By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, July 15, 2005
LEEDS, England, July 14 -- They were three native sons, local boys who spent their entire lives in the Leeds area, each from respected families of Pakistani descent. One had prosperous parents; another was praised for his teaching ability. Last Thursday, they met at the train station shortly after dawn and bought one-way tickets to the British capital, toting rucksacks filled with explosives.
Along with a fourth conspirator from another city, the suspected bombers from Leeds killed at least 54 people in coordinated suicide attacks on London's public transport system. In the two days since investigators traced the trail back to this multiethnic, multiracial old mill town, a clearer portrait has started to emerge of the assailants, even as confusion deepened over their motives.
As parents dropped off their children at the Hillside Primary School in Leeds on Thursday, they had nothing but good things to say about a teaching assistant, Mohammed Sidique Khan, one of the suspected bombers. They called the 30-year-old instructor kind, bright and popular, especially with the special-needs students he was trained to help.
"He was brilliant with the children. He went on trips with the kids, and my little girl went with him on a trip to London," Sharon Stevens, whose 11-year-old daughter attends the school, told reporters.
"I just can't believe that somebody like Mr. Khan could be involved in something like this," said another mother, shaking their head.
Shehzad Tanweer, 22, was about to earn a college degree and had received a red Mercedes from his father as a gift. Hasib Hussain, 18, told his parents he was going to London for the day to attend a religious conference. On Thursday, police publicly named the two for the first time as the bombers who joined Khan and a fourth, unidentified man as the culprits in the worst terrorist attack in British history.
Mohammed Iqbal, a Leeds city council member who represents Beeston and who knows Tanweer's family, said it was hard to reconcile how three local young men could have become religious radicals and planned such a violent assault in a city three hours away without anyone in the neighborhood noticing.
"There's parents who didn't know what their children were doing, that is for certain," he said. "Everybody is in a shocked state. They can't believe this has landed on our doorstep."
While the exact nature of the bombers' relationship remains unknown, as well as how they met and how long they knew one another, friends and acquaintances described Khan as someone whose personal magnetism made him a likely mentor to the two younger men.
He was erudite, having graduated from a local college with a degree in education. And his charm and education made him a welcome presence in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Beeston, a community of fading red-brick row houses and trash-strewn alleys, located about 200 miles north of London. In addition to teaching, Khan volunteered his time in the local cultural centers and sports leagues that catered to young people.
In a 2002 interview with the Times of London Educational Supplement, Khan said he enjoyed helping less-privileged children. "A lot of them have said this is the best school they've been to," he said proudly of the elementary school where he taught.
Investigators and residents said Khan spent time at a storefront mosque in Beeston with Tanweer and Hussain. Residents said Khan also volunteered at an Islamic bookstore where he reached out to teenage boys and young adults.
While Khan changed his address frequently, living in several different homes in the Leeds region in the past few years, Tanweer and Hussain had spent their entire lives in Beeston and their families were fixtures in the community.
Tanweer had more advantages growing up than many of his neighbors. His father, Mumtaz Tanweer, 56, who emigrated to Leeds from Faisalabad, Pakistan, a half-century ago, is a successful merchant who has operated a number of shops over the years, including a grocery and, most recently, the South Leeds Fisheries, a fish-and-chips place.
Several other merchants in Beeston -- primarily Sikhs, Bangladeshis and Kashmiris -- said Mumtaz Tanweer was widely admired for his ability to turn a profit, while at the same time providing needed services to customers who generally didn't have a lot of money to spend.
"He's a very respected man, and it's hard to believe that his son would possibly get mixed up in something like this," said Paul Sandhir, a newsstand owner who used to run a video store next to Mumtaz Tanweer's grocery. "It's truly frightening."
Growing up, Shehzad Tanweer seemed full of promise. He graduated from high school and was scheduled to receive a degree in sports science later this summer from a local community college. This year, his father gave him a present that drew envious looks in Beeston: a used red Mercedes sedan.
According to friends, his primary passion was playing cricket, and he rarely missed a Wednesday night match at the local park. "Every time I saw him, he seemed like he was enjoying life," said Tony Miller, a fellow cricket devotee from Beeston.
While pursuing his studies, Tanweer worked part time at his family's restaurant and kept busy with other jobs. Acquaintances said he was also becoming more religious, attending prayers at the local Stratford Street mosque -- three blocks from his family's home -- several times a day.
According to relatives, Tanweer made an extended visit to Pakistan in December to study the Koran and Arabic at a religious school near Lahore. His uncle, Bashir Ahmad, said Tanweer had intended to stay for nine months but came back in February because "he didn't like the people there." The BBC, citing unidentified Pakistani officials, reported that immigration records show that Tanweer entered Pakistan on two different occasions during that period, though it was unknown what other countries he might have visited.
On July 7, Tanweer carried his rucksack onto the London Underground and died in an explosion near Aldgate station, killing seven people, London police said.
Ahmad said Tanweer's parents were in seclusion and still searching for answers. "It must have been forces behind him," Ahmad said.
Hassan Alkatib, chairman of the Leeds Muslim Forum, said many Muslim parents in hard-luck neighborhoods like Beeston struggle to give their children opportunities and keep them out of trouble. He said immigrant families in particular had to overcome rough schools and a culture that bred rebellious behavior in teenagers who do not identify with their parents' homelands but do not feel comfortable in traditional British society either.
He cited another problem, which he delicately described as "politics -- you know, how things have changed since September 11 and Iraq." And while he said many people in Leeds were angry over what they perceived as the mistreatment of Muslims around the world, he still couldn't understand what could prompt three local men to kill themselves and dozens of others in an indiscriminate attack.
"Something made these kids go beyond," Alkatib said. "They are sons of this country, born and raised here. Certainly, there's a lot of injustice everywhere. But what could have made them do this? We don't know. We can only speculate."
Alkatib spoke during an interview at the Hamara Healthy Living Center, an old stone Anglican church that has been converted into a community center that serves Beeston's predominantly Muslim population. The center is two blocks from Tanweer's home and is the focal point of the neighborhood.
Hanif Malik, the center's director, said there was no sign that religious extremism had taken root in Beeston. "As a lifelong resident of Leeds, I can honestly say that I've never come across any radical elements whatsoever," he said on Wednesday after several religious leaders of different faiths held an emergency meeting at Hamara.
The next day, police cordoned off much of the neighborhood to look for explosives. Among the half-dozen properties designated for searches was a nearby property operated by the Hamara center that is used for youth activities. Police did not say if they found anything, and residents said it was unclear why the police were interested in the youth center.
A half-mile away in Beeston is the family home of Hussain, a three-story row house where residents said he had lived since birth with his parents, older brother and two sisters. On Thursday, the home was encased in scaffolding and white plastic sheeting as investigators combed through the property for clues.
Neighbors said the family guarded its privacy. They recalled Hussain as a chubby-cheeked youngster with a reputation for having a hot temper and getting into fights at school.
"He used to come in here for sweets and pop when he was a schoolboy," Ajimal Singh, the owner of a corner store, told the Times of London. "He is from a very good local family. He has a brother who is a very nice man."
Hussain left high school at age 16 and grew progressively more religious after that, acquaintances said. He filled out his chubby cheeks with a thick beard and dressed as an observant Muslim. Like Tanweer, he made at least one extended trip to Pakistan in the last two years, British media reported.
He also shared Tanweer's love of cricket and often played in the same matches, according to friends, who said he did not have a job.
Last week, he told his parents he was going to London to attend a religious event, neighbors said. Instead, he boarded a double-decker bus and detonated a bomb, killing 13 people, police said. They said his driver's license and bank cards were found in the wreckage. Twelve hours later, his family reported him missing, fearing he had been hurt in the terrorist attacks, police said.