Dewsbury has found itself making unwanted headlines for being home to what is believed to be Britain’s youngest suicide bomber. Chris Bond went to gauge reaction.
IT’S business as usual at the Mullaco mini market in Savile Town.
Inside, the shoppers, mostly women, are doing their family shop, while outside a couple of elderly men chatter in the warm sunshine in front of the proudly displayed rows of fruit and vegetables.
In the school across the road groups of children are running and shrieking in the playground and round the corner a middle-aged woman is giving a couple of rugs a good airing in her backyard.
The only clue that this perhaps isn’t your average Monday morning is the clutch of journalists and camera crews camped outside one of the mosques.
The national press rolled into Dewsbury yesterday following the news over the weekend that 17 year-old Talha Asmal, who had lived with his family in Savile Town until he travelled to Syria back in March, had reportedly carried out a suicide bombing in Iraq.
Social media reports linked to militant group Islamic State (IS) said Asmal, going by the name of Abu Yusuf al-Britani, was among the attackers involved in an oil refinery attack - making him what is believed to be Britain’s youngest suicide bomber.
There was a time you would only ever hear Dewsbury on national television if its most famous daughter, Betty Boothroyd, opened her mouth in the House of Commons to deliver one of her trademark put-downs.
But 7/7 changed all that. Mohammad Sidique Khan, the ring-leader of the London suicide bombings of 2005 which claimed the lives of 52 people and injured another 700, came from the West Yorkshire town.
Since then Dewsbury has, in some people’s eyes, become synonymous with terrorism. Five years ago the town came under the spotlight in a BBC documentary that explored how some young Muslims were being radicalised.
Now, as we approach the 10th anniversary of the 7/7 bombings it is once again under the media’s glare.
But the idea of Dewsbury being some kind of hotbed of extremism is anathema to the people who live here. There is a large amount of reticence to speak to the press, perhaps understandably, given some of the headlines in the past, but those who are prepared to talk speak of their shock at one of their own being embroiled such an horrific act.
Mohammed Shimraz, who runs a money and travel shop on Savile Road, sums up many people’s feelings. “It’s very bad, it shouldn’t be happening and it’s sad for the family,” he says.
He believes young Muslims are being targeted on the internet through social media networks.
“That’s the problem, especially among 17, 18 and 19 year-olds. They’re young guys and they don’t know much about life and they get brainwashed, they don’t realise what they are getting into.”
Another shopkeeper, who didn’t want to give his name but has lived in Dewsbury for 50 years, says the events of 7/7 have tarnished the town’s image.
“That’s when the problems started in Dewsbury, but this is a quiet community and people just want to live their lives in peace.”
Walking around Savile Town you’re struck by its quiet prosperity - many of the impressive stone terraced houses here date back to the 19th century when the woollen mills were in their pomp.
These days it’s home mostly to Pakistani and Indian communities who live, and work, happily side by side, and speak to anyone here and they will tell you it’s a thriving, ‘close knit’ community, the kind you might find right across the country.
Which is what makes this harrowing story all the more painful. Elyas Patel lives a few streets away from the grieving Asmal family and says people are reeling from the news about Talha.
“He came from a thoroughly decent, hard-working family and for someone of his age and background to suddenly up sticks and go to the hell-hole that must surely be Syria and Iraq right now, and after a couple of months go to his death, just beggars belief.”
Elyas, who knows the family, says there were no signs that Asmal had been radicalised. “He never exhibited any kind of extreme radical tendencies which is why this has come as such a shock. It’s a huge anomaly that he of all people should end up in this kind of tragic situation,” he says.
“There must have been a process undertaken by someone or a group of some kind who have tapped into his youthful naivety and groomed him to the point where he has ended his life in such a tragic and brutal way.”
As well as being dismayed for the family he is saddened by Dewsbury’s name once again being tarnished, just as it was following the July 7 attacks a decade ago.
“People see this and think lightning has struck again. But we have to keep a sense of proportion. The vast majority of people want to be part of this great country and the wonderful society we have here. We are want to be good British citizens not just good Muslim citizens,” he says.
Some people argue that community leaders and local imams ought to be doing more to root any extremism, but Elyas says they are already doing this and are making a difference. “I was brought up in this community, I’m proud to be from Dewsbury, and the mosques here play a huge role in turning each one of us into better caring and sharing citizens.”
Parents are also being called on to keep a closer eye on their children, but in the age of the internet this isn’t easy. “There are many challenges facing parents and one of the severest challenges is that of the internet and social media.
“Parents want to know what their children are doing outside and who they are meeting, but inside their rooms it’s hard to know what they are doing and what dangers are lurking within the home itself courtesy of our wireless routers, it’s frightening.
“But irrespective of faith or religion, what can parents do? You can’t simply lock your children up 24 hours a day.”
Elyas believes Asmal’s family deserve respect for the way they have handled the situation. “Despite the crushing sense of loss and grief they must feel they did not mince their words in what was a very dignified personal statement issued by them after this terrible news first broke. In it they unreservedly condemned Isis and made it crystal that they and their twisted ideology have no part in the faith of Islam.”
He feels this kind of powerful message is important but stresses that tackling the thorny issue of radicalisation shouldn’t simply rest on the shoulders of the Muslim community.
“We have to wake up to the fact that there’s a problem, anyone who says there isn’t one is deluded. But if we are going to solve this then it will require a huge collective effort,” he says.
“We can’t just do this on our own there has to be a team effort if we are to make sure it never happens again.”