One of the young Senegalese men who left to wage jihad under the banner of the Islamic State (IS) organisation in Libya was a promising young medical student named Sadio Gassama. Now he and his fellow fighters proudly post on Facebook about their new lives as members of the jihadist group. This comes as a shock to Sadio’s former classmate, who remembers Sadio as pious, but not as someone who’d wage jihad.
Senegal is on edge after jihadist attacks have swept West Africa in the past few months, striking Mali in December 2015 and previously calm Burkina Faso in January 2015. Senegal is worried that it might be the jihadists’ next target. In a sweep aimed at cracking down on insecurity, Senegal arrested 900 people in the cities of Dakar and Thies last month. Though most of these arrests were not on terror-related suspicions, the police said that the raids were carried out because of the terrorist threat.
In this context of tension, many Senegalese have been sharing an undated photo originally posted on Facebook on December 9, 2015 by Abdourahmane Mendy, a house painter from Dakar. The photo shows a group of about a dozen men, said to be Senegalese, posing with the IS group flag in Sirte. It’s hard to verify if the photo was indeed taken in Sirte. While the IS group is present in Sirte, the lush vegetation in the photo doesn’t seem to correspond with the landscape in that part of Libya.
However, one of the men in the photo also appears in another taken by the IS group’s media service in Tripoli during a religious gathering in Sirte. In the second photo, he is pictured in a wheelchair. Several Senegalese jihadists have identified him as "Abou Hatem", the "spiritual leader" of the group in Facebook posts.
Moreover, sources close to the IS group in Libya confirmed to FRANCE 24 that Senegalese nationals had been in Sirte “for some time” and that they “actively participate in combat in the region”. Two of them are said to have died in battle in Libya recently.
"One of them published an account of a battle in a very complex literary tense"
Since the end of 2015, several of these Senegalese social media users who have open profiles started posting a lot more. It’s hard to give an exact number but, based on my observations, I’d say that there are at least a dozen Senegalese now fighting with IS group. Some of them have jobs that prove they well-educated, maybe even affluent — there are doctors and teachers amongst them. Others studied in reputed universities.
At the end last year, they started actively spreading propaganda on Senegalese social media, using all the possible methods to seduce their followers. I noticed that they wrote in a very literary style, without any spelling or grammar mistakes. One of them published a very well-written text in the passé simple [Editor’s note: a French tense] describing battles that he and other soldiers had participated in.
I was able to interview two of the Senegalese men who left to join the IS group [Editor’s note: You can read his first and second interviews in French]. What struck me was the powerful way that they express themselves and the way that they carefully weighed each word they said. I had the feeling that they were well-educated people who wanted to make a good impression, as if they were saying “we aren’t as terrible as you think”.
Sadio Gassama, the "brilliant young doctor" from Ziguinchor who went to Libya
Sadio Gassama, 25, is one of the young jihadists. He grew up in Ziguinchor, a town in Casamance, a region in Senegal that is squeezed between the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau. He joined the IS group as a military doctor.
On his Facebook page, which is open to the public, Sadio takes the time to respond to each comment he receives from both his friends and strangers who ask him why he left or decry his choice.
Before summer 2015, the young man’s posts were different. He shared photos where he posed with his fellow doctors, news about Casamance’s neighbour, the Gambia, and photos of the Ka’ba, the holiest site in Mecca.
He liked the Facebook page of his local football club and visited discussion groups about Islam but he rarely contributed. However, the information on his Facebook page should be taken with a grain of salt. For example, though he says on his page that he worked with the NGO "Médecins du monde ", his friends say that wasn’t true.
Between summer 2015 and the month of November, Sadio didn’t publish anything on his wall. In November, he reappeared, posting a photo showing a shirt with his name embroidered on it and a gun. He posted that he had become a “medical jihadist in the Islamic State in Libya”. Suddenly, photos of his med school friends were replaced with snapshots of Kalishnakovs.
In December 2015, Sadio Gassama published this photo on his Facebook account with a text preaching the virtues of jihad.
"He often said that he didn’t feel comfortable in Senegalese society"
Sadio, was the model good friend. He was always available to help explain what we were learning in class and to share studying tips.
But outside of studying and religion, he didn’t do much. He liked reading the Koran and was very strict about the hours of prayer. He often said that he didn’t feel comfortable in Senegalese society. He thought that the girls in school “dressed badly”. He never came and played football with us. He often said, “we were not put on this earth to have fun” [according to several friends, Sadio Gassama was part of the rigorous "Ibadous Rahmane" movement, which criticises the amount of influence that marabouts in Senegal have and preaches the absence of intermediaries between the faithful and God].
He had very good grades until his third year. In his fourth year, he suddenly had some kind of crisis and didn’t want to study anymore. He stopped coming to class, without explanation, which worried his friends. Then, one day, with no explanation, he came back.
"As a joke, some of his friends called him 'Boko Haram' because of his hard-line position on things"
His friends didn’t notice any big differences except maybe that he sounded a little more hard-line than before. He started saying, for example, that all the girls should wear a veil, which he had never said before. As a joke, some of his friends nicknamed him “Boko Haram”.
The last time I saw him was before an exam in July. When the proctor called his name to turn in his test, he wasn’t there anymore. We didn’t hear anything from him until the day when we saw his newest posts on Facebook. We knew that he was religious, but we never expected him to go join an armed group. It was a shock for us. He didn’t hang out with any suspicious characters at school. The only explanation that we can come up with is that he radicalised himself on the internet.
Sadio said that he wanted to be a great doctor in order to help his family in Ziguinchor. The last that I heard, he was interested in doing pediatric surgery.
The Senegalese government has been quiet about its nationals who have joined the Islamic State. In November 2015, several imams with suspected links to terrorist groups were arrested. The police spokesperson recently said that “the biggest fear was to have a cell of ten to twenty jihadists on Senegalese soil”.
FRANCE 24 contacted the director general of the Senegalese police force for more information about the threat facing the country. For the time being, he has not responded to numerous requests.