Ghana's Muslims fear increased tensions

ACCRA, Ghana — Muslims in Ghana’s capital fear their reputation has been forever ruined by the Nigerian zealot who spent two weeks here before allegedly trying to blow up a U.S.-bound airliner on Dec. 25.

They’re also concerned that investigators, who are questioning leaders in the heavily Muslim slum of Nima, will unearth a local connection to outside terrorist groups.

“Everybody is now at risk because we don’t know whether it is a link and there is a network that is trying to do all this,” said Ibrahim Abdullai, a teacher at an Islamic school in Nima. “We are very worried about our reputation.”

Authorities descended upon Nima after learning Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab stayed in Ghana before he allegedly tried to ignite explosives aboard a Northwest flight carrying 289 passengers to Detroit on Christmas Day.

It’s unclear why the 23-year-old Nigerian chose Ghana as his departure point. He arrived Dec. 9 from Yemen, where he allegedly conspired with Al Qaeda terrorists.

Ghanaian investigators re-tracing Abdulmutallab’s steps here haven’t announced any arrests or links to outside terrorist groups. The FBI is here investigating, as well.

“It would be very surprising but the world is now a global village,” said Abdullai, who teaches science at the Institute of Islamic Studies. “Information is very easy to get now. Because of the internet, everything is there.”

Internet cafes are plentiful in Nima and adjacent Maamobi, another Muslim-dominated slum, and are home to many “sakawa boys,” who run online scams. Next to one cafe is a cultural center sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Signs above stores include expressions of devotion to Allah.

Abdulmutallab’s privileged background is a stark contrast to life in these neighborhoods of rundown shacks, open sewers and spotty electricity. Muslims from northern Ghana and other parts of West Africa moved here over the years. Foreigners are advised to bring an escort because of the crime. An estimated 15 percent of Ghana’s 23 million people are Muslim.

“He shamed the Muslim community,” said Ahmed Abdullah, who runs a plumbing supplies shop. “In Maamobi and Nima here, we are in poor condition. Our children want to go to good schools. Their parents cannot afford it. So what do we do? Youths are going astray because of lack of education. That’s where we are now.”

Abdulmutallab’s father is a successful banker and the family owns expensive properties in Nigeria and London. Abdulmutallab attended an elite boarding school in Togo before studying engineering at University College London.

“If I got that chance,” Abdullah said, “I think I will help more youths, to open a farm. We don’t eat the way we want. We struggle for our daily bread.”

A Nigerian newspaper cited anonymous sources in reporting that Abdulmutallab visited Nima and may have stayed there during his second week in Ghana. It’s clear, however, that authorities have been scouring the neighborhood.

“Since the thing happened, they have been going around and around, searching,” Mohammed Bawah, a religion teacher at the Institute of Islamic Studies.

The institute is an offshoot of the Islamic Research and Reformation Center, founded in 1972 by Ghanaians who studied in Saudi Arabia, according to author Holger Weiss. His 2002 book, “Social Welfare in Muslim Societies in Africa,” noted that the center promoted conservative Wahhabi principles preferred by the wealthy Saudis.

Teachers at the institute said Abdulmutallab didn’t visit their compound, and don’t know of any other place he may have gone. Abdullai said investigators visited the school in early January. He described the meeting as cordial.

Government officials have revealed little. A spokesman recently told reporters that Abdulmutallab checked into a hotel in the Dzorwulu neighborhood and aroused no suspicion during his stay. The Nigerian newspaper claimed Abdulmutallab checked out after one week.

It’s not the first time Ghana has confronted the prospect of terrorists within its borders.

Three men from Mali were arrested in Ghana on Dec. 16 after a U.S.-led investigation allegedly revealed that the men agreed to transport cocaine through Ghana to raise money for Al Qaeda. One of the men boasted that he is the leader of a criminal organization that does business with Al Qaeda affiliates in North Africa.

For all their problems, the neighborhoods have rallied over the years to improve their conditions. Muslim social service groups organize cleanups, support jobs initiatives and educate young people about AIDS.

But the prospect of terrorists among their ranks has rattled the community.

“Muslims in Ghana, they don’t want to associate themselves with that,” said Abdullai, the science teacher. “We don’t kill people. Islam doesn’t preach that.”

The United States now requires extra screening of air travelers from certain countries, Nigeria among them. Abdullai said it’s a positive sign that Ghana was not on the list.

Musah Muntari, a 16-year-old student at the institute, said “real Muslims” support better causes.

“I want to be a doctor,” he said. “Doctors help people a lot and they do so many things. I will try as much as possible to help the orphans, especially. They need this.”