A Ghanaian-born Coventry University graduate who launched a centre for counter-extremism in his home country is working to turn young people in West Africa, including university students, away from terrorism.
Mutaru Mumuni Muqthar (34), a graduate of the international terrorism masters course of Coventry University in England, has so far rescued at least 20 youths – all men – from extremism in Ghana.
“Most of the radicalised youths are in their early twenties with high school education,” he told University World News. Some 20% were educated beyond high school.
Muqthar said university students were “very vulnerable” to attempts at radicalisation. “The youth’s obsession with social media coupled with frustrations over lack of employment opportunities mean that university students become very vulnerable,” he said.
After graduating from Coventry University in 2013, Muqthar set up the West Africa Centre for Counter-Extremism. Last year, he prevented a 21-year-old from joining ISIS in Syria.
Potential recruit Lukman Adams said an unidentified foreigner claiming to be in Algeria approached him sometime in 2016 through his Facebook account. The person promised him a decent job offer. “Since I was frustrated and jobless, I agreed.”
According to Muqthar, online and social media have become the dominant platforms for recruitment by terrorist organisations.
“Nearly all of these individuals are radicalised online,” he said. “Some start off as normal individuals looking to change their economic circumstances, some looking for meaning in their lives whilst others use the wars in the Middle East to inspire themselves to live for something bigger in their lives.”
According to Muqthar, “radicalisation is the single biggest factor that leads young people into terrorism," and it is a common phenomenon in West Africa.
“The pervasive factors of poverty, inequality, unemployment, negative religious propaganda, including a culture of uncompromising religious views, a history of prolonged unresolved chieftaincy and land disputes, collectively render this region very fertile for radicalisation,” he said.
Muqthar said he was inspired to fight terrorism after his family suffered as victims of the deadly 1994 Nanumba-Konkomba conflict in Northern Ghana which saw at least 1,000 people killed and tens of thousands displaced.
“We lost some family members,” he said.
At the time of the attack, Somalia, a war-torn country in the Horn of Africa, had disintegrated into anarchy while Rwanda, in central Africa, was in the throes of genocide.
“I was hugely influenced by these events and I knew if I had to make any meaningful impact on my society it would be in the area of peace and security,” he said.
Born in Salaga in Northern Ghana to a family of peasant farmers, Muqthar undertook a master of arts degree in terrorism, international crime and global security from Coventry University. He also holds a bachelor of science honours degree in business administration from Ashesi University, Ghana.
Upon completion of his masters studies, he interned with the International Office of Coventry University while working on a counter-terrorism project with the West Midlands Police department, Coventry City. He returned to Ghana in 2014 to engage in the work of countering terrorism on home soil.
Muqthar hopes that by speaking to others about his work and how postgraduate study helped him develop the skills he needed to act, he can encourage more people to use education to make a difference.
Terrorism in West Africa
“My passion for the pursuit of security and counter-terrorism studies was in response to the growing number of young individuals succumbing to the allure of terrorism in Ghana and West Africa,” he said, noting that he wants to engage with more people to expand his efforts across other parts of the region where most people are affected.
While the West African country of Ghana is widely regarded as one of the most stable in Africa, it is tucked into a region that has become an epicentre of sustained terrorist activities, sharing a border to the west with Côte d’Ivoire and to the north with Burkina Faso, both of which have been the site of recent al-Qaeda attacks.
Muqthar now works across West Africa to deepen understanding of violent extremism and radicalisation, while promoting the support available to vulnerable groups.
Working with a team of professionals, Muqthar engages with the would-be extremists and takes them through a support system, de-radicalises them and helps them reintegrate into society, school and work. That way, he said, they are able to get back to normal life and shun extremism.
“We have a way of zoning or classifying groups or communities as vulnerable and which may be open to radicalisation,” he said.
"There is a methodology that these young people are taken through by terrorist groups such as ISIS,” he said.
In recognition of his work since graduating from Coventry University, Muqthar was shortlisted for an international award at the UK Alumni Awards in Ghana. He was selected from 60 nominees to represent Coventry University in the social impact category. In 2016, he won the Mandela Washington Fellowship, a US government-funded programme aimed at nurturing and empowering young African leaders.
He said he is happy that his efforts are gaining recognition.
“I feel excited that people are recognising what I am doing here and happy that we are finally gaining support,” he recently told alumni and graduate students who gathered at Ghana Technology University College, a partner institution to the UK-based university.
John Latham, vice-chancellor of Coventry University, praised Muqthar's initiative.
"Our students and alumni make a significant contribution to their communities, be they in the UK or internationally," he said, adding that "Mutaru [Muqthar]'s is among the most significant and important.”
“His team's work will shape many young lives and spread a message of peace and I am delighted that his journey began in Coventry,” he said.
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