London’s invisible bombers

Intelligence services last week revealed that four British-born suicide bombers carried out the July 7 terror attacks on London. As the hunt for the mastermind continues, police have shifted their attention to disaffected British Muslims as prime suspects. But as Rhys Jones and Anil Bhoyrul report from London, the Muslim community has given the manhunt its full backing.

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By  Rhys Jones and Anil Bhoyrul Published  July 17, 2005

London’s invisible bombers|~|COVER-STORY-PIC-200.jpg|~||~|WE HAVE BEEN DRIVING for around 20 minutes, when my guide Ali Chikhi makes a strange request. “Just pull up over there mate,” he says. Ali, an Arab immigrant, then disappears into a car park, somewhere in North West London. An hour earlier, the 22-year-old British Muslim, who I met at Regents Park Mosque, had promised me a unique insight into the mind-set of young British Muslims, many of whom are being blamed for the terror attacks in London earlier this month. When he returns five minutes later, he is carrying a brown bag. But it doesn’t contain confidential documents, or any credible guide to making explosives. “I got us some chips and a strawberry milkshake,” he says, clutching his McDonalds bag. Reality is often a let down. This could also be the case with what is revealed about the perpetrators of the London bombings a fortnight ago. On the face of it, Osama Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group has been stretching its muscles again, recruiting a number of young disaffected British Muslims into its terror network. These “sleepers” are ready and waiting to carry out more attacks, but as Arabian Business reveals, the larger Muslim community in the UK is distancing itself from this minority group of Al Qaeda sympathisers. “Whoever did this,” Ali said, referring to the four bombs that ripped through three underground trains and a bus on July 7, “did a terrible, callous thing. It’s atrocious ... These groups claim to be Muslim, but who are they really? One thing is clear: Londoners, Muslim and non-Muslim, are united against this,” he said. Ali’s attitude and that of many British Muslims like him represents the difference in the response of the Islamic world between the London bombings and 9/11. For months after 9/11, many Muslims were reluctant to condemn the attacks, but this time it is different. Major Muslim groups have denounced the bombings. The Muslim Association of Britain, a hard-line group with alleged ties to militants in the region, called the bombings “heinous and repulsive” and urged Muslims to help the emergency services and the police. As crews continued trying to retrieve bodies after the worst terrorist strike ever in central London, communities of faith prayed for calm and mourned the dead, who numbered at least 52, as Arabian Business went to press. Immediately after the bombings, Britain’s religious leaders made a joint appearance, appealing to Muslims, Christians and Jews to find unity and resolve in a condemnation of terrorism. Earlier in the week, British home secretary Charles Clarke had met with Muslim leaders to keep abreast of possible tensions. At the Regents Park Mosque, one of the largest mosques in the capital, the idea that radical Muslims could be tied to the unprecedented attack was frustrating on many levels. More devastating for the Muslims who live in neighborhoods surrounding the mosque is that the attacks struck the physical heart of London’s Muslim communities. The Edgware subway station, near where one of the bombs exploded is home to a richly diverse community of Arab Muslims from around the Middle East. Among the missing and dead are members of London’s 600,000-strong Muslim population. “The people who did this are not friends of Islam,” Ali said. Conversations about the attacks were painful. One family in the mosque’s congregation is missing a 23-year-old daughter. Others said they knew people injured. Some were sensitive to and dismayed by the way government officials had spoken about the possible role of Islamic extremists. However, the truth of the matter is that the four home-grown British men who carried out the suicide attacks come from within Yorkshire’s [northern England] Muslim community. Three of the four bombers are believed to be Shehzad Tanweer, 22, of Leeds, Mohammed Sadique Khan, 30, of Dewsbury, and Hasib Hussain, 19, of Leeds. A fourth man from Yorkshire, who police have now identified, is believed to have been on the train which was devastated near Russell Square Tube station. The four men, three of them with West Yorkshire addresses and all of them British, met up at Luton station before boarding a Thameslink train to King’s Cross on the morning of Thursday July 7. It appears that the four, described by security sources as “cleanskins” — with no convictions or known terrorist involvement — reached their rendezvous via two or three hired cars, one of which has since been located at Luton station, just outside the capital. Explosives were found in the car, police revealed last week. Police were also examining a second car found at the station. It was taken to a storage facility at nearby Leighton Buzzard. Closed circuit television film from around 8.20am on the day of the attacks shows the four young men, all with identical large rucksacks similar to those carried by infantry soldiers on their backs. The four appeared relaxed. “You would have thought they were going on a hiking holiday,” said one senior security source. In the meantime, police had found personal documents relating to the men from West Yorkshire. A driving licence and credit cards belonging to 22-year-old Tanweer were found on the bus that blew up in Tavistock Square. The documents belonging to Khan, whose body was found at Edgware Road station, were discovered both at the scene of that explosion and at the Aldgate bomb scene, where another of the four dead suspects’ remains were found. At the time of going to press, police said they believed the fourth person’s remains and documents were still trapped in the rubble below Russell Square. The breakthrough in the case came last Monday night came when the CCTV at King’s Cross Station showed the four young men setting off in different directions. Consequently, police raided three houses in the Beeston and Holbeck areas of Leeds (northern England) and two in nearby Dewsbury just after 6am in a coordinated operation involving scores of officers from West Yorkshire and the anti-terrorist branch. They later raided another house in the Burley district after evacuating 500 residents from homes nearby and blasting down the door in a controlled explosion. The search will now concentrate on the “plotters and planners” who would normally brief and equip a team of suicide volunteers. The normal procedure for such operations, if they involved Al Qaeda or one of its related groups, would be for the chief planner to have left the country before the operations took place. There is a possibility that those who planned it are still in Britain. Police are now checking flight records for suspicious passengers. The police are going through 2500 tapes and evaluating more than 2000 calls from the public. They have more than 100 witness statements, but have stressed that they are at the start rather than at the end of their investigation. As a result of the breakthrough in the inquiry, the leader of Britain’s Islamic community last week told Muslims that they had a duty to help to catch the perpetrators of the London bombings. Sir Iqbal Sacranie, the chairman of the Muslim Council of Britain, wrote to the imams of the country’s 1200 mosques to denounce the bombings and to urge Muslims to assist the authorities. “Let us be absolutely clear: those who planned and carried out these heartless attacks — whoever they are and whatever faith they may claim to profess — are surely the enemies of us all,” Sir Iqbal wrote. “It is the duty of all of us to help bring the perpetrators of this tragedy to justice speedily. It is quite possible that if they are not caught soon, these criminals may attempt to carry out yet more atrocities in the near future. They must be stopped.” He told community leaders that police were on the alert for Islamophobic attacks. The Islamic Human Rights Commission said that there have so far been some 50 incidents of anti-Muslim violence since the July 7 bombings, including attacks on mosques in London, Leeds, Bristol, Merseyside and Telford. Muslim organisations in the UK have received abusive telephone calls and e-mails. People in the streets wearing the hijab or distinctive types of Islamic dress have also been verbally abused. An elderly woman in a wheelchair was taunted and had litter thrown at her and a schoolboy was beaten up at a school in Devon. A spokesman for the Commission said: “We are double victims in this situation. Muslims were victims of the bombing itself and have become victims of the backlash. We are telling people to go out on the streets and get on with their lives but to take precautions because there are a lot of nutcases out there.” Within London’s vast Muslim community, people said they were shocked by the attack but believed that, so far, Londoners had managed to handle the crisis with aplomb. “It’s gruesome, it’s awful, it’s against whatever mainstream Muslims think. By now, most people realise that. And in London, with this population, people know the difference,” says Ali. “I’m a Muslim, but these people are turning the Koran upside down. To kill others is abhorrent. They aren’t going to get to us. Everybody here is stronger than that. Humanity is stronger than that.” ||**||Screams, silence, then the girl in the mask.|~||~||~|Sarah Keenlyside was on the Edgware Road train when it was hit. This is her story. IT WAS THE SILENCE THAT WAS SCARY. First there was a terrifying bang and the people around me were jolted off their feet. I was sitting beside a partition so I must have banged my shoulder, but in the initial shock I didn’t feel a thing. For a few moments there was nothing, no movement, no sound. A woman across the carriage caught my eye. We stared at each other, bewildered, not understanding what had happened. Then the silence was broken by a man screaming. It was the most horrific sound I have heard in my life and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. A man was clearly trapped under the Circle Line train and his wailing echoed the length of the tunnel. “Help me. Please, somebody help me. Help! Help!” The agony and desperation in his voice was sickening. Just then, smoke began to drift into the carriage and people started panicking. Until this point I had comforted myself with the idea that we had just taken a bend too fast and hit the side of the tunnel. It seems ridiculous now. Two men standing next to me tried to force open the doors to get some air into the carriage, which was now full of dust. One wedged his bag between the doors. The man’s screams continued, the noise becoming more harrowing and desperate by the minute. By this time I’d walked backwards to the very last carriage. A man went to the driver’s door and began to hammer it down. Some people screamed at him to stop, others were becoming hysterical. An Underground worker in a bright orange jacket ran past, shouting for us to stay calm. I found myself hoping someone would sort out the man on the track because I didn’t think I could bear his screams much longer. Then suddenly the rear door opened and I was surprised how high off the ground we were. There was a good 5ft drop onto the rails. Someone shouted that the electricity hadn’t been turned off. More panic. Then London Underground men started to help us down one by one onto the tracks, warning us to walk on the gravel and not to trip over the cables. As we had been sitting near the back, we were the first to get off. I looked back down the side of the train into the darkness. I could make out two or three bodies lying on the track, but there was no movement and the screaming had stopped. The silence was even worse than the screaming: I realised people had probably died. Upstairs the ticket hall was oddly quiet. Outside, a crowd was gathering and worried, curious faces stared at us as we emerged. I turned around and was shocked to see bloodied, burnt people coming out of nowhere behind me. The first was a girl in her early twenties. The skin was peeling off the entire right-hand side of her face, her tights had been burnt off her bloodied legs and hung like cobwebs around her ankles. She had a gash on her forehead. She told me her name was Davinia and asked me to telephone her boyfriend. She would become the woman in the mask on the front of the next day’s papers. She handed me her mobile. It was charred and wet with blood. She was confused and thought she had already spoken to him but when I got through — just before the mobile network collapsed — I found myself breaking the news that she had been in the bombing and was injured but still alive. She began to cry. Her face was burning and she was desperate for someone to help relieve her pain. I cursed my ignorance of first aid. She wanted me to pour cold water on her, but was that the right thing to do? There was no sign of an ambulance. We had moved back into the station by now and a woman near me suddenly fainted. A man opposite me sat in devastated silence. I couldn’t make out his eyes through the blood on his face. There were four more men in the same state of shock. I sat down with Davinia, who was hysterically flapping her hands around her face to cool it down. Strangely, we started chatting and found out we were from the same part of Essex. We also live in the same part of London. She had been on her way to work and was looking forward to picking up a new car. A Ford Focus. I became aware of a charred, burning smell and looked around me before I realised it was coming from her. There was nothing left of her eyelashes but charred stubs, and her hair had been badly singed. She told me how she remembered the fireball coming towards her in the carriage. She was begging for some of the water that staff from London Underground were pouring into cups. I grabbed one and made to hand it to her but, trembling, she asked me to pour it over her head and legs instead. She was being so brave. Shaking, she asked me why the ambulance hadn’t come. It had been more than 20 minutes since the accident and there was still no sign of help. Eventually, we heard the sirens in the distance. At first the paramedics seemed to mill around at the entrance, surveying the scene. Frustrated, I asked: “Why the hell has it taken you so long?” They ignored me. They asked my companion: “Do you know what day it is?” in order to categorise the seriousness of her injuries. They then issued coloured wrist tags with Priority 1, 2 and 3 on them. I think she was Priority 2. Looking at her, I wondered what on earth Priority 1 might look like. They dressed her face, but liquid from the medicated cloth ran into her eyes and she kept asking me to wipe them for her. When I looked down at my hands, I realised for the first time that they were dirty and speckled with blood. My boyfriend rang and I began to realise that we were part of something bigger. We were moved into Marks & Spencers but 45 minutes later were told by the police to move away from the windows and panic spread again. A policeman discovered a black bag and asked us whether we knew who it belonged to. When nobody responded, I grabbed my companion’s bag and fled with other survivors to the Hilton Metropole hotel. The Tube may have reopened and though I want to get back on a train, I just can’t trust myself yet. I don’t know how long that will last. I just can’t get that terrified man’s screaming out of my head. ||**||The suicide bombers|~||~||~|SUSPECT BOMBER ONE Shehzad Tanweer, aged 20 to 22, lived in Leeds, nothern England, and is widely reported to have blown himself up on a subway train near Aldgate station, east London. The bombing left seven people dead. Tanweer, who sometimes worked at his family’s fish and chip shop in a suburb of Leeds, was a good student who played cricket for a local team, friends told the British press. With a brother and two sisters, he was described as a sporty man who loved martial arts, drove his father’s Mercedes around the streets and had many friends in the Beeston area of the city. “He is as sound as a pound,” said close friend, Azi Mohammed. “The idea that he was involved in terrorism or extremism is ridiculous. The idea that he went to London and exploded a bomb is unbelievable.” Tanweer is thought to have gone to Lawnswood school in Beeston, before studying sports science at Leeds University. He did not have a regular job and is believed to have recently travelled to Pakistan. His father, Mohammed Mumtaz, was originally from the Faisalabad region of Pakistan. SUSPECT BOMBER TWO Mohammed Sadique Khan, 30, from Dewsbury, a town about 14 kilometres from Leeds is thought to have attacked a subway train at Edgware Road station, west London. Seven people died in the attack. The man was the married father of an eight-month-old baby. He met his wife, whom he married two years ago, while a student at Leeds University. Khan’s wife had been working as an area support assistant for the council in Leeds before giving birth to their child. SUSPECT BOMBER THREE Hasib Hussain, 19, also from Leeds, is widely accused of blowing himself up on the number 30 double-decker bus near Tavistock Square in Bloomsbury, central London almost one hour after the subway bombings. The attack left 13 people dead. An anxious call from Hussain’s mother who had been unable to contact her son immediately after the blasts reportedly led the police to unravel the identity of the four bombers by studying CCTV footage. Hussein had gone “a bit wild” as a younger teenager according to reports, but had become devoutly religious about 18 months ago after returning from a trip to Pakistan to visit his relatives. He lived with his Pakistani-born factory worker parents in a rundown suburb of Leeds. As a child, he studied at the Matthew Murray High School. SUSPECT BOMBER FOUR No name has been cited in the British press about the fourth suspect, who is believed to have blown himself up on a train between Russell Square and King’s Cross stations — the deadliest of the four attacks, leaving at least 25 people dead. The man is believed to hail from Luton, north of London, where he met his three colleagues, who drove to the town in rented cars. The four bombers are believed to have left Luton, which has a large Muslim population, and travelled together to King’s Cross on a commuter train. Upon arrival at the station in central London they said their farewells, before launching their attacks in which more than 50 people died. ||**||Potential masterminds|~||~||~|The revelation that a team of “home-grown” terrorists were behind the London bombings was the nightmare scenario for security services. Not only will the brains behind the bombs find it easier to evade detection, but their capture could spark a furious public response, dramatically heightening the potential for ethnic unrest in Britain. Nevertheless, it is a fact that thousands of young Muslim men have been radicalised in Britain and dozens — possibly hundreds — are known to have travelled abroad to receive military training at camps in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bosnia. Encouraged by radical clerics such as the London-based Omar Bakri Mohammed (who claims to have sent more than 700 people abroad for training), recruits learn how to handle arms, explosives and toxins. Other jihadi groups active in Britain include supporters of Kashmiri independence such as Jaish-e-Mohammed. The Tamil Tigers and various Palestinian organisations, among them Hamas and Hezbollah, are also known to have supporters here. Until recently there was no firm evidence that British-born Muslims were planning attacks at home, although many have become involved in violent activity abroad. Then last year two separate groups of young men (of Pakistani origin) were seized who appear to have been in the process of preparing bombs for use in Britain. AL-QAEDA ACOLYTES After the 9/11 attacks on America and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda’s ability to direct terrorist actions has been massively disrupted. However, this has not prevented Osama Bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri, his lieutenant, from inciting others to continue the jihad against Western targets. Numerous groups inspired by Bin Laden, but with little direct contact, have grown rapidly in the past few years, fuelled by adoration of Bin Laden and anger at the war in Iraq. They include the Algerian Salafist Group for Call and Combat, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group and the Iraq-based Ansar ul-Islam. The devastating bombings in Bali, Casablanca, Istanbul and Madrid are all believed to have been carried out by autonomous terrorist cells inspired by and affiliated to the wider Al Qaeda network. Such a group, living under cover in Europe as political refugees or migrant workers, could possibly have carried out the London bombings. Initial information suggests that Thursday’s operation was planned by dedicated extremists. The bomb makers used sophisticated high explosives, which are hard to obtain in Britain, suggesting a link to a wider network. THE MAIN MAN? A key suspect is Mustafa Setmarian Nasar — a Syrian suspected of being Al Qaeda’s operations chief in Europe and the alleged mastermind of last year’s Madrid railway bombings. Both the United States and Britain are currently seeking Nasar. ||**||

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