The parents and family of Talha Asmal mourn the loss of their son in tragic circumstances, as he 'martyred' his life for Islamic State, also know as Daesh. The current focus is on how he was groomed online, that Islamic State's slick media and online messaging lured this naive young man towards his violent death. Islamic State has been likened to 'paedophiles' who prey on the vulnerable by Qari Asim a widely respected Imam at the Makkah Majid Mosque in Leeds. However, while Islamic State certainly do have a very sophisticated machinery for pumping out propaganda and promotional material, that alone cannot explain why approximately 700 individuals, including around 60 women, have traveled to Iraq or Syria with the intent of joining Daesh. Focusing on grooming strategies masks deeper worries.
Radicalisation theory is not advanced or clear, and there are competing explanations for 'whatever happens before the bomb goes off' as Professor Peter Neumann at King's College London International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation describes it. And because there are no common profiles or journeys among those from the west who have joined (or tired to) Islamic State - some are young, some are not, some are married, some are not, some are middle class, some working class, some highly educated some not, some from religious families, some not - it makes it unlikely a unified theory of radicalisation will emerge in the near future. Nevertheless, as I have argued elsewhere, there are both push and pull factors at work to radicalise.
What is important to remember in this case is that the push factors exist, Daesh's message is only powerful because it harnesses vulnerabilities and insecurities in the West. These are real, material, and embedded in our societies and politics. They shouldn't be dismissed as the foibles of 'weak minded' individuals who alone are susceptible to brainwashing. The one thing we do know from decades of terrorism research is that terrorists are not clinically mad, nor are they of a lower IQ, or suffer from depression in any greater numbers than the ordinary population.
Instead if we examine the public content of those we know who have travelled to join IS they all discuss their sense on alienation, disconnect and express their feels of not belonging in their countries of origins. They reveal that they could not envisage a meaningful purposeful future in the West. This is deeper than teenage angst, it is about the civil society, political discourse and inequalities in the UK. A civil society that sees young people as 'targets' to be acted upon, not agents, a political discourse that demonises Islam, and discrimination that contributes to the economic disadvantage of many Muslim communities (who are predominantly located in former mill and light industrial towns such as Dewsbury). Islamic State have capitalised on this by providing a Utopian vision that says 'you are not the problem, you can be part of the solution'. It offers community, a common purpose and a sense of belonging framed around shared religious practices. It's solution is expansive and ambitious, and narrated via exciting stories of glory and violence. In Islamic State boys become heroic men, fighting for the jihad, and girls become pious women creating new families.
Domestic politics in the West is also insufficient an explanation. Islamic State argue the new Caliphate is born out of the destruction of Iraq and Syria, and also assert that extreme instability is required to create power vacuums for Daesh to fill. According to Patrick Cockburn, their military success is based on opportunistic exploitation of the chaos and sectarianism cause by failed Western interventions.The myth of success is also a driver, despite military efforts by opposition forces to contain and defeat the group, there is also little cohesion in any 'post conflict' messaging, what is the future alternative for governance and everyday security? This leaves Islamic State's Sunni 'caliphate vision' unchallenged. For those who have travelled to Daesh territories that caliphate often falls short of their expectations, but the idea of being part of a new successful political entity that recognises their contributions and who are made to feel like they belong, is heavily invested in and unlikely to be sacrificed easily.
Recognising the combination of push and pull factors, the local and the global is essential to any response and counter-radicalisation strategy. The shadow Home Secretary has called for more local grass roots activism as well as a robust government lead response to reduce the capacity of extremist groups to promote their ideas.
However, it requires more than this, it requires recognition and meaningful attempts to redress the "push factors" - the disconnect and imbalances in society vis-a-vis the young, minority groups and the working classes. It requires honest debate about foreign policy and the success and failure of Western intervention. It requires more than a focus on Islamic State's PR outputs. Ultimately it requires an open and ongoing discussion about future possibilities for a 'good life' in Iraq, Syria and here in the UK.