By Philip Obaji Jr.
Young, vibrant and outspoken, Ibrahim Uwais could easily have added his voice to issues concerning Nigeria’s forthcoming general elections just like many young people in the country are doing, but instead he shocked the country by reportedly joining the Islamic State, an extremist terrorist group formerly also known as ISIS or ISIL, controlling territory in Iraq and Syria.[pro_ad_display_adzone id=”10″]
A son of a highly respected former Chief Justice of Nigeria, Muhammadu Lawal Uwais, who is known for his hard stance on the rule of law, it was reported last Tuesday that Ibrahim had left Nigeria for Syria few days back with his two wives and children to enlist and fight for ISIS. He is said to be a close friend of Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the so-called “Underwear Bomber.”
Ibrahim could be the first confirmed case of a Nigerian joining ISIS, heightening fears the children of highly placed Nigerians were being recruited by ISIS.
“We are aware that recruiters for ISIS from South Africa are seeking to recruit young vulnerable Nigerians via the social media. This was why we alerted Nigerians last week of this development,” said Mike Omeri, Coordinator of the National Information Centre.
To stanch any flow of young men to ISIS before it starts, Omeri said government agencies were collaborating with organisations and aggressively educating Nigerian youths on the dangers of jihad and radicalism.
“As we speak, I am attending a programme in Lagos where we are actively educating the youths on the dangers of radicalism and jihad in order to discourage them. We are also teaching them on how to safely use the social media in order to help them detect fraudulent intentions.”
Since ISIS declared its self-styled caliphate last June—which included Nigeria—countries around the world have been on high alert for foreign fighters trying to get to Iraq and Syria. New security measures have forced the extremists to adopt more-creative recruitment methods, but they have not hindered the militant group’s ability to reach a wide range of prospective recruits.
Intelligence and law-enforcement agencies have cracked down on the Islamic State group’s recruitment cells outside Iraq and Syria as well as on its sophisticated use of social media to attract and inculcate recruits while spreading its message. Despite the new measures, ISIS has managed to draw in 20,000 foreign fighters from more than 40 countries.
In a country where Boko Haram controls a large territory in the northeast and recruits soldiers with ease, a much more organised and financially capable ISIS might be inspired to carry out a similar exercise. And as its recruitment tactics adapts to government’s security measures, there is danger of more young Nigerians heading to Syria.
In the case of Ibrahim, it is believed that he first left Nigeria for Dubai, then to Jordan, before he crossed into Syria.
The fact that he and his family were able to make the snaky trips and ascertain the routes through which they could get to the section under the control of the terrorists unhurt is a pointer that ISIS already has a foothold in Nigeria.
“From all that’s been happening, I’m worried that many of our young ones might be easily lured into joining ISIS,” said Yusuf Mohammed, an Arabic scholar in Nigeria’s northeastern Maiduguri. “I’ve seen a couple of young people reading a lot about ISIS on their phones,” he added.
Many young Nigerians are well aware of the existence and scope of ISIS. During a trip to the northeastern town of Damaturu, a group of schoolboys were engaged in a discussion about ISIS. They knew a lot about the group—its source of funding and mode of recruitment. In their analysis, a few referred to what they read on social media. Some, though, argued about the objective of the group.
“What worries me is the fact that many young people are reading and asking questions about ISIS,” said Agafi Kunduli, a social worker based in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. “I could easily have concluded that they’re doing this just for their education. But with the increasing number of foreigners pitching tent with the organisation, I’m beginning to get skeptical.”
Recruitment of terrorist soldiers may not be new in Nigeria, but unlike Boko Haram which forcibly conscripts children and youths into its fold, ISIS adopts a more scientific approach in recruiting its members. Recent developments though have shown that Boko Haram is a group inspired by ISIS.
In an online audio message reportedly from its leader, Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram on Saturday apparently pledged formal allegiance to ISIS, but it’s unclear if this marks the beginning of an actual, operational alliance or if it is instead an attempt by the African group to push back against an increasingly robust regional military response.
ISIS has long used social media, such as Ask.fm and Twitter, to answer questions about joining and to disseminate advice on the best way to get to the so-called caliphate without being detected. There are scattered sympathisers who act as online recruiters for the militant group. They will first help weed out potential spies, then determine the seriousness of potential recruits and finally connect them with the correct people to bring them across the Turkish border into Syria.
Twitter and YouTube have made increasing efforts to remove propaganda from their platforms. They shut down accounts that belong to Islamic State group sympathisers and online recruits, but other accounts are frequently re-created just as fast. After a sympathiser has been blocked, he will almost immediately establish a new Twitter profile with a similar handle. He will then post dozens of tweets to his “brothers” urging them to spread his new profile using ISIS hashtags, while condemning Twitter for shutting down the account.
Twitter was one of the first public forums ISIS employed for recruitment, but the group has now expanded its social-media use to several other platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, JustPasteIt, Pinterest and WordPress.
Philip Obaji Jr. is the founder of 1 GAME, an advocacy and campaigning organization that fights for the right to education for disadvantaged children in Nigeria, especially in northeastern Nigeria, where Boko Haram forbids western education.