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Unraveling The Plot

13 minute read
J.F.O. Mcallister/London

The four men who met at London’s King’s Cross railway station must have looked ordinary enough to the thousands of commuters rushing to work on the morning of July 7. Three were British born–a 30-year-old grade-school teacher with a baby daughter and a reputation for devotion to his learning- disabled students; an 18-year-old described by friends as a “gentle giant,” dressed that morning like the universal teenager, in denims and a sloppy jacket; a 22-year-old cricket fan who worked in his family’s fish-and-chip shop in Leeds. The fourth was a 19-year-old Jamaican who had become a British citizen, married a British woman and had a young son, a man who seemed just an “ordinary Joe Bloggs to me,” in the words of a neighbor. All four were carrying military-style backpacks, but even a vigilant passerby might have found that coincidence unremarkable. After several minutes of calm conversation, the men fanned out in different directions, in the full knowledge they were about to meet their deaths.

In the aftermath of terrorist attacks like the London subway bombings, it is often tempting to conclude that those who purposely commit suicide in the service of mass slaughter must be sick, evil, not quite human; they are not us. But as investigators pieced together the fragments of the plot that left at least 55 dead, Britons were forced to confront a reality nearly as disturbing as the attacks themselves: the killers were their own.

Three of the bombers lived in Leeds, an industrial city in northern England, and had grown up conventionally. All four were Muslims described by associates as amiable and law abiding but whose lives had taken a turn toward radical Islam that their loved ones did not detect. And contrary to the early assumption that the bombers had hidden explosives in their rucksacks and left them to explode or were unwitting mules for bombs their bosses had secretly armed, the weight of evidence suggests the attackers deliberately immolated themselves in the first-ever suicide bombings on British soil.

What remains murky is just how much help the homegrown killers received from like-minded jihadists scattered around the world. “We need to establish a number of things,” said Peter Clarke, head of the antiterrorist branch of Scotland Yard. “Who actually committed the attack? Who supported them? Who financed them? Who trained them? Who encouraged them?”

The biggest police investigation in British history has already unearthed a number of links between the bombers and al-Qaeda, which counterterrorism officials fear may have other cells standing by. Police and intelligence services around the world have joined the hunt. On Friday, Egyptian authorities detained Magdy el-Nashar, a biochemist trained at Leeds University who left Britain at least a week before the attacks; he may have had contacts with the Leeds bombers, though he denies having any involvement in the plot.

British authorities were pursuing a British-born Pakistani who entered England through a Channel port two weeks before the blasts despite being on a security watch list as a suspected al-Qaeda member. London police said there was nothing yet to link him to the plot, but a Pakistani official told TIME that two British investigators traveled to Islamabad last week to check on his contacts and whether he went to the frontier region, where Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, may be hiding. Working with Britain and Saudi Arabia, the U.S. froze bank accounts of the London-based Movement for Islamic Reform in Arabia, which is believed to be an al-Qaeda front.

The great fear among counterterrorism experts is that the London bombings may signal the beginning of a wave of attacks. French terrorism expert Roland Jacquard says French and Spanish investigators have been asked by their British counterparts to collaborate on finding “two or even three other teams” of suicide bombers that could be part of the Pakistani-led networks responsible for the London attacks. Jacquard says European investigators, on the basis of their experience in cracking the cell that carried out last year’s terrorist strike in Madrid, believe the support network behind the London bombings may include as many as 30 members, “and they’ve been told it’s possible that they’re on their way to France or other European countries.” Investigators have not ruled out the possibility that the conspiracy may reach into the U.S. LaRae Quy, an FBI spokeswoman in San Francisco, says the bureau is “concerned the cell may be in contact with individuals here in the U.S. We are concerned there may be copycats.”

Finding them won’t be easy. The London bombers were what law-enforcement officials call “cleanskins”–people with little or nothing on their records to raise suspicion. How investigators managed to unravel some of the main elements of the London plot last week is the story of advanced forensics and furious, old-fashioned legwork involving thousands of police, security and intelligence officials. It is from those clues that investigators are racing to assemble a picture of how al-Qaeda might have pulled off the London attacks and what its members may be planning next.

AT ABOUT 10:30 P.M. ON JULY 7, THE PARENTS of Hasib Hussain called police to report that their 18-year-old son was missing. He had told them he was going to London “with some mates,” and they hadn’t heard from him. A police liaison officer visited the Hussains at their home in Leeds, an industrial city of 715,000 to which many Pakistanis immigrated in the 1960s. She collected a photo and the names of his “mates,” which matched names on items like credit cards and driver’s licenses recovered at several of the crime scenes. The photo of Hussain was given to police who were poring over tapes of closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage taken at King’s Cross on the day of the bombings. They soon had a match. One tape showed a man who resembled Hussain talking with three other men at around 8:20 a.m. On the tape, the men confer briefly, then go their separate ways. At 8:50, the first three bombs went off.

Police quickly pieced together the men’s previous movements. A CCTV camera had recorded them earlier that morning at Luton, 28 miles north of London, where they caught a train to King’s Cross. They were reportedly seen with a fifth man, still wanted by police. Authorities seized two rental cars left in the parking lot at Luton. One had been hired in Leeds by Shahzad Tanweer, 22, who transported Hussain and Mohammed Sidique Khan, 30, to Luton. The other was rented by Germaine Lindsay, 19, a Jamaican convert to Islam who lived in the nearby town of Aylesbury with his English-born wife. Explosive materials in one vehicle were washed out with high-pressure hoses before police took the cars away. In Leeds, police evacuated 500 residents and searched all the bombers’ houses and other properties, including the suspected bomb factory. Locals said the house had been used as a meeting place by young men at all hours of the day and night.

As Leeds’ Muslims struggled to absorb the idea that three of their own, whose parents were all born in Pakistan, had become mass murderers, initial accounts stressed how normal the young men had seemed. Tanweer, nicknamed Kaki, was a sports-science student who excelled at the long jump, wore flashy Western clothes and liked to drive a red Mercedes. Outside the King Kebab, one of his friends says he saw Kaki playing soccer the night before the blast. Khan, a well-liked adviser to children with learning disabilities, had rebelled against his family by rejecting an arranged marriage in favor of a woman he had met at university. His mother-in-law campaigned for the rights of Islamic women and had earned an invitation to a Buckingham Palace garden party for her community work. Hussain was not a very good student and liked to “clown around,” according to his classmates.

A deeper look tells a darker story that is becoming sadly familiar in Britain and the rest of Europe–that of a disaffected younger generation drifting into radicalism under the blind eyes of immigrant parents, slowly giving up more of its energy to groups whose zeal and camaraderie offer it a sense of purpose. There its members are talent-spotted by jihadists for deeper indoctrination–and finally groomed for murder.

In Leeds the nexus for their slide over the edge appears to have been a youth-outreach project that was an offshoot of the government-funded Hamara (“ours” in Urdu) community center located in the rundown Beeston area. Khan did youth work there, as did another man, Naveed Fiaz, 29, who was arrested last week. Hussain and Tanweer regularly attended the youth center and played soccer there. Khan was described as an influential father figure to them. A local official told the Guardian he had reported to the police his suspicions that the center was being used as a front to radicalize young men.

Although locals claimed not to have noticed anything unusual, all three men, in hindsight, had shown proclivities for radical Islam. Khan is said to have traveled regularly to Pakistan and Afghanistan for military training, according to a friend who spoke to the BBC. After Hussain got into some fights at his racially divided school, he went to Mecca on a pilgrimage with his father, who then sent him to study in Pakistan, hoping the teen would gain discipline. When Hussain returned to Leeds, he grew a beard and began dressing in traditional Muslim clothes. Tanweer visited Pakistan several times and last December went to an Islamic school near Lahore along with other young Muslims from Leeds, intending to stay nine months. He returned after three months to work part-time in his father’s fish-and-chip shop, allegedly because the discipline was too hard. But he might already have secretly enlisted in the enterprise that came to a bloody climax on July 7.

How did the movements of the Leeds threesome go undetected? There are some 570,000 people of Pakistani descent in Britain, so despite efforts by both countries to keep an eye on the human ebb and flow, many trips raise no flags. A visit to relatives in Pakistan can easily be used as cover for something nefarious–or put an unsuspecting young man on a path he and his parents never planned. Ten thousand madrasahs are teaching Islam to more than 1.5 million students in Pakistan, including young Brits. A militant in Jaish-e-Muhammad, a group whose activists were responsible for suicide bombings in Pakistan as well as the slaying of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, believes that Britain is a fertile recruiting ground for al-Qaeda foot soldiers. “It’s an ideal situation,” he says. “The young Muslims over there are not happy with the way Muslims are being treated and want to do something about it.”

But few authorities believe that the bombers acted alone. Investigators have focused on the explosives. Contrary to initial reports that said military-style high explosive were used, the authorities concluded that the bombs were made of TATP, an explosive popular with al-Qaeda because it can be cooked in a bathtub out of common chemicals. The bombs weighed only 6 lbs. each, according to a classified briefing for U.S. Senators last week.

British investigators have begun interrogating el-Nashar, who studied at North Carolina State University in 2000 and was awarded his Ph.D. in pharmaceutical enzymology by Leeds University in May. Someone with his training “could put this together blindfolded,” says Magnus Ranstorp, director of the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St. Andrews University in Scotland. But Hany el-Nazer, president of the government-funded research institute in Cairo where el-Nashar worked, says el-Nashar’s research was in biochemistry enzymology and pharmaceuticals and not related to building bombs or explosives.

The bombers’ trail may also lead to Pakistan. A Pakistani official says British investigators want to reinterrogate Naeem Noor Khan, 25, a Pakistani arrested in Karachi last year who admitted being a top al-Qaeda communications man. His confession and computer archives led to charges of conspiracy to commit murder and other terrorism offenses being lodged against eight men in Britain last August. Khan’s former boss, Abu Faraj al-Libbi, a Libyan in U.S. custody who may be bin Laden’s No. 3 and is believed to have directed al-Qaeda’s cells in London, told his interrogators about a plot to attack London’s transport system in May that was later aborted, according to Pakistani investigators. British officials are trying to gain access to Zeeshan Siddique, a British national arrested with a false passport in May 2005 in the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar; he eventually confessed he was part of a plot to bomb pubs, restaurants and rail stations in Britain. He wrote a cryptic note saying one of his comrades told him that an operation code-named the “Wagon” had been postponed–which might have referred to the bombings that eventually took place July 7.

For all the talk of British flintiness in the face of tragedy, the realization that the attack was carried out by homegrown militants cast an added pall over London as the city’s residents poured onto the streets to remember the dead in silence. Ian Blair, London’s police chief, says he hopes the tragedy of July 7 has jolted the “99.99% of the Muslim community who don’t want any of this” into greater vigilance. “Bombers need supporters. It’s the community that defeats terror, not the police,” he said.

As Britain’s Muslims coped with the shock of finding killers in their midst, shame and disgust were mixed, inevitably, with fury. “You whites, you’re all thieves! You’re all the same!” a Muslim acquaintance of the suspects yelled at a TIME reporter in Leeds. “You and George thieving Bush, you’re all the same. Now you can victimize us even more. Now you can post police everywhere spying on us.” After he left, some of his friends, embarrassed by his outburst, offered reassurance that his views were unusual. “He’s not like that all the time. He’s a really nice lad,” said one. The big challenge after London is to prevent more nice lads from growing up to be terrorists. –With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr., Brian Bennett, Sally B. Donnelly and Adam Zagorin/ Washington, Jessica Carsen/Leeds, Helen Gibson and Ghulam Hasnain/London, James Graff/ Paris, Tim McGirk/ Islamabad, Amir Mir/ Lahore and Lindsay Wise/Cairo


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