Demonstrators chant pro-Isis slogans as they carry the group’s flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul.
Demonstrators chant pro-Isis slogans as they carry the group’s flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul. Photograph: STR/AP
Tasneem Hussein was a soft-spoken university student in Khartoum when the transformation slowly began.
After returning to Sudan from Britain to study pharmacology she swapped her jeans for the head-to-toe niqab covering, but there were no signs of the dramatic move she was planning.
Last week, the 23-year-old told her parents she would be spending the night with relatives. In fact, Hussein went to Turkey with a group of other British-Sudanese medical students en route to Syria, abandoning her studies to help Islamic State (Isis) wage war.
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To many people, the group that now controls large areas of Iraq and Syria is notorious for beheading western captives and burning a Jordanian military pilot alive. It imposes strict Islamist rule in its fiefdoms, which are particularly repressive towards women. But for some youngsters like Hussein, it may have had an appeal.
She used to “join us in parties and occasions with neighbours. She use to wear jeans and then two years ago a big change happened and she started wearing the niqab,” said a neighbour, who declined to be named due to the sensitivities of the matter, and who saw Hussein the day she left for Turkey but did not detect anything unusual.
Clockwise from top left: Ismail Hamadoun, Tamer Ahmed Ebu Sebah, Usame Muhammed Bedir, Hisham Muhammed Fadlallah, Sami Ahmed Kadir, Tasneem Suleyman Huseyin, Rowan Kamal Zine El Abidine, Lena Maumoon Abdul Qadir and Nada Sami Kader. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Clockwise from top left: Ismail Hamadoun, Tamer Ahmed Ebu Sebah, Usame Muhammed Bedir, Hisham Muhammed Fadlallah, Sami Ahmed Kadir, Tasneem Suleyman Huseyin, Rowan Kamal Zine El Abidine, Lena Maumoon Abdul Qadir and Nada Sami Kader. Photograph: Unknown
The journey made by Hussein and her fellow students illustrates the complex challenges western and Arab states face in trying to contain the appeal of Islamic State, which has succeeded in attracting young European-born Muslims to their ideal of a caliphate.
All of the group are in their late teens or early 20s, with Sudanese roots, and had been enrolled at medical school in Khartoum.
The students are worlds apart from the stereotypical profile of many militants – poor, disaffected, angry, youths. Most of them came from well-to-do families who have no connection to extremist circles in Khartoum.
Hussein’s father is well-known in Sudanese society and is the head of one of Sudan’s largest government hospitals.
Neighbours say the family lives in the elite Riyadh district in a three-storey villa with a large garden on a tree-lined street where several luxury cars are often parked in the driveway.
“Before her transformation, Tasneem was an open, moderately conservative girl like the rest of her family,” said the neighbour .
A view of the city centre in Khartoum, Sudan. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
A view of the city centre in Khartoum, Sudan. Photograph: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
Her parents apparently questioned her decision o wear niqab, but failed to realise she was on a dangerous path.
Sudan, home to Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, promotes a conservative brand of Sunni Islam which may appeal to hardline groups. Long-ruling President Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in a bloodless 1989 coup, introduced sharia law to the country.
‘Leave the bleachers’
The University of Medical Sciences and Technology, where the group studied, was founded by Khartoum health minister Ma’amoun Houmeyda, a known Islamist.
A walk across campus showed most students wearing western attire, unusual in the conservative country. But the university has also hosted firebrand clerics such as Sheikh Mohammed al-Jizouli, who has given sermons supporting Islamic State and called on students to “leave the bleachers and go to seats of martyrdom”.
Jizouli was arrested a few months ago and although it was not possible to verify whether anyone in the group had listened to his sermons, it is likely.
Neighbours and friends all seemed to lay at least some of the blame on the Islamic Civilisation student organisation which brought clerics such as Jizouli to deliver sermons calling for jihad.
“After two students travelled to Mali to join religious groups, we halted the activities of the clerics,” said Ahmed Babaker, the dean of students.
While the university did not ban the group, it said it was starting awareness programmes.
“After the escape of this group, there’s cooperation with security and intelligence services to monitor suspicious students. We in the university are very worried about this phenomenon and we’re trying to stop it from happening again,” said Babaker
But the clerics have already had a deep influence on the students.
Islamic State soldiers on the frontline in Syria.
Islamic State soldiers on the frontline in Syria. Photograph: Medyan Dairieh/Medyan Dairieh/ZUMA Press/Corbis
“In the beginning I did not wear the hijab or the niqab and the lectures by the Islamic Civilisation organisation used to teach us how to pray well,” said a female student, wearing the niqab face covering.
“That was in the first stage. In the second stage the conversation was about the oppression facing Muslims in Palestine and Syria and the necessity of jihad.”
Britain’s security services estimate that about 600 Britons have gone to Syria or Iraq to join militant groups, including Mohammed Emwazi, who has appeared in several Islamic State beheading videos.
We, the parents would like to announce that our children have good intentions
“The government is extremely disturbed about reports that this group of young people left to join Daesh [Islamic State] because the normal situation is for these students to be in university halls,” said Sudanese investment minister Mostafa Othman Ismaeil, using a derogatory Arabic term for the group.
“And it’s the government’s duty to bring the group home.”
It is not clear how the Sudanese government will do that, or prevent other students from supporting Islamic State.
Jihadist movements have been on the rise in Sudan and across the region since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings which toppled autocrats and in some cases unleashed divided and opposing militant groups.
In Sudan, they emerged on university campuses, unchecked by the Islamist-led government.
“The activities of these groups is growing and they carry out recruitment operations,” said Sudanese analyst Al Hadi Mohammed al-Amin.
“Sudanese youths go and fight in Somalia, Mali, Libya, Syria and Iraq. This phenomenon is on the increase and the Sudanese government is not too concerned with fundamentalism because it does not represent a danger to the government itself.”
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The government, Amin said, was preoccupied with the several wars it is fighting with various rebel groups within Sudan itself.
A Turkish member of parliament said last week that the group were to have travelled to Syria to work in hospitals controlled by Islamic State.
Families of the students expressed disbelief that they had joined the militant group.
“We believe that they have arrived in Turkey, but they have disappeared and we do not know their whereabouts. We, the parents would like to announce that our children have good intentions,” they said in a statement.
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