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Britain’s youngest suicide bomber involved in Iraq attack

A British teenager carried out a suicide attack in Iraq on Saturday, becoming, at 17, the UK’s youngest known suicide bomber.

Talha Asmal, from West Yorkshire, had travelled to Syria via Turkey at the end of March this year. He is believed to be one of four suicide bombers carrying out attacks in Baiji, a town to the north of the Iraqi-capital Baghdad.

Collectively the four car bombings killed at least 11 people at an oil refinery, and were reportedly carried out by ISIS.

Asmal is one of around 700 British citizens who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to support militant groups there, including ISIS. While many of them have returned, posing a risk on UK-soil, it is reported that as many as 50 people are still active in the conflicts in the two countries.

The British teenager was identified in a photo on social media standing beside a black SUV with other ISIS members. While his death has not been officially confirmed, ISIS statements on Saturday named him as one of those responsible for the attack. The other three attackers were stated to be a German, a Kuwaiti and a Palestinian.

While Asmal is the youngest British suicide bomber, he is not the first to carry out such an attack. In February 2014, Abdul Waheed Majeed drove an explosives laden truck into Aleppo central prison, resulting in the release of hundreds of prisoners and the death of 300 people in the ensuing firefight between the Syrian air force and Syrian rebels. He had travelled to Syria in June 2013 with an aid convoy, working in refugee camps along the Syrian-Turkish border. However, after arriving in Syria it was reported that he had joined Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida offshoot.

In the aftermath of Saturday’s attacks, public officials in the UK have called for more to be done to stem the flow of British citizens to Iraq and Syria. Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, said that there needed to be a “stronger plan” for community-led action, including a need to “counter the lies” being spread by ISIS over social media.

Shahid Malik, ex-MP for Dewsbury, the area in which Asmal grew up, has also recognised the need to counter ISIS ideology in the UK: “mosques need to confront this evil ideology head-on… 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.”

The reality of suicide bombings on the ground must be made clear. AOAV condemns Saturday’s attacks in Baiji which is part of a widespread pattern of bombings in populated areas that, either incidentally or through design, leads to a severe pattern of civilian harm. In May 2014, AOAV produced an anti-suicide bombing film, which challenges the narrative of propaganda materials that try to distance this method of IED attack from the reality of its desperate humanitarian impacts.

The truth is that suicide attacks kill and injure thousands of civilians every year. In 2014, 32% of all civilian casualties of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks were caused by suicide attacks. These attacks often result in some of the most destructive and deadly attacks recoded by AOAV. Attacks which deliberately target civilians, or are indiscriminate in their nature, are illegal under international humanitarian law.

More widely, the use of any IED in a populated area, even if targeted against a military objective, is likely to put civilians at unnecessary and reckless risk of death or injury. AOAV urges all actors to stop the use of explosive weapons in populated areas.

Urgent collective action is needed to tackle the impact of IEDs, including suicide bombings. AOAV calls on states to do all in their power to effectively stigmatize this pattern of violence, to work towards the fulfillment of the rights of victims of IED attacks, and to undermine and restrict the availability of IED materials to prevent such future attacks.

For more information please contact Jane Hunter, Armed Violence Researcher, jhunter@aoav.org.uk.