A new piece off the book ahead of what is likely to be a busy week in this regard, looking at the concept of the ‘Suburban Terrorist’ for the Sunday Telegraph. There are a few other pieces around the book that are going to be emerging this week as we hit the ten year anniversary of the sad events of July 7, 2005. Some news articles have already started to emerge, including this interview I did with Sky News about Mohammed Siddique Khan’s under-explored visit to Israel. In other subjects, I spoke to AFP about China-Central Asia and Voice of America about the AIIB.
Ten years on from the 7/7 bombings, Britain’s towns and cities are spawning a new wave of homegrown terrorists
But there is one often forgotten player who masterminded the attacks on the capital ten years ago this week. Rashid Rauf was the son of a Birmingham baker who progressed up the ranks of al Qaeda to become jihadi royalty. When the London bombings took place, he was in Pakistan, and it was from here that he co-ordinated the bombings and compiled a post-action report.
“A few months after the operation, I saw a dream, which Sidique and Shehzad are sitting and smiling, looking very happy,” he wrote at the time.
“Sidique” referred to 30-year-old Mohammed Sidique Khan, a married-father-of-one and teaching assistant from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. “Shehzad” was 22-year-old sports science graduate Shehzad Tanweer, from nearby Beeston in Leeds. Between them, they had murdered 13 people after detonating suicide bombs on the Circle Line on a Thursday morning 10 years ago. The other explosives set off that day by their teenage accomplices, Germaine Lindsay and Hasib Hussain, ensured that 52 innocent lives were lost in total.
The attack was not just al Qaeda’s most successful ever on British soil, but also breathed vivid life into the concept of the homegrown terrorist, born and raised in town and city suburbs and beneficiaries of our schools and universities who suddenly turn murderously against the state. Rauf epitomises this story.
A young Brummie born to a Pakistani family that had migrated to the UK, Rauf grew up in a terraced house in east Birmingham. He helped out at his father’s bakery during breaks at the local Washwood Heath High School, which itself achieved some notoriety in 1996 when a teacher leapt up after a carol singing shouting “Who is your God? Why are you saying Jesus and Jesus Christ? God is not your God – it is Allah!”. From there, he got a place at Portsmouth University.
In 2002, Rauf fled the UK for Pakistan where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a conduit for al Qaeda attempting to draw in excitable young British men. By the time he was killed in a drone strike in 2008, he had moved into a senior role in al Qaeda and was married into a prominent jihadi family.
Talha Asmal fled his home in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in March
A decade on from 7/7, the rise of the suburban mujahedeen has become an all-too familiar tale. Last month, 17-year-old Talha Asmal – who, like Sidique Khan, also hailed from Dewsbury – became the youngest suicide bomber Britain has ever produced. The former student at Mirfield Free Grammar and Sixth Form blew himself up in a car bomb in Iraq alongside three other jihadis in a coordinated Isil attack. His devastated parents have said he was the victim of the terrorist group’s perverse ideology; they had no idea he was being exploited to make the transition from “ordinary Yorkshire lad” to suicide bomber.
A new wave of terrorism is building in the sands of Syria and Iraq that is already giving birth to the next generation of British terrorists. What ties them all together are their relatively ordinary backgrounds. They see little appeal in the middle-class lives they are headed for, and instead are being drawn to fight in god’s name in the great struggle of their age in the Levant.
There are numerous motivations as to why so many young British men and women are being lured to jihad 10 years after the terrorist atrocity of 7/7. Some are drawn by religious ideology; long term activists and people interested in Islamic ideas who seize upon the end of days narrative which is being peddled by Isil propagandists. Others are attracted to the sheer excitement of participating in a foreign conflict.
Then there is a redemptive value of the fight in Syria and Iraq, perceived by some troubled young Britons as a way of earning respect and shedding troubled pasts. When growing up in Britain, Rashid Rauf and a friend allegedly skirted on the fringes of the local gang community, ending up involved with the Aston Panthers. This is something one sees often among British jihadis, not least Thomas Evans, a 25-year-old from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, killed in Kenya last month while fighting for the terror group al-Shabaab. Evans floated around in local gangs, a petty criminal who re-invented himself as an international warrior for god.
Thomas Evans, who died in Kenya
Richard Reid, who was jailed in 2001 after attempting to ignite a shoe bomb on American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami, who grew up in the London suburb of Bromley and spent time in Feltham Young Offenders institution for petty crime. The 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay, who killed 26 on the Piccadilly Line, also came from a broken home and had dabbled in petty crime before focusing on religion.
Others, however, just want to escape their banal, middle-class lives – and it is this which is so difficult for the authorities and families to predict. Glasgow teenager Aqsa Mahmood, who fled to join Isil in 2013, was privately educated and grew up in a happy, close-knit home. Mohammed Sidique Khan wanted to travel and ended up working at a desk job with a degree from a local university. Shehzad Tanweer had a nice car and enjoyed playing cricket. Samantha Lewthwaite, Lindsay’s wife and the so-called “White Widow”, was born to a military family in Aylesbury, Bucks. The decision to go and fight is a reaction against your environment. In many ways, it’s a reflection of young people trying to explore their identities.
What has changed in recent years, as the recent recruitment of schoolboy Talha Asmal shows, is the power of online propaganda and connections to help recruit would be jihadists and persuade young Britons of their connection to the cause and others involved in it. On the internet you can have these multiple identities and completely fictitious online profiles which have no connection with real life. Shami Witness, who ran the most influential pro-Isil Twitter account before it was shut down last year, turned out to be an executive in Bangalore working for an Indian conglomerate. It is easy to reinvent yourself online.
Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum
The other interesting aspect that persists is the sense of shared camaraderie that can be a strong lure for young men and women. The 7/7 bombers supposedly laughed and hugged at Kings Cross before embarking on their final, separate journeys. A close bond of friendship is also what motivated the teenage Bethnal Green Academy pupils Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana to travel to Istanbul in February and on to Syria. In 2013, the Pompey Lads, the group of six jihadis from Portsmouth who travelled out to fight for Isil, discussed their upcoming trip as if preparing for any holiday away.
Ten years on from 7/7, we are continuing to see young men and women drawn by extremist narratives to fight in foreign fields. At some point, it is possible they will return to launch attacks in the UK. The next generation of British suburban mujahedeen have yet to completely mature into threats like Rashid Rauf and Mohammed Siddique Khan, but it is likely only a matter of time before they do.
• Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst, £15.99). To order your copy for £13.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk