Teenager believed to be UK's youngest suicide bomber

LONDON - He was barely old enough to drive in Britain.

But last Saturday, Talha Asmal, a 17-year-old high school student from West Yorkshire, apparently detonated a Toyota Land Cruiser full of explosives at an Iraqi security facility and became his country's youngest known suicide bomber.

Asmal left his family home over the Easter holidays, just a few weeks shy of his final school exams, and travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

After the bombing, about 32km outside the northern town of Baiji- the home of Iraq's largest oil refinery - social media accounts linked to the group announced the attack and posted a series of images that also featured Asmal, whose nom de guerre appeared to be Abu Yusuf al-Britani.

The attack involved four vehicles striking different security targets, and killed at least 10 people.

The British Foreign Office has not been able to confirm that Asmal was one of the suicide bombers, a spokesman said on Tuesday.

But members of his family in the West Yorkshire town of Dewsbury in northern England said in a statement that the bearded teenager in the ISIS posts looked like their son.

Asmal's parents described him as "loving, kind, caring and affable".

They said they believed their son was radicalised on the Internet and through social media in the space of only a few months.

Like other Western countries, Britain has experienced the flight of hundreds of young Muslims - many of them minors - to Syria.

Schools and parents are struggling to detect signs of a radicalisation that often seems to happen largely online.

Another recent case involved the departure of three schoolgirls from the Bethnal Green neighbourhood in East London in February. Grainy security-camera images of the girls - aged 15 and 16 - confidently passing through airport security shocked the country.

Like the girls from Bethnal Green, Asmal did not go on his own.

He travelled with a friend and neighbour, Hassan Munshi, also 17, and told his parents that he was going on a school trip, according to The Times of London.

By the time the police issued an alert, it was too late.

The two teenagers had already flown to a resort in eastern Turkey and then slipped across the border into Syria.

Munshi is now nowhere to be found.

Security officials say that the case of his older brother, Hammaad Munshi, may have contributed to the boys' radicalisation.

He was convicted in 2008 at the age of 18 for his role in a plot to kill non-Muslims.

If Asmal's role in the attack is confirmed, he will be the youngest known British suicide bomber to date.

Hasib Hussain, also from West Yorkshire, was 18 when he blew himself up on a London bus as part of the coordinated attacks of July 7, 2005.

ISIS often recruits boys even younger.

The group has been aggressive in indoctrinating children in the parts of Iraq and Syria it controls, opening camps for religious instruction and military training and posting photographs and videos referring to the boys as "the cubs of the caliphate".

Last year, a 14-year-old boy from Syria, who was wearing a suicide vest, turned himself in to the authorities in Baghdad.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2015, with the headline 'Teenager believed to be UK's youngest suicide bomber'. Print Edition | Subscribe