Suspects' lives blended in

LONDON -- One was a well-known student activist at London Metropolitan University whom a friend described as a moderate. Another worked in security at Heathrow airport. Another had a job in a pizza parlor. The youngest of the alleged plotters was only 17.

They lived seemingly ordinary lives on ordinary streets in the immigrant neighborhoods of London, Birmingham and High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Friends and neighbors could have no idea they were planning murder on a mass scale.


But little more than a month after Britain marked the first anniversary of the July 7 suicide attacks that killed 52 London commuters, the nation was slowly coming to grips with reports that another, even more ambitious network had taken root in their midst.

"Middle-class and British: the Muslims in plot to bomb jets," was the banner headline of yesterday's Daily Telegraph.


Police have not officially identified any of the 24 suspects they arrested Wednesday and Thursday in the alleged plot to blow up U.S.-bound airliners over the Atlantic, but the names of most of them became public when authorities froze their bank accounts yesterday morning. Almost all of them appear to be British nationals of Pakistani origin.

"It scares the living daylights out of you. You read about this stuff in the papers, but you never think it's going to be on your own doorstep," said Eddie Fox-Clinch, a warehouse manager who lives on Micklefield Road in High Wycombe, a few doors down from the house where police arrested two suspects.

Fox-Clinch said he knew the immigrant family that had lived on his street for 15 years but didn't know their name and knew very little about their lives.

About a mile away, men and boys wearing traditional white gowns and skullcaps were gathering for Friday prayers at the small mosque on Totteridge Lane, and so, too, were the television news crews.

Several residents said they knew the Sarwar brothers, Amjad and Assad, who occasionally attended the mosque. The brothers were described as dedicated cricket enthusiasts. Assad Sarwar, 25, was on the list of those whose bank accounts were frozen.

Ali Ashgar, 68, said he didn't know the brothers but he did know their father - a grocer and an "upright man," according to Ashgar.

"The parents are very kind and gentle. But these days the children don't listen to their parents, and their heads get filled with crazy ideas," he said.

A teenage neighbor of the Sarwars told the Associated Press that Assad had become increasingly strident after last year's subway bombings. "He started talking about terrorism and acting like it's OK to blow up people," said Nawaz Chaudhry, 17.


Several of the alleged plotters were from Walthamstow, a working-class neighborhood in east London where you are as likely to see a halal meat market as a pub. The neighborhood has a large concentration of Pakistani immigrants, and some of the suspects attended the Masjid-E-Umer, a domed mosque at the center of Walthamstow on Queens Road.

Waheed Zaman, 22, lived across the street from the mosque. He was a science student at London Metropolitan University and president of the school's Islamic student society.

A friend of Zaman's, who asked to be identified as only Mohammed, said he was certain that Zaman would prove to be innocent.

"The reason why so many people voted for him was because he was the voice of moderation," Mohammed said.

He said that Zaman was more interested in chatting about the Liverpool soccer club than discussing politics in the Muslim world, adding that Zaman had been an observant Muslim for only four or five years.

Late yesterday afternoon, police investigators walked out of Zaman's home with three large transparent bags of evidence. One contained a hard drive, another was filled with papers and the third was filled with cassette tapes.


Amin Asmin Tariq, 23, who lived nearby, was employed as a security worker at Heathrow airport and had recently become a father. Muhammed Usman Saddique, 24, also from the neighborhood, worked at a pizza carryout.

A friend of Saddique, Staschec Wilde, said it was Saddique who encouraged him convert to Islam several years ago.

"I pray to Allah he didn't do it. This is the man that brought me to Islam," Wilde said.

Three of the alleged plotters have been described as recent converts to Islam. One of them, Ibrahim Savant, 26, lives with his English mother, Marilyn, his Iranian father, Ibrahim, and his pregnant wife, Atika, in a modest house on Folkestone Road in Walthamstow.

Mustapha Mahmood, who said he was a friend of Savant's, insisted Savant was serious about his religion but not fanatical.

Mahmood also echoed the sentiments of many in the neighborhood when he complained that young Muslim men were being unfairly targeted.


"It doesn't matter if we're born here; they look at us, and they see us only as Pakis," he said. "I don't feel certain about my future in this country. I feel as a Muslim my status could change at any moment. I can't see the time when the Americans and this country aren't going to be at war or attacking Muslims."

Amid fears of a backlash against Britain's large Muslim community, Home Secretary John Reid urged "people of all communities" to join together against "those who wish to harm us."

Since last year's attacks on the London Underground, the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair has tried to improve relations with the country's 1.5 million Muslims. But often the two sides appear to be talking past each other, with the government urging Muslim leaders to do more to identify extremists within their communities, while Muslim leaders complain about discriminatory treatment.

Last month a survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found little evidence of a backlash against Muslims in Britain but a great deal of worry among the general public and the Muslim community about Islamic extremism.

According to the survey, 77 percent of the general public said they were concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism. Among British Muslims, the figure was 69 percent.

While 69 percent of the general public in Britain held a favorable opinion of Americans - high for a European country - 39 percent of British Muslims held a similar view.


Tom Hundley and Aamer Madhani write for the Chicago Tribune.