who left to join Islamic State are believed to have gone to Syria to work as medics, and not necessarily to fight for the extremist group.

The university says it is working together with the students' families, trying to get them to return to Khartoum.

“Definitely we feel very sorry for them. We think they have been cheated, they have been brainwashed, they have been influenced heavily because they were very young. They are very innocent. They are coming with very little background of Islamic culture because they have been brought [up] in the West,” said Babaker.

The Islamist group has recruited thousands of foreign fighters in its battle to establish a caliphate to rule Iraq and Syria by religious decrees and laws.

According to the British-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization, up to 600 IS recruits have come from Britain, along with about 100 Sudanese.