Extremist recruiters have been likened to paedophiles after online grooming was blamed for luring Britain’s youngest suicide bomber, from Dewsbury in West Yorkshire, into the clutches of Islamic State.
The family of Talha Asmal, who reportedly detonated a vehicle fitted with explosives while fighting for Isis in Iraq, said they had been left “utterly devastated and heartbroken by the unspeakable tragedy” of his death.
In a statement, his family said those who sent the 17-year-old to his death had preyed on his “innocence and vulnerability”.
His death has not yet been officially confirmed, but they said photographs showing a youth purportedly named Abu Yusuf Al Britany appear to depict their son.
The teenager fled his home in Yorkshire in March to allegedly join Isis along with his friend Hassan Munshi, who was also 17.
They said despite him never exhibiting any extreme or radical views, he had been exploited by extremists on the internet “in a process of deliberate and calculated grooming of him”.
Unbeknown to them and completely against their will, they said he travelled to Iraq via Turkey and fell under the spell of Isis handlers who are “too cowardly to do their own dirty work”.
Describing themselves as “a close-knit, hard-working, peace-loving and law-abiding British Muslim family”, they said they unreservedly condemned and abhor all acts of violence.
“We are all naturally utterly devastated and heartbroken by the unspeakable tragedy that now appears to have befallen us,” they said.
“We need time and understanding to come to terms with our unimaginable and painful loss. As a family we would like to take this opportunity to unequivocally state that ‘Isis’ are not Islam.
“They do not represent in any way, shape or form Islam and Muslims and we are no longer prepared to allow a barbaric group like ‘Isis’ to hijack our faith.
“’Isis’ - not and never in our name.”
Qari Asim, imam at the Makkah Mosque in Leeds, said the recruitment was mainly taking place online, adding: “The perpetrators are pretty much acting like paedophiles, they groom these young individuals over time - radicalisation isn’t an overnight process.
“They prey on these vulnerable young people and brainwash them, and religion is a unique passion so they tend to use religion to brainwash these young individuals for their own political aims and gains.
“And mosques, imams, have been very clear and vocal on such issues - that suicide bombing is not allowed in Islam. Suicide bombing is unlawful in Islam because it results in one taking his own life, and also bringing terror and harm on others.”
He also highlighted that the main issue was that those being radicalised had no religious grounding, and were drawn to extremism by a “deluded gang of criminals” who billed it as a “utopian dream”.
West Yorkshire Police said they were unable to confirm the identity of the person who had died but were continuing to support families who have loved ones that are believed to have travelled to Iraq and Syria.
A statement said: “The police have been made aware of media reports with regard to the death of a British national in Iraq.
“The identity of the person who has reportedly died has not been confirmed at this time and we are unable to comment further.”
The family also urged other people who had concerns about their family members being exploited to contact the police.
Assistant Chief Constable Russ Foster said people who travel to Syria and parts of Iraq are likely to witness extreme violence and could become victims of violence themselves.
He said: “As part of the Prevent initiative West Yorkshire Police is committed to working with communities and local authorities, to highlight the dangers associated with radicalisation and travel to regions such as Syria and Iraq.
“We are all working together to help identify vulnerable members of our society and intervene and engage them before it is too late.
“If anyone has concerns that a friend or relative may be vulnerable to radicalisation, expressing extreme views or contemplating travelling to Syria or Iraq, it is vital that we work together to try and prevent that person from travelling.”
Shahid Malik, a former government minister and a family friend of the Asmals, described them as “a beautiful, caring, peace-loving and incredibly humble family”.
The former MP for Dewsbury said: “The local community grieves with them today, Ebrahim (the father) and the family’s world has been shattered in the cruellest of ways and one which no family should ever have to experience.
“Talha was a truly sweet-natured, helpful, respectful and friendly kid and it is incredibly difficult to reconcile this Talha with the suicide-bomber at an Iraqi oil installation.
“My thoughts and prayers are obviously also with those killed at the oil installation and their families.
“It is disturbing to see how relaxed he looks in the Isis photographs allegedly taken just prior to his suicide mission.
“He looks at peace. It’s like he’s ready to go and meet his maker. This is a clear indication of just how successful the evil Isis groomers have been in poisoning and brainwashing Talha and kids like him.
“We must defeat Isis in mosques and communities across the country. This is a generational struggle and everyone must be willing to rise to the challenge.
“Importantly, it’s a struggle which can only succeed if it is one which is led by Muslims themselves.”
Former radical Muslim recruiter Abu Muntasir, considered the “godfather” of the British jihadi movement, said he refused to accept that youngsters going to fight in the Middle East have no choice.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “There is grooming, no doubt - I know how we used to convince people by ignoring a lot of facts on the ground, ignoring reality and alternative views amongst Muslims and Muslim teaching.
“So the parents need to have more communication with their children, they need to have more of an overseeing aspect of how to be a good parent.
“It’s totally despicable what he (Talha) has done, it is an abhorrent crime, and we should be very careful.”
Iqbal Bhana, a member of a cross-governmental anti-Muslim hate crime advisory group, urged communities to expose anyone grooming young people for extremism.
Speaking outside the Mirfield Free Grammar School and Sixth Form, where Talha went to school, Mr Bhana said: “Is there somebody who’s actually talking to them face to face, bringing them into small groups and putting out these subliminal messages to them to say ‘You need to do this’?
“If there is, we would like to know who it is because I don’t think we want to tolerate people like that in our community.
“If there are people in our community who are actually brainwashing people into this extremism narrative, we want to out them immediately, we want them out of our community because we want our community, our young people, to be safe and sound and secure. We don’t want to lose any more young people to the likes of Isis.
“So I would urge anybody, if they know anybody who’s doing this, they need to be identified, they need to be brought to the attention of the authorities so we can deal with them effectively.”
Mr Bhana said Talha was intelligent and liked sports.
He said: “He did all the things a normal young man was doing but behind the scenes something attracted him to this narrative, unfortunately.”
Mr Bhana said he knew the family of 17-year-old Hassan Munshi, who is believed to have travelled to Syria from Dewsbury with Talha.
He said Hassan’s family were “devastated” at the news about Talha and hoped it might make Hassan come home.
He said: “They were hoping against hope and the community has been praying since they went in the hope that they would come back.
“That they would realise they had made a mistake - they’re quite young, they’re vulnerable, obviously Isis preys on young, vulnerable people - that they would get there, see the reality of what they were confronted with and recognise they had made a huge mistake and the parents were praying they would come back.
“I know the other family is really concerned, they hope that now he has witnessed what happened to his friend, that he may realise this is not what he wanted, this is not what he set out to do, that he hopefully will reconsider and come back home again.”
Pupils at the school said they had not officially been told about Talha’s death.
Lorraine Barker, executive principal, said the school could not comment.
In a statement, she said: “We are aware of media reports relating to one of our sixth form students and we are working with the authorities.
“Until the reports are confirmed, we are not able to comment.”
Paula Sheriff, Labour MP for Dewsbury, called on the community to unite. She said: “Both myself and the community in Dewsbury are deeply shocked and devastated by the news of Talha Asmal.
“I met his family yesterday evening and they are understandably traumatised by what has happened.
“What we have to do now is come together and do all we can to ensure no more impressionable young people are brainwashed by those behind Isis. These evil people use the internet and social media to target impressionable young people, painting a very different picture to the reality of what is really happening in Isis-controlled areas.
“We need to ensure that we have a robust plan to work with the community; we need to work with the schools, the mosques, churches, the community groups and parents, to try and ensure that young people are aware of the reality of what is actually happening in Syria and Iraq.
“There is so much good about Dewsbury, yet once again our town has hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. I want our community to now demonstrate all that is positive about Dewsbury by remaining united, working together to come up with strategies to ensure that no other boys or girls follow this path.”
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, said news of Talha’s death was “devastating” for his family and the wider community.
He added: “Firstly the evil ideology of Isis needs to be confronted and exposed.
“They claim authority from Islamic verses and today’s Islamic scholars need to articulate in simple terms why they have distorted Islamic teachings to suit their evil agenda.
“Secondly there is a total disconnection between young Muslims and the mosques, imams, mosque committees, and it is this which is leading to young people using the internet to gain knowledge of Islam and in turn be brainwashed.
“Thirdly our Government refuses to discuss its foreign policy and the concerns of young people - until they are prepared for an honest debate and dialogue we will see more young people become extremists and threaten our security.”