Nigerian Minister of Communications and Digital Economy, Ali Isa Ibrahim Pantami is a man of many descriptions. To some, he is a bright-eyed, relentlessly intelligent and academically competent Young Turk, who has found his way into the topmost level of Nigeria's government at the relatively young age of 48.
To others, he is a symbol of how deeply held and unapologetically public religious faith can coexist and interoperates with modernity and cosmopolitanism without contradiction.
His Twitter handle proudly displays his impressive academic credentials side-by-side with his proud elementary educational background at an Islamic Tsangaya (non-Hausa readers might be more familiar with the term 'Almajiri').
Despite his impressive credentials and his reportedly genial personality which have endeared him to many however, several whispers and rumours about an allegedly dark past have continuously swirled around him at every point in his 5 year-old career as a public servant. From his 2016 appointment as DG/CEO at the National Information Technology Development Agency (NITDA), through to his appointment as a cabinet minister in 2019, these rumours have refused to go away.
Today for the first time ever, we can authoritatively lift the veil on Dr. Ali Isa Ibrahim Pantami and establish his strong and indisputable connections to - and deeply held sympathies for - the dark world of Salafist Islamic terrorism. It is a story that starts in Pantami Ward in Gombe State; meanders through extreme controversy at Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University in Bauchi State; takes a notable detour through a Saudi Arabian university known as a global hotbed for Salafist terror recruitment; and eventually ends with a known terror sympathiser and ideological 'gradualist' sitting in Nigeria's federal cabinet.
Pantami's Educational Controversies
Variously known as "Dr Isa Pantami," "Sheikh Ali Ibrahim," and "Shaykh Isa Ali Pantami" he has the unique distinction of being one of the very few people to achieve very high levels of academic achievement in both Western and Islamic education. Following a non-standard education path that included 4 years at a Tsangaya and 2 years of independent Islamic study after primary and secondary school, Pantami gained admission to the Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) in the late 1990s where he studied Computer Science. He graduated with a BTech in 2003, followed by an Msc in 2008 and this is where the story gets interesting.
His official Twitter handle includes a bio link to his Wikipedia page, which is poorly referenced and light on detail. On further examination of the sources attributed on his Wikipedia page, it becomes evident that much of what is written there was in fact lifted word-for-word from an official government press release sent out to the media.
Isa Pantami's page on Wikipedia
Source article from PM News
Both straightforward accounts of his educational career make no mention of any controversy during his academic career. Keep this in mind for later. While digging into his academic qualifications, I was able to confirm that he did in fact obtain a PhD in 2014 from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. His impressive PhD thesis is linked here. It was impossible to verify his claims of attending Harvard, MIT, IMD Loussaune and Oxford university independently, although the nature of short certificate programs makes it necessary to extend the benefit of the doubt. We can assume these claims are all true.
The neat cover story starts to fall apart however, when a reference from a U.S. diplomatic cable leaked in 2009 by Wikileaks suggests that in his prior iteration as an academic at ATBU, Pantami was in fact a radical extremist cleric whose views were so repulsive that he was kicked out of the university and from a mosque in his native Gombe State.
It gets more interesting.
Where his personally-approved Wikipedia profile makes no mention of a stint in Saudi Arabia or what happened there, a bit of digging turns up information that significantly changes the clean-cut picture he is eager to present. According to multiple verifiable online and offline sources, Isa Pantami in fact spent a number of years learning and lecturing at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Isa Ali Pantami Profile on IslamicMarkets.com
This information is very important for two reasons. First, the Islamic University of Medina (IUM) is globally recognised as a hotspot for Salafist Islamic terror recruitment. While it does not itself teach or openly condone terror, it is the undisputed global headquarters of Salafist fundamentalism. The below excerpts from a UK Guardian article from 2001 illustrates how IUM serves as a recruitment pipeline that feeds extremist groups like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
The second reason that we should be very interested in Pantami's undisclosed sojourn within the world of Islamic education is that according to multiple sources, he studied the teachings of hardline Salafist scholars including Sheikh Muhammad Saleh Al-Uthaymeen. For those who do not know Sheikh Al-Uthaymeen, here is a collection of quotes and fatwas issued by the man described as a "Giant of the Salafi movement."
Source: Al Araby
Source: IBI Times
Source: UK Independent
Sheikh Al-Uthaymeen says that peace between Muslims and non-Muslims can only be temporary because "jihad is the highest form of islam."
A transcription of the video above goes as follows:
“If someone was to say; is a treaty permissible between us and the Mushrikeen (variously translated as disbelievers/idolaters/atheists), so that we don’t fight them and they don’t fight us? The answer is yes. If we need this, then it is allowed. For instance if the Muslims are in a state of weakness and they are not capable of fighting the enemy. So there is nothing wrong with carrying out a treaty between us and them. However, would the treaty have to be restricted to a limited time period or not?
We say the treaty is of three types: The first type is the restricted treaty meaning that we (the Muslims) say to the disbelievers, “Between us and you is ten years, or five years or eight years (of the treaty).”[…]The second type is the endless treaty which stipulates that we never attack. This is prohibited and I think it is by consensus because this necessitates abolishment of Jihad, and Jihad is the peak of Islam. There will be no power for a nation except by way of Jihad, if it is capable of this.”
For good measure, Sheikh Al-Uthaymeen also specified that his definition of 'Mushikreen' (disbelievers/people without God) also includes Christians and Jews.
Source: Shaykh Ibn Uthaymeen, Fatawa Islamiya, vol. 1, p. 87, Darussalam publishers
Just a Series of Coincidences?
So far, we have established that Isa Pantami has a side to his past educational pursuits that most people are not aware of. However, it is tempting to dismiss these links to Salafist terror and extremism as merely circumstantial. Apart from what is essentially gossip from a Wikileaks cable, the documented views of the teachers he studied with, and the well-earned teror-recruitment-hotspot reputation of the Islamic University of Medina where he taught, there is no actual evidence so far to suggest that Isa Pantami himself is an extremist. Right?
He himself has tried to present himself as the unfortunate victim of such circumstances beyond his control. Commenting on a recent viral video that depicted him in debate with Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf, he claimed that he was in fact a moderate Islamic scholar taking on the self-imposed and heroic task of de-radicalising Salafist extremists using his superior Islamic education and his ability to debate.
He is apparently the victim of bigotry perpetrated by people who do not understand Hausa or context. How on earth could a STEM PhD holder with academic achievements spanning Harvard, MIT, Oxford and Cambridge be a lowkey Islamic extremist and terror apologist? What a ridiculous thought.
Or is it?
Cross Section of Isa Pantami's "Suwaye Yan Taliban" ("Who Are The Taliban?") Public Lecture
In his prior iteration as Imam Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami, our hero has been accused of making several incendiary utterances and expressing support for violent jihadists around the world. With the exception of a Wikileaks cable, there has been precious little to substantiate these claims. Until now.
For the first time, readers can listen to Imam Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami in his own words expressing deep support and admiration for Osama bin-Laden and the Afghan Taliban, even praying "May God help us to imitate their good." The following recording is from a public lecture Pantami delivered on September 12, 2006 in Bauchi State, titled "Suwaye Yan Taliban" ("Who Are The Taliban"). The recording is also freely available on the Nigerian Islamic community website DawahNigeria.com.
The following translation was made by Andrea Brigaglia PhD, Director of the Centre for Contemporary Islam at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. It can be found in her 2019 paper "Debating Boko Haram."
Osama Bin Laden is mentioned in various instances in this section, with his name always followed by the formula haẓahu ’Llāh (may God preserve him). At the same time, however, the government of Saudi Arabia is also the object of unreserved praises, being described as “our qibla” and “the original abode of faith.” The author mentions the Saudi and Pakistani involvement in the Afghani conflict as starting only after the end of the Afghani war, in a section titled “the post-Soviet era.” It was the leadership of the Arab mujāhidīn, Pantami continues, who invited Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to be involved in the post-war peace agreement, and not Saudi Arabia and Pakistan who, in coordination with the United States, had funded the mujāhidīn for years.
References are made to a meeting held between all the leaders of the Afghani factions in Medina, with quotes from a book authored by the Saudi scholar Mūsā al-Qarnī, who is one of Pantami’s main sources (and who would later, in 2011, be handed a 20-year prison term by the Saudi government). Similarly, the anarchy that followed the end of the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan is not attributed by Pantami to the contrasting agendas of the various political actors involved (the Afghani factions, the US, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab foreign fighters), but to the “divide and rule” policy of the kuffār (unbelievers).
[Pantami then says that] it was in response to this anarchy that “the Commander of the Believers, Mullah Mohammad Omar, may God preserve him,” entered the scene. The formation of the Taliban, on 1st Muharram 1415, corresponding to 24 June 1994, is reconstructed through accurate historical detail fused with some hagiographic data: the 313 scholars who first established the Taliban, for example, correspond to the 313 companions who fought the Battle of Badr (624) alongside the Prophet. The ultimate goal of the Taliban was to bring peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan by “establishing an Islamic leadership, a Caliphate and the Sharia, as every Muslim is commanded to do.”
Here Pantami relies not only on the book by al-Qarnī but also on ‘The Rise of the Taliban’ and on a book by the Nigerian Salisu Shehu, ‘Who are the Talibans’. Pantami [says] that the Taliban are not immune from error. His particular concern is that “about 5% of them” have a penchant for Sufism, which obviously is, in his eyes, an imperfection in their credentials. The remaining 95%, however, are rooted in the “purest Sunni doctrine” (tataccen aƙidar Sunna): “they are people raised in the religious way, may God enable us to imitate their good” mutane masu tarbiya ta addini, Allah ya ba mu ikon koyi da alheransu). In particular, Pantami says that the Taliban are to be praised and imitated in three respects.
The first is the destruction of the two “idols of the Buddha” at Bamiyan. In imitating them, the Nigerian Muslims should long for the day in which every “idolatrous image” will be erased from the Nigerian currency, and no picture will be used on passports and electoral posters, for photos and images are contrary to the Sharia. The second is their effort to impose a strict adherence to the Sunna in the dress code of Afghani women (full face-veiling) and men (st-long beard and trousers cut at the length of the ankle). The third is the protection offered to Osama Bin Laden after the Americans rushed to accuse him of being responsible for the events of 9/11, by arguing that not only was there insufcient proof of his involvement, but also that “even if he had done it, according to the Sharia he should not be handed to you.”
The section concludes with a quote from Safar al-Hawali which is also a favourite scare-quote in the reservoir of contemporary islamophobes, according to which “hating America is part of our creed.” This is followed by prayers for the success of the Taliban; new comparisons between the Taliban and the Prophet’s Companions; and prayers for Bin Baz, al-Albani, Ibn al-‘Uthayimin and Azzam. Finally, there is an invitation to learn from the Taliban’s experience by studying hard “medicine and engineering” while patiently preparing for the moment when Nigeria will be ripe for a leader of the stature of Mullah Omar.
The first questioner asks how one should respond to those Salafis who reject Osama Bin Laden because of his killing of innocent unbelievers; this is probably a reference to the quietist and Saudi-loyalist strand of Salafi thought in Nigeria, represented by scholars such as Muhammad Sani Umar Rijiyar Lemo.
Pantami responded to the questioner by saying that yes, these scholars have some truth, for Bin Laden is liable to make mistakes, but “I still consider him as a better Muslim than myself.” “We are all happy whenever unbelievers are being killed,” continued Pantami, “but the Sharia does not allow us to kill them without a reason.” “Our zeal (hamasa) should not take precedence over our obedience to the sacred law.”
The second questioner asks how a jihad could take place in Nigeria when there is no consensus over a leader, in contrast to the consensus that (if one has to believe to the lecture) existed in Afghanistan around the gure of Mullah Omar. Pantami answers that this was precisely the goal of his lecture; in other words, to point out the need to establish in Nigeria an overall Islamic leadership similar to Mullah Omar’s, before moving to the next step.
In Nigeria, continued Pantami (emphasis added), this is the time for correction (gyara) and preparation (isti‘dād): “How can you start a jihad,when your father is still going around without a beard? When your mother is still going around with a mere transparent veil (gyale) rather than with a full-length hijab?
“Any effort to start a jihad without having established correct Islamic practices is doomed to failure, and this is precisely the main lesson to draw from the Afghan Taliban, whose success was established upon their unwavering attachment to the Sunna. This is the reason, concludes Pantami with a new reference to the “Kanamma affair” and to his critical engagement with Yusuf, why “any attempt to start a struggle that you have seen me rejecting so far, [it was because] it was not led by scholars and there was no understanding of the Sunna.” Thus the second question, focused on the possible implementation of jihad in Nigeria, was answered with a call for postponement (irjā’, Yusuf would say).
The third questioner asks how to make sense of the alliance between Saudi Arabia and the western countries fighting Al-Qaeda, such as the United Kingdom and the United States. Unfortunately, the recording stops before one can listen to Pantami’s answer.
Isa Pantami - A Jihadi Gradualist in Sheep's Clothing
According to a 2017 paper published by the US Institute of Peace and the Wilson Centre, Al Qaeda's jihadi tactics have morphed over the years from "shock and awe" events like September 11 to a strategy known as "gradualism." Explaining the subtle difference between open terrorism and gradualist terrorism, the paper says:
"ISIS is a political extremist actor, while al-Qaeda has become an extremist political actor. In other words, ISIS is more of an extremist movement with political goals. ISIS is unwilling to compromise; its behaviour is unlikely to change whatever the incentives. In contrast, al-Qaeda is now more of a political organisation with extremist beliefs, although that does not mean it can be co-opted. Both ISIS and al-Qaeda have long-term strategies to create a Salafist utopia. ISIS's core strategy is to pursue a Salafi state through continuous confrontations both within Muslim-dominated countries and outside them. ISIS believes muslims can be held to an interpretation of Sharia today.
[…] Al-Qaeda's strategy is more gradualist. It believes that Muslims must be educated first on Sharia, that the idea of jihad must be popularised, and that Muslims must be convinced to take up arms as the only method of emancipation. It is less exclusionary. It has forged alliances and quietly entrenched itself and its ideas within local communities with the aim of eventually building a pure salafi one."
The irrefutable evidence of Isa Pantami's own pronouncements, hitherto hidden behind what he considered to be the veil of the Hausa and Arabic language tells a very clear story about exactly who Isa Ali Ibrahim Pantami is, and what his existential goals are. It is no longer a conspiracy theory. There is now hard evidence.
At this point, the only course of action left is for President Muhammadu Buhari to quickly and unceremoniously fire Dr Pantami from his sensitive job where he sits on the National Executive Council and has access to the personal data of tens of millions of Nigerians. Nigeria can definitely do better than have an openly self-proclaimed Al-Qaeda sympathiser as its Minister of Communications and Digital Economy.
NB: In the few hours between announcing that I would publish this story and when it went live, my Google account was hacked, and an unknown entity tried to hijack control of the working document I used to draft this story.
I have reached out to Isa Pantami for his comment, if any, on the story.