Disbelief as UK teen becomes suicide bomber

Last moments: Talha Asmal posing shortly before he took part in a terrorist attack.

A 17-year-old from Yorkshire killed himself in a suicide bombing on Saturday, making him the youngest British person to commit this form of terrorist attack. Is his case a form of grooming?

The residents of Dewsbury in West Yorkshire appeared to be enjoying an ordinary day on Saturday. The local rambling club met for a walk and the town’s rugby league club organised a fundraising event. But this quiet community was about to be drawn to the centre of a shocking story unfolding 5,300 miles away in Iraq.

Four militants from IS (so-called ‘Islamic State’) were driving explosives-laden cars into security forces and the headquarters of their militia allies near the Baiji oil refinery, killing 11. Social media accounts linked to IS soon released pictures showing Talha Asmal, a 17-year-old boy who lived in Dewsbury just three months earlier. They showed him smiling in front of a car, with an IS flag, giving a single-fingered salute. He had become the first Brit to carry out a suicide bombing before his 18th birthday.

People in the town had been horrified in April when they realised that Asmal and a friend had boarded a flight to Turkey and made their way across the border to Syria. In the aftermath of Saturday’s attack, a member of the local council said there had been ‘no signs, no symptoms’ that such an eventuality was likely to unfold. Those who knew Asmal painted a picture of an ordinary teenage boy.

His family now believe that he, like many others, had been encouraged to go to Syria and Iraq online. Last month Sky News revealed a sophisticated IS operation in which fighters worked in an internet cafe around the clock to try to lure people from around the world to fight for them. This so-called ‘grooming’ appears to be a major reason why at least 700 young Brits have made the journey to fight for militant Islamist movements in recent years.

The warped promise of a utopian warrior society which IS claims to offer appears to be worryingly attractive among the young. 13 of the 17 people convicted in the UK of offences relating to terrorism in Syria and Iraq were under 30, as were 23 of the 25 Britons with a known identity who have died fighting there.

A question of age?

Talha Asmal’s family say that he was the victim of ‘a process of deliberate and calculated grooming’. The naivety and idealism of youth make teenagers particularly vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of the thugs of IS. They have his blood on their hands, as well as that of the victims of their violence.

But others respond that British fighters are responsible for their own actions. Nobody has forced them to go to a war zone. It doesn’t take the wisdom of adulthood to realise that an organisation which beheads and burns to death defenceless hostages, throws gay people from towers and enslaves women is savage. This young man will rightly be remembered as a murderer.

You Decide

  1. How do you think we can prevent people from going to join IS?
  2. Who is more responsible for the bombing — the person who drove the car, or those who convinced him to join IS?

Activities

  1. Write a letter to someone thinking of joining IS, explaining why they should not do so.
  2. Write a policy paper for Home Secretary Theresa May on how to prevent people from joining IS. List a range of options, outline the advantages and disadvantages of each and recommend the ones which you would implement.

Some People Say...

“He was ordered to his death by handlers too cowardly to do their own dirty work.”

The Asmal family

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are so many of the people who go to fight for IS so young?
Although it’s a generalisation to say so, young people tend to be more vulnerable to extreme ideas than older ones. Lots has been written on this subject but angry young men who are nihilistic — meaning that they believe themselves to have little to hope for — tend to be disproportionately likely to commit terrorist atrocities in comparison with others.
Is it just a problem with boys then?
IS has also convinced girls to make their way to Syria and Iraq, and all reports suggest that their fighters treat those who do so as their property. Young girls can be forcibly married at very young ages, for example, and face very strict restrictions on what they can wear, where they can go and how they can behave.

Word Watch

Baiji oil refinery
Iraqi government forces and IS militants have now been battling over the refinery for about a year. It is seen as a critical military target; it would be a major source of revenue for the side which takes it, and it would be a good position for the government to launch attacks to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second city, from IS.
An ordinary teenage boy
The head of the school at which he had been studying said that he was a ‘conscientious student’. His family described him as ‘loving, kind, caring and affable’. The former MP for the area said that it was ‘difficult to reconcile’ the bomber with the ‘sweet-natured, helpful, friendly and respectful’ child he had known.
At least 700 young Brits
Some estimates suggest that the number may be much higher. A Labour MP in Birmingham has said that he considers 2,000 to be a better estimate and that the number travelling from Birmingham alone is a ‘huge, huge problem’.
With a known identity
At least 37 British people are believed to have died fighting in Syria and Iraq, but knowledge of the details has sometimes been limited.

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