British jihadis who join Isis aren’t victims – suicide bombers know what they’re doing

At 17 years old, Talha Asmal has become Britain’s youngest ever suicide bomber. Shock is understandable, but it is naive to dismiss his agency.

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British fighters serving with various jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq have set another macabre record. Talha Asmal, a 17-year-old from Dewsbury, became Britain’s youngest ever suicide bomber by attacking an oil refinery outside the Iraqi city of Baiji on 13 June. Before him, the “record” belonged to Hasib Hussain, 18, who participated in the 7/7 attacks in London in 2005. In the decade between their acts the relationship between some parts of British Muslim life and extremism has become stronger. Millions of pounds have been thrown at the problem and numerous groups established to counter the radicalisation threat.

All of this has been a resounding failure in the UK and across Europe. There are now more than 3,000 people from the continent waging jihad in Syria and Iraq. The youngest known fighter is Younes Abaaoud, aged 14, from Vilvoorde, Belgium. The eldest is another Belgian in his sixties.

These depressing statistics exclude the infants taken to Syria by their parents. Towards the end of last year a well-known British Islamist calling himself Abu Rumaysah – real name Siddhartha Dhar – skipped bail and migrated to Syria with his four children. His wife gave birth to the couple’s fifth child shortly after their arrival. Rumaysah posted a picture of his newborn on Twitter accompanied with the hashtag #GenerationKhilafah (“caliphate”).

There are no accurate figures for how many European infants there are in Syria, though intelligence officials put the number somewhere over 50. The most dramatic case of this appears to be unravelling right now, with three sisters from Bradford believed to have taken their nine children, ranging in age from three to 15, to join Islamic State.

The women and children have been missing since 11 June, when they failed to return to West Yorkshire after completing a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. It is believed that instead they booked flights to Istanbul – the principal thoroughfare for those heading towards Syria.

Discussion of female migration to IS-held areas often paints the women as passive agents who have been carefully cultivated and indoctrinated by their handlers. A superb new report by Erin Saltman and Melanie Smith, “Till Martyrdom Do Us Part”: Gender and the Isis Phenomenon, debunks this patronising narrative.

It convincingly shows that women are cognisant and sentient agents in their radicalisation. The study demonstrates how female migrants often make more politically informed decisions about travel than their male counterparts – some of whom are simply drawn to the ostensible glamour of the jihadi lifestyle. The women are different. They have looked at the so-called caliphate and made a sober decision to raise their families in Generation Khilafah.

The narrative of victimhood has been echoed by family and friends of Asmal, the teenage suicide bomber. “Talha fell under the spell of individuals who continued to prey on his innocence and vulnerability,” his family said in a statement. “[He] was ordered to his death by so-called Isis handlers and leaders too cowardly to do their own dirty work.” Elsewhere, a former government minister and friend of the Asmal family, Shahid Malik, described him as both “brainwashed” and “groomed”.

The shock and anger are understandable but it is naive to dismiss Asmal’s agency. When he travelled to Syria, he did so with a childhood friend, Hassan Munshi, who lived in a neighbouring street in Dewsbury. Hassan’s older brother Hammaad was arrested in 2006 for planning to kill non-Muslims and is the youngest person to be convicted in the UK for terrorism offences.

This case has similarities to that of the first British suicide bombing in the conflict, when Abdul-Waheed Majeed drove a truck bomb into Aleppo prison in February 2014. Waheed knew some of the men convicted in Operation Crevice, an al-Qaeda-directed plot to use a fertiliser bomb, in 2007. He was never arrested in connection to the plot, although an American “supergrass”, Junaid Babar, identified him as an associate of the plotters.

With Asmal’s attack, the number of British suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq stands at six. On average, every two and a half months since the bombing by Waheed, a British fighter has become a suicide bomber. The average age in this group is 28; most British suicide bombers are slightly older than the typical British jihadi, who is in his early twenties.

One of the best-known suicide bombers is Kabir Ahmed, 32, who carried out an attack in Baiji last November. In interviews he gave me while fighting in Syria, he made no secret of his plans. “I want to be a suicide bomber,” Ahmed said. “There’s plenty of [British] brothers with their names on the list.” Another British fighter who knew Ahmed confirmed his death wish. “He was only ever looking for that, and he found what he was looking for,” he told me.

Again, Ahmed had a history of radical activism in Britain before migrating to Syria. In early 2012 he was convicted of stirring up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation after distributing a leaflet calling for homosexuals to be killed, in the first prosecution and conviction under such legislation.

The experience of Britain’s suicide bombers shows how these men are full participants in the war engulfing Syria and Iraq. Over the past two years British fighters have tortured prisoners in their care, executed prisoners of war, beheaded journalists and aid workers, and participated in the revival of slavery. As this brutal nihilism has taken hold, some fighters, among them many Britons, have grown weary of its trajectory and left the conflict. Not so the suicide bombers. Theirs are the actions of the conscientious and committed. 

Shiraz Maher is a New Statesman contributing writer and the director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London. 

This article appears in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao