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My Son the Jihadi: What turns teenagers to terrorism?

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When some young Briton decamps to a far-off land to join a terrorist organisation, there is inevitably disbelief at how such an ostensibly ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’ person could do such a thing.

You’re probably aware of this cliché by now. Thomas Evans, a Man United fan-turned Jihadi, was just as ordinary and normal as everyone else until he took an interest in radical Islam, or, as may be the case, until radical Islam took an interest in him.

His short life and pointless death is examined in a moving documentary, glibly titled My Son the Jihadi, which aired on Channel 4 on 22nd October.

It describes Thomas’s rapid conversion to Islam when he was just 18. Although his mother Sally initially welcomed his interest in a deep subject, it soon led to tension within the family. Thomas excised all the trappings of his comfortable Western life. He refused to eat the same food as his mother and younger brother, telling them they would burn in hell if they did not convert to Islam. In 2011 he left his home in suburban England supposedly to study Arabic in Egypt, but later turned up in Somalia as a member of the radical terrorist group al-Shabaab. Changing his name to Abdul Hakim, he was involved in multiple atrocities in eastern Africa. Earlier this year, he was killed in a fire-fight with Kenyan forces. He was 25.

Upon hearing such stories, the words ‘good riddance’ can very easily spring to mind. (They can also evoke Billy Connolly’s assessment of suicide-murderers: ‘every time there’s a bang the world’s a wanker short’).

Furthermore, it is common to assume that, if people like Thomas were so eager to join Britain’s declared enemies, then they can’t have loved their home country much in the first place.

Then there is ethnic prejudice. You can never really tell, some people are happy to admit, whether a rather shifty-looking man with dark skin on the train has a bomb in his backpack.

One thing that can be said for Thomas, a white middle-class boy from High Wycombe, is that his actions helped disprove the racist suggestion that only people of Middle Eastern extraction have a propensity for terrorism. But then why do people turn to such wickedness in the first place? Do they go to groups like al-Shabaab, or do these groups suck people in?

For the Active Change Foundation, the work of which is explored in the documentary, the responsibility lies solely with the extremists. "They want to steal your kids", says one expert, bluntly. They manipulate those who have experienced traumatic events in their lives – in Thomas’s case, his parents’ separation and an acrimonious break with a long-term girlfriend – and then steer you towards channelling your anger through terrorism.

So groups like al-Shabaab are merely religiously-based recruiting drives for troubled young individuals who have come to believe they have nothing else to turn to.

This seems like a plausible explanation. Yet the documentary only focuses on Thomas’s story.

According to the Metropolitan Police, over seven hundred British citizens have travelled to Syria alone in order to fight with ISIS and affiliated groups. Just one of them, Talha Asmal, aged 17, from Dewsbury, earned the title of ‘Britain’s youngest suicide bomber’ when he blew himself up in a car bomb atrocity in Iraq earlier this year.

Like Evans, Talha was, in his father’s words, ‘a loving, kind and affable teenager’. Can it really be that all these young men (and women) are taken advantage of? Or do some of them go of their own accord?

Whether or not this can be determined should not detract people from the central issue, that the barbarity of Islamic extremism, which the Prime Minister has called ‘the struggle of our generation’, must be tackled head-on. As the documentary shows, it ruins the lives of the convert’s family as well as the victims of attacks.

My Son the Jihadi primarily focuses on Thomas’s mother, Sally, who struggles to reconcile her unconditional love for her son with her dismay at the choices he made.

When she learns of his death – through a blurred photo on Twitter – she even admits to being relieved that he will no longer be able to hurt anyone else.

A harrowing call from Thomas’s fourteen year old jihadi bride, who urges to Sally to take comfort in the fatuous suggestion that her late son is now in ‘paradise’, is only just counterbalanced by a report which suggests, despite his despicable actions, that some of the ‘old’ Thomas shone through his fanatical alter-ego. According to testimonies of an attack Thomas was involved in, he hesitated to kill a new-born child upon learning she was a girl. Hardly much, but something.

Be sure to catch ‘My Son the Jihadi’ while it is still available on the C4 catch-up service.

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