Syrian trilogy in Yorkshire pottery.
Did you see the statement put out by the family of Tahla Asmal, the 17-year-old who now carries the distinction of being the youngest Britisher to become a suicide bomber? “Talha was a loving, kind, caring and affable teenager,” it begins, before going on to firmly place the blame for his decision elsewhere. "Talha’s tender years and naivety were, it seems however, exploited by persons unknown, who, hiding behind the anonymity of the worldwide web, targeted and befriended Talha and engaged in a process of deliberate and calculated grooming of him."
Perhaps Talha was all of these things. Perhaps his tender years and naivety were indeed exploited. Plenty of 17-year-olds think about killing themselves, if not necessarily other people at the same time; I certainly did. Perhaps he was targeted and befriended, even groomed, although frankly this transferral of the terminology of sexual exploitation and abuse to that of comprehensively changing someone's outlook on life as a whole in a very short space of time doesn't really cut it.
The insistence that Asmal's decision to not only go and join Islamic State, but also take part in a "martyrdom operation", as they're called by jihadists, was all down to faceless individuals on the internet does though take a knock when you learn his best friend, next-door neighbour and and fellow emigree to IS was Hassan Munshi, brother of Hammad Munshi, convicted back in 2008 at the age of 18 for possessing documents useful to terrorists. Munshi's defence at the time was, uncannily, that he was groomed by the two older men involved in the plot.
Again, perhaps he was. You might though have thought it would have alerted his parents, and especially his grandfather, Yakub Munshi, president of the Islamic Research Institute of Great Britain at the Markazi Mosque in Dewsbury to the potential for Hammad's younger brother to become subject to the same pressures. Perhaps they were and it made no difference. Surely though Asmal's family, devastated and heartbroken, must have been aware of all this. Could it really be that not one, but two Munshis, as well as Amsal were targeted by these calculated and cunning groomers, without anyone becoming aware as to what was going on?
One thing is for sure: we seem to be stuck in the same old groove when it comes to radicalisation. It's still about foreign policy, Islamophobia, alienation, cries one section; it's about an austere and intolerant interpretation of Islam that either doesn't condemn the likes of IS enough or is outright sympathetic to their purity says another; no, it's actually to do with identity and belonging, insists someone else. To which the obvious response is: doesn't all of the above play a role?
To start with, you have to see what Islamic State for what it is, which is the answer to all things. It's a fundamentally teenage organisation in every sense; just look at the old jihadi grey beards Abu Qatada and Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi bemoaning how what they helped bring into being has grown into. Who knew that if you gave religious backing to one group allowing them to kill whoever they feel like that eventually another group would used it to kill whoever they feel like? Islamic State's response to al-Maqdisi's attempts to free the captured Jordanian pilot was the equivalent of a step-child telling their mother's new partner you're not my real dad, only with the added son of a whore insult just to rub it in.
IS then not only appeals to those who no longer accept that establishing the caliphate now is illegitimate, as al-Qaida does, to those who see it as their religious duty to fight against the kuffar, whether they be Alawites, the Shia or anyone else they don't agree with, but also to to the most base desires. IS not only promises fighting, but fucking as well, to male and female alike, so long as the woman is perfectly happy with playing the role of the dutiful wife to someone with a potentially short life expectancy. While you'd think this would appeal more to the recruits from other Arab countries, never underestimate the pressures on young Muslim men as well as women in the west to follow the strictures set down by their parents.
This doesn't of course begin to explain the appeal of IS to the women from Bradford, assumed to have made the journey to Syria. It's not many happily married women with young families who would decide to up sticks to a war zone leaving their husbands behind. Something on that level doesn't ring true. That said, why Syria rather than attempt to stay in Saudi Arabia, unless their very brand of Islam is compatible with that of IS? Their brother having gone to fight doesn't on its own lead to them fleeing to join him, not least taking their children with them to a place of such danger.
The entire case of the Dawoods raises those questions of belonging, identity and integration. It also though makes clear that even among those who adhere to a highly conservative brand of Sunni Islam, the numbers who are so taken with the IS vision of life and the world that they'll join it are tiny. When you then have the government's utterly cack-handed overreaction, first to the Trojan Horse plot, which was nothing of the sort, and where there was no evidence that unpleasant, oppressive and wrong as it was, the conservative Islamic ethos adopted by those Birmingham schools was breeding extremists, combined with the continuing stupidity of the Prevent programme, which has never prevented anything, there is the potential to push those on the edge over into doing something they otherwise wouldn't have. Shiraz Maher is right on almost everything in his piece except for his bizarre invocation of how the colonies fought for Britain in WW1 and WW2 means instilling "British values" is the answer today. The Conservatives don't have the slightest idea what British values are, but they do know how to make more work for schools, or indeed nurseries, lest there be any 5-year-old terrorists already being groomed for action.
The rise of IS and eclipse of al-Qaida also highlights the way the nature of the threat from terrorism is changing, and just how little recognition there has been from all concerned to that effect. The big, major plots of the past have not entirely gone away, but have been superseded by the danger of the lone or working in pairs attacks we've seen. More difficult as these are to prevent, they are just as likely to result in failure, or rather than indiscriminately targeting the public, they focus on the police or specific groups. Spectacular attacks on multiple targets have fallen from favour. With the focus on the jihad in Syria and Iraq, it also means those who do choose to fight are as likely to be disillusioned by the experience and the reality of the situation as they are enthused by it. For all the fear about jihadis coming back from Syria to launch attacks, there has as yet not been a single returnee charged who has been found to have such designs.
Here also is the stupidity of the double game being played in Syria: rather than approach those coming back with the intention of trying to persuade others not to make the journey, the prosecutions continue regardless of the groups being fought with. This is despite Patrick Cockburn reporting how one of the major reasons the non-IS rebels have made such advances since the turn of the year has been a influx of support for the al-Nusra Front, aka al-Qaida's official affiliate in Syria and a direct split from IS, and which Qatar is all but openly supporting. One day, the way policy on Syria has ebbed and flowed will be rued in the same as the war on Iraq now is. Till then, we'll hear more families make their children out to be victims without examining themselves, while the efforts to tackle what extremism there is will continue to fail.