The Sudanese Medical School That’s a Pipeline to the Islamic State
The British doctor who allegedly recruited Sudanese medics to join the Islamic State in Syria has confirmed the recent battlefield death of a classmate from Khartoum’s prestigious University of Medical Sciences and Technology.
Nearly two dozen doctors and medical students from the university — most of them British, Canadian, and American citizens of Sudanese descent — have joined the Islamic State since March.
Former students and the university’s dean say Mohammed Fakhri, the son of a Palestinian doctor from northeast England, was their radical guide.
“I don’t think the Islamic State lacks for fighters, but they do lack for professionals,” one of Fakhri’s former classmates said.
The former student was one of six graduates who agreed to speak about Fakhri and the university on condition of anonymity, citing fears of retaliation from both militant Islamists and the Sudanese authorities.
Fakhri’s statement, which was posted to the Internet on Monday, and other social media posts by his Khartoum schoolmates, show the Sudanese doctors are motivated by a desire to live under a supposedly “pure” Islamic government, and to defeat the Iran-backed governments of Syria and Iraq.
While the document is the first known public statement from a valuable Islamic State recruiter, Fakhri’s statements read mostly as jihadi boilerplate.
European Muslims, Fakhri says, are estranged from their religion while living in secular democracies “with their legislative polytheism and Satanism.” Muslims residing outside the borders of the Islamic State, he says, “have had our right of living under the justice and mercy of the sharia stripped of us from the tawagheet (false gods) of the East and West.”
Friends and relatives of the missing medics believe they are delivering humanitarian aid in Syria, but one of their number already has died in combat.
Fakhri closes his nearly 5,000-word statement with a shout-out to Osman M. Fagiri, 23, a fellow graduate of the University of Medical Sciences and Technology in Khartoum who had once lived in London.
The son of a wealthy merchant family with business ties to Nigeria, Fagiri was apparently killed by Syrian government forces sometime in mid-July.
“[T]he brave brother immersed himself into Bashar’s regime forces seeking the pleasure of Allah,” Fakhri writes. “We ask Allah…to accept him…and grant him the highest levels of paradise.”
His death was also confirmed on Twitter Wednesday by analyst Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation.
Fagiri had earlier traveled to Libya to serve jihadist forces there, two former students said. Other reports claimed he had been with Islamist militants in Mali in 2013. He had returned to his studies in Sudan before slipping away with his wife earlier this year. Radio Tamazuj reported July 22 that Fagiri died as a suicide bomber.
“He is a peaceful guy and just trying to defend his religion,” a friend who was in contact with Fagiri after he left for Syria recalled.
“Last thing I told him was to stay with the good people. Just like there’s good people everywhere there [are] bad people too. But he didn’t respond to that.”
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Mohammad Fakhri Al-Khabass wasn’t always a mouthpiece for violent jihad. When he first landed at medical school in Sudan, Fakhri was “a proper British lad” speaking the language of girls, beer, relationships, and football, an old friend said.
He was radicalized at the University of Medical Sciences and Technology, an elite medical school known for its high academic standards — and, more recently, as a pipeline to the Islamic State.
“There’s good kids there,” a former student said. “They don’t deserve this kind of treatment, but that’s all they talk about these days — that their university is being classified as a terrorist university.”
Two groups comprising students and recent graduates left Khartoum for Syria in March and June of this year. They are part an estimated 5,000 volunteers from across Europe who have joined the Islamic State and other groups in a brutal war for control of Syria and Iraq that has killed more than 200,000 people (most of them victims of Assad).
What sets these recruits apart is their medical training, which makes them prize catches. “They were all following Mohammad,” another UMST graduate told me. “He guided them.”
“Mohammed Fakhri is in Syria and played a major role in recruiting the students who left to Turkey,” UMST dean Dr. Ahmed Babiker Mohamed Zein told BBC News.
The first group, seven Britons, two Sudanese, one Canadian, and one American, arrived in Syria through Turkey in March. Last month one of those students, a Londoner named Ahmed Sami Kheder, appeared in online videos imploring other Muslim doctors to leave Britain and join the Islamic State.
“All you are doing is sitting in the West in the comfort of your homes. Use your skills and come here,” Kheder, a stethoscope draped over his neck, says in one video.
Twelve more medics — including, sources said, an American from Ames, Iowa — left the campus for Syria on June 26, but at least two were arrested in Turkey and deported to Sudan. This batch included a daughter of a spokesman for Sudan’s foreign ministry, who later claimed members of the government were involved in supporting the Islamic State.
The University of Medical Sciences and Technology opened in 1996 during a period of oil-fueled modernization in Sudan. After more than a decade of economic stagnation, money was flowing through the capital and into the pockets of figures linked to the Islamists of the ruling National Congress party. The school’s founder and chairman, Mamoun Homeida, is the current health minister of Khartoum state.
Unlike other universities in Khartoum, where political factions sometimes fight pitched battles with clubs and knives, student groups and political organizing were banned at UMST.
There was one exception: The Islamic Cultural Society.
For Sudanese parents in the West, the school was a boon: Their children could receive a medical education on par with British standards for a fraction of the cost, while also acquainting themselves with Sudanese culture.
For students raised under the thumb of socially conservative parents in Britain, UMST combined academic achievement with new personal liberty. The university “was considered a Western hub,” a former student recalled. “They come there for freedom. Boys and girls get together and have some fun.”
Some couldn’t adapt. Leaving home to begin college at ages as young as 15, “they’re on a quest for identity,” a former student said. “At home they don’t feel one hundred percent British. In Khartoum, they don’t feel one hundred percent Sudanese.”
With no liberal route to rebellion, youth seeking to differentiate themselves from the older generation of crony capitalist Islamists had only one place to go.
Fakhri fit that mold, with one exception. The son of a Palestinian doctor in gritty Middlesbrough in northeast England, he lacked even a tenuous connection to Sudan.
His Arabic was poor, and he spoke English in “a normal, thick British accent,” a former classmate said. He found a home in the Islamic Cultural Society. “It was about being a better Muslim, being a better person,” a former student said of the campus group. “I don’t remember extremism or violence — not at first.”
In 2011 the group’s message grew darker. Radical preachers threatened young women with hellfire for their Western dress, and men with the same for daring to look. Fakhri took their messages to heart, former students said, and became a recruiter.
“He found these students who were eager to learn about their tradition. They all came from the West,” a former student said. “He started playing games with people’s minds.”
Homesickness, heartache, alcohol abuse: Any student who appeared vulnerable was embraced, and soon their appearance and behavior changed. Women disappeared under the full-face cover of the niqab, a practice that is not native to Sudan.
The scope of religious obligations expanded. “They say, ‘How can you sleep at night knowing Muslims are dying in Syria,’” one student said. “It happened so gradually that for a long time no one noticed,” another recalled.
Fakhri was described as both militant and big-hearted, lacking the rage that others displayed toward supposedly inferior Muslims.
One former student recalled being attacked by a friend during a mild conversation about Islamic traditions. “He told me that I am not Muslim anymore and that I have to be killed.”
In 2012 two students were arrested after a shootout between jihadis and Sudanese police that killed as many as 13 people at a training camp in a remote national park.
This wasn’t Fakhri. If he passed judgement, he didn’t let on. When discussions turned to terrorism, he equivocated. “He had a more lenient view toward it,” a former student said. “The West and the Americans are killing Muslims, why isn’t it OK for us to do it?”
Today, family members of the missing medics are convinced it was Fakhri who preceded them to Syria and arranged their transport. “They are furious,” a former student said.
The university’s dean was the first official to publicly confirm Fakhri’s role in the disappearances. Then came Fakhri’s Internet testament. A spokesman for Britian’s Home Office said the law enforcement body could not comment on individual cases. Three of Fakhri’s family members did not respond to requests for comment. His Sudanese mobile number was switched off, and he did not respond to a message left on his Facebook account.
In his last public Facebook post, in August 2014, Fakhri cautioned his “brothers” against looking at online photographs of women.
As for women who had posted selfies, he said, “You may be getting sins even while you are sleeping or eating…as your Facebook account runs 24 hours seven days a week.”