DEWSBURY, United Kingdom: Ten years after the ringleader of the London bombings set out from his Dewsbury home to blow up a train, the small English town is again grasping for answers after a local teen-turned-suicide bomber staged a deadly attack in Iraq.
As Britain marks the anniversary on Tuesday of the attacks which killed 52 people, many in Dewsbury’s tight-knit Muslim community blame the Internet for radicalization, and eye government anti-extremism projects with suspicion.
A recent speech by Prime Minister David Cameron in which he accused some British Muslims of “quietly condoning” jihadist actions has sparked outrage in the town.
“What Cameron said has angered people,” Madiha Ansari, a local resident who has set up a literature club for vulnerable youths, told AFP.
“It’s like asking middle-aged white males to apologize for pedophilia,” interrupted her younger brother Bilal.
“No, no, no,” she responded. “This is how the community is reacting, they are reacting negatively to a negative comment, we should be positive.”
Dewsbury’s problems are a microcosm of those faced across the country, said Ansari, with cities from Portsmouth to Coventry asking how hundreds of their citizens ended up dying on foreign jihadist battlefields.
Despite a decade of soul-searching over how local man Mohammad Sidique Khan became the leader of a foursome of suicide bombers that attacked London on July 7, 2005, the town seems no closer to agreeing on how to combat homegrown extremism.
The debate has intensified in recent days following reports last month that a 17-year-old from Dewsbury, Talha Asmal, had become Britain’s youngest suicide bomber, killing 11 people near an Iraqi oil works.
His neighbourhood friend Hassan Munshi is still believed to be fighting alongside Islamic State militants.
‘Places of peace’
Some point the finger at local mosques, with Dewsbury’s Zakaria mosque, where both Munshi and Asmal worshipped, coming under the microscope.
“If they had a show of hands in the Zakaria mosque… as to who thought Talha Asmal was a martyr… I think I know what way the vote would go,” said local journalist Danny Lockwood, author of a book called “The Islamic Republic of Dewsbury” that angered many in the town’s Muslim community.
The mosque sits modestly among the sandstone terraced houses of Savile Town, the bustling epicentre of Dewsbury’s 20,000-strong Muslim population.
Around the corner is the huge Markazi mosque, the home outside Saudi Arabia of the Tablighi Jamaat movement, where Khan, the eldest of the 2005 attackers, worshipped.
Between 97 and 99 percent of Savile Town’s residents are Muslim, most of them descended from Indian and Pakistani immigrants who began arriving in the 1950s when it was still a centre for the wool industry.
Despite teaching conservative strains of Islam, locals strongly deny the mosques are to blame.
“The mosques have never preached about hatred. They are places of peace where people go to pray and that’s it,” said worshipper Rizwan Essat.
Law student Adam Zaman added: “There are bad crowds in terms of violence, drugs.
“But bad crowds, in terms of recruiting and extremist views, it’s just not like that.”
Looking for role models
On a drive around the streets of Savile Town, clogged with shoppers searching for a bargain before the day’s end of Ramadan fasting, local councilor Masood Ahmed defended the mosques.
During a stop-off at a friend’s fabric shop, he called on parents and schools to be more vigilant about youngsters’ Internet surfing habits.
Home Secretary Theresa May recently asked parents to report “radicalized” children to police, and new laws now force schools to tackle the problem.
But many warn such actions risk further polarizing communities and fostering an air of permanent suspicion.
A source with knowledge of anti-radicalization initiatives said government programs had “often done as much harm as good”, despite using up large amounts of taxpayer money.
Zaman said change should come from the community.
“You need role models, whether that’s someone doing well in sport or business,” he said at his home west of the town center.
Zaman himself is an example of local leadership as captain of the Palestine All Stars five-a-side football team, which was set up as part of a local council program and became national champions.
The town has no shortage of other success stories, having produced Conservative lawmaker Sayeeda Warsi, numerous entrepreneurs, cricketers and rugby superstar Sam Burgess.
“Although you have the fundamentalist side here, you also have a lot of people who work hard and want their kids to achieve,” Lockwood told AFP during a drive past Savile Town’s “Millionaire Row”.
But for every success there is a shadow.
Lockwood turns a corner and points out a red-brick home.
It was from here that Khan, a 30-year-old father of one, set off on the morning of July 7 to detonate a bomb on an underground train, killing six people.