‘It’s kill or be killed’: Why knife crime is spreading among children in leafy suburbia

Knife crime
Knife crime

Teenager Shawn Seesahai was hanging out with a friend in a Wolverhampton park when he was subjected to a brutal and completely random machete attack that ended his young life.

He was 19 and the two boys who killed him were just 12, making them Britain’s youngest convicted murderers in over 30 years.

What prosecutors described as a “horrifying and random act of brutality” unfolded over mere minutes on November 13 2023, but it was the result of a much longer journey towards violence for the 12-year-old attackers.

Obsessed with knives, one of the killers, as yet unnamed for legal reasons, said he had bought the machete for just £40 months earlier.

Wearing dark hoodies and masks, he sent videos of himself posing with the 16-inch blade to friends because he “thought it was cool”, while perusing knives for sale online and listening to rap music that graphically described stabbings and murder.

Charities and experts warn that the boy is not an exception, but a symptom of a deadly trend spreading among Britain’s children – and a warning of more violence to come.

“The Wolverhampton murder encapsulates where we are as a society,” says Patrick Green, CEO of the Ben Kinsella Trust.

Patrick Green Ben Kinsella Trust
"Knife crime is likely to get worse," says Patrick Green, CEO of Ben Kinsella Trust, which was set up in the memory of Ben, 17, who was stabbed in an unprovoked attack in 2008 - Jamie Lorriman

“All the key indicators are now pointing in the wrong direction – the kids carrying knives are getting younger, online marketplaces are making knives easy to get and social media is promoting and glorifying it.

“They all give us the impression that this is a problem that is likely to get worse.”

In an attempt to educate young people about the dangers of carrying knives before it’s too late, the London-based charity that was set up in the memory of Ben, 16, who was stabbed to death in an unprovoked attack in Islington in 2008, now delivers workshops to primary school children, and it is far from the only organisation now targeting that age group.

“When we started work as a charity in 2011, we identified the last year of primary school and first year of secondary school as a massive transition year,” Green says. “The majority of knife carrying then was by 15, 16 and 17-year-olds, so our view was to get in there early.

“But what we’re seeing now is the age creeping much closer to where we thought children were more or less exempt, and the Wolverhampton case is a good example of that. Those 12-year-olds would have been carrying knives for quite some time.”

While such habits have long been associated with teenagers who are part of gangs or exploited to carry drugs by “county lines” networks, a growing number of children with no link to criminality are now believed to be carrying knives simply because they are afraid.

When the Ben Kinsella Trust surveyed almost 10,000 young people who attended its London workshops, it found that a quarter thought arming themselves with a blade would protect them.

More than a third said they did not feel safe walking the streets, two thirds were anxious about knife crime in their area, and children under the age of 12 were even more likely to be scared than their older peers.

Meanwhile, despite a recent decrease in the overall number of murders with a knife or sharp object involving victims in the 13-19 age group, teenagers remain over twice as likely to be fatally stabbed than they were 10 years ago, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

In total, 82 per cent of murders among teenage victims involve the use of a knife or sharp instrument. Among victims of all ages, the figure stands at 41 per cent.

Malachi Nunes used to carry a knife. Aged 14, and living in an area of the West Midlands marred by gang warfare between the notorious Burger Bar Boys and Johnson Crew, he says he took up a weapon “out of fear”.

“I would be waiting at a bus stop and gangs would stop in their cars and ask me what gang I was with,” he says. “What do you do as a young person when nobody is there to protect you?”

He carried knives for five years but was never caught up directly in violence, and chose to disarm after being arrested and cautioned by the police. Looking back at the period, Nunes admits making “stupid decisions” but says he was “confused on how to survive”. He is now trying to help young people facing the same situation.

His Ambitious Lives group runs workshops, training and mentoring programmes for young offenders and those at risk of criminal exploitation in the West Midlands, which has the highest number of recorded knife crime offences per head of population in England and Wales.

Even before the Wolverhampton murder, Nunes had mentored young boys carrying knives in the same city. “There was one particular young person there who carried a knife because he had an older brother who was in a gang and in jail,” he says.

“He felt he had to carry a knife because the gangs would either try to bring him on board, or attack him. It’s a domino effect.”

Malachi Nunes
Malachi Nunes, who used to carry a knife himself, is now a 'behaviour mentor' seeking to help protect young people from exploitation

Nunes believes knife possession is spreading to ever-younger children because of fear generated by a combination of their own experiences, reports of knife attacks in their neighbourhoods and what they see on social media.

He has personally mentored boys as young as nine who have already carried knives, and have even taken them to school. He warns that the trend will breed further violence.

“A lot of young people do not have intentions to stab someone [when they start carrying a knife] but there can be circumstances where they feel it’s a ‘kill or be killed’ situation,” he says. “The fear factor means they think ‘I need to do that before someone does that to me’.”

Nunes is one of several youth mentors and charity workers who fear a snowball effect, where increasing fear fuels rising knife possession and raises the risk of deadly fights breaking out between teenagers who may never have intended to harm anyone.

Dr Charlotte Coleman, who researches the psychology of knife crime at Sheffield Hallam University, says that knives are often perceived as “defensive” weapons initially but ultimately increase children’s propensity for violence.

“I don’t think any young person picks up their first knife and thinks ‘I want to stab someone’, but thinks that ‘this is what other people are doing’ or ‘this is what I need to do to protect myself’. But then obviously, once you normalise that knife carrying, [using the knife] is the next step along that path.”

Coleman’s research has also found that knives have become a “status indicator” for boys, giving them a “feeling of power” that they can physically brandish on the streets and online.

Nunes says the rise of drill rap, which has been used by some gangs to threaten rivals and incite violence, has also glamorised knife carrying and made associated clothing styles fashionable.

It means that unarmed teenagers with no links to criminality are choosing to dress like gang members, in a distinctive uniform of dark or monochrome sportswear and designer trainers, sometimes accessorised with black balaclavas or gloves.

The uniform

An undated photograph issued by West Midlands Police of one of the two 12-year-old boys thought to have become the youngest knife murderers in the UK
An undated photograph issued by West Midlands Police of one of the two 12-year-old boys thought to have become the youngest knife murderers in the UK
  1. Black balaclava

  2. Dark, monochrome colours

  3. Baggy sportswear

  4. Gloves

“I have a few young people I mentor with undiagnosed ADHD and autism, and they have confidence issues and wear balaclavas for that reason,” Nunes says. “For some of them a balaclava is just like a pair of trainers, it’s a fashion accessory. Since Covid it’s just been allowed.”

Such emulation can be dangerous, with older gang members on the lookout for younger teenagers they believe may be willing to work in the drug trade for cash or expensive gifts.

“If you are acting like you want to be in that life, if you’re wearing a balaclava and embracing the culture, they see that as a weakness to bring people in,” Nunes warns.

County lines gangs, who operate out of large cities to target smaller towns and rural areas with drugs, are constantly recruiting children to act as mules in the belief they are unlikely to be known by police and face lenient sentences if caught.

The lucrative model of drug dealing, which has been prevalent for the past seven years, was linked to a rise in stabbings because of turf wars and robberies between gangs, and the increased carrying of knives by exploited teenagers.

Nunes fears county lines gangs are “more rife than ever” in the cost-of-living crisis, with children in deprived areas finding the money on offer “very appealing”. But he and other youth workers are seeing knife possession spread out of traditional crime hotspots to leafy and affluent areas with little history of gang activity and violence.

Mentor Gideon Buabeng has been finding himself increasingly working in what he calls the “lovely bits” of Surrey, among children who have no link to criminality.

Gideon Buabeng
Gideon Buabeng speaking to King Charles during an Invest in Futures reception at The Savoy in London - Peter Cary/PA

“I recently worked with a young person in a lovely home, who said he ordered a knife because it looked nice and his friend told him about it,” he says.

“Then one day someone tried to take his jacket and he took it out for protection. He took the knife out in public and got arrested for it. The parents couldn’t believe it – because we have this perspective of knife crime being linked to gang crime, parents aren’t prepared.”

Buabeng grew up in Croydon and became unwittingly associated with local gangs as a teenager, with his childhood links leading to him being targeted in a ferocious stabbing when he was a university student studying in Leicester.

After surviving the attack and getting his degree, he founded the Our Pain 2 Power group to fight youth violence, and is now running programmes for children down to the age of seven.

Buabeng recalls a recent case involving a child in Year 5 [age 9-10] who “slept with a knife under his bed” because he was scared, warning that public services have been too focused on teenagers with gang links in “known hotspots, sending the cops down there and leaving everyone else out”.

Gideon Buabeng
Youth mentors such as Gideon Buabeng say that unconstrained internet access is contributing to the rise in knife crime

“This affects every young person in the nation,” he warns. “You get schools saying ‘we don’t have that issue here, it’s a lovely area’ – until something happens and they all start panicking. It’s not the particular, certain areas – social media connects us all.”

Buabeng says unconstrained internet access is allowing young children to view not just violent drill rap videos and social media glamorising knives, but footage of real stabbings and even terrorist atrocities that desensitise them to violence.

“They’re seeing crazy things by the age of 11 or 12, they’re laughing at videos of people having their heads chopped off,” he says. “Kids shouldn’t be having access to certain things online, this shouldn’t be happening.”

While the Online Safety Act aims to force social media companies to protect children by properly filtering content and enforcing age limits, the new regulatory system underpinning the law is untested and campaigners fear it will be ineffective. Some groups are calling for parents to take a greater role in monitoring their children’s online activity, and spot any “red flags” themselves.

“If you understand youth culture, you’ll understand the signs, but parents of today don’t know how to use social media like the kids do,” Nunes says. “I encourage parents to learn the apps kids are using because the evidence will be on there. Look at their Snapchat conversions, look at their Whatsapp groups.”

Earlier this year, the family of 18-year-old Owen Dunn, who was stabbed to death in Swindon in December 2022, started a campaign called “Check Your Children”.

Owen was carrying a knife when he was murdered by two machete-wielding boys as he cycled to meet his girlfriend. He did not use the weapon, but his killers unsuccessfully attempted to claim self-defence at their trial.

Zoe Mitchell, Owen’s mother, wasn’t aware her son was in possession of a knife until after his death and said afterwards: “You’ve got to think, it could just possibly be my kid [carrying a knife]. It doesn’t hurt just to check them.”

The charity Owen’s World was set up in his memory, and is now reaching out directly to parents and guardians, as well as children themselves.

Owen Dunn knife crime victim
The parents of Owen Dunn, who was stabbed to death in Swindon in December 2022, were unaware he was carrying a knife

“Owen was carrying that knife for protection because of a previous incident but his mum didn’t know – if he had confided about the incident before the murder he would probably be alive now,” CEO Jo Davis says. “Our campaign is about parents taking responsibility for their kids and being knowledgeable. They haven’t got a clue what to look for and they don’t know what to do.”

Members of Owen’s World are also going into primary schools and Cub Scouts groups to speak to children directly, trying to warn them of the dangers of carrying knives and assure them that “there’s not as many people carrying knives as you think there are”.

“The younger we get them the better – once they start going up to secondary school and getting in with the wrong friends, you can get lost,” Davis adds. “Prevention is better than cure and that’s what we’re here for.”

She believes dangerous gaps have opened up between the many overlapping law enforcement, health agencies, social services and arms of government that control factors linked to knife crime.

“There are so many agencies but no one takes responsibility for it,” she adds.

The government has been attempting to crack down on knife crime through multiple routes, including increasing stop and search, legislating for tougher prison sentences and banning so-called “zombie knives”. Meanwhile, police forces across the UK have launched waves of operations against county lines gangs, knife seizure programmes and efforts to take down drill rap songs linked to outbreaks of violence.

But official figures show that knife crime has risen by seven per cent year-on-year in England and Wales, partly driven by rocketing knifepoint robberies. Fatal stabbings stood at 239 last year, broadly unchanged on the 235 recorded in 2022, and knives are the weapons used to kill the vast majority of teenage murder victims.

Last month, police chiefs revealed that illegal dealers were knowingly selling weapons to under-18s via social media channels, including TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram. Meanwhile, websites that openly advertise their wares on the internet continue selling large knives that are sent to buyers in the post, with age verification processes that can be easily fooled.

DNA Leisure, which described itself as the “UK’s go to website for knives, tools, axes and knife accessories”, announced the “commercial decision to stop the sale of bladed articles” on Thursday, after a string of murders were committed with swords and blades purchased from it.

But Google searches conducted by The Telegraph show that people looking up the website are being targeted with adverts for weapons available from rival retailers, including large “survival” and “hunting” knives with serrated blades.

The Ben Kinsella Trust believes there will be “no quick fix” to either the availability of such weapons, or children’s willingness to possess and use them.

“All politicians so far have tried to find silver bullets for tackling knife crime but there isn’t one,” CEO Green says.

“You can buy a machete for £20, and there are practical things the government can do to stop that, but more needs to be done about the underlying factors. You need to tackle all elements of it and that requires a vast amount of money, it’s a huge challenge.”

In the meantime, Buabeng and his fellow youth workers fear they will see the fall-out from more and more children carrying knives.

“It’s getting worse, it’s getting so much worse,” he says.

“What makes them want to carry a knife and stab someone, what’s happening in their life?

“We always miss the journey that gets there, I always get called when it’s too late.”