By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, July 27, 2005
LONDON, July 26 -- One of the suspects in last week's botched bombings here is a native of Eritrea who became a British citizen about two years ago, while a second suspect, also from East Africa, had been collecting welfare payments of about $500 a month, British officials said Tuesday.
Both men immigrated to Britain in 1992 as refugee children fleeing war-torn countries with their parents, but apparently developed such hostility toward their adopted homeland that each tried to kill large numbers of people by detonating homemade bombs in London's public transit system, police said.
As Prime Minister Tony Blair, Muslim leaders and ordinary Britons argued and puzzled over what could have driven longtime British residents to commit such acts, family members of one of the suspects, identified by police as Muktar Said Ibrahim, 27, of north London, said they were likewise at a loss.
"We were shocked when we saw Muktar's picture on the national news," his parents said in a statement released Tuesday by police outside their home in the northwestern London suburb of Stanmore. "We are a peaceful family," they added, "and in no way condone any acts of terrorism." They are natives of Eritrea.
Ibrahim, also known as Muktar Mohammed Said, is accused by police of attempting to set off a bomb he was carrying in a backpack on a bus in east London about midday Thursday. He and three other men suspected of trying to detonate similar explosives on the London subway around the same time all managed to escape. They remain on the loose, though their photographs are constantly broadcast on television.
Police have identified a second suspect as Yasin Hassan Omar, 24, who came to Britain as an 11-year-old from Somalia. British news media reported that police who raided his north London apartment Monday found materials that could be used to build bombs.
Neighbors said Ibrahim was often seen at the apartment with Omar, who according to municipal officials received about $130 a week in government housing subsidies.
Police have not identified the other two bombers from last week's failed plot but have released photographs that surveillance cameras captured of them fleeing the scenes.
Ibrahim's family members said they went to police to confirm his identity immediately after they saw his photo on the news. They described him as an estranged relative who had moved out of his parents' home as a teenager. "He is not a close family member," they said in the statement. "He lives alone elsewhere."
A woman who lives near Ibrahim's parents said she saw him in the neighborhood two weeks ago. Sarah Scott, 23, said she had known Ibrahim casually for more than a decade and described how he had tried to convert her to Islam.
In November, she recalled, she was outside smoking and chatting with Ibrahim when he gave her a pamphlet titled "Understanding Islam" and talked about his dedication to his faith. "He asked me if I was Catholic because I have an Irish family," she said. "I said I didn't believe in anything, and he said I should."
"He told me he was going to have all these virgins when he got to heaven if he praises Allah," Scott added. "He said people were afraid of religion, but people shouldn't be afraid."
Last week's failed bombings took place exactly two weeks after what police have described as an attack by three British natives of Pakistani descent and a Jamaican-born convert, who killed themselves and at least 52 other people in London in a remarkably similar operation by igniting explosives in backpacks. Police are investigating whether the two episodes were connected.
On Tuesday, police reported few developments in either probe. Officers impounded a white Volkswagen Golf that had been parked on a street in north London and searched it for explosives.
Five men remain in custody and are being questioned about the plot, but police said none is suspected of being one of the bombers, whom they warned are assumed to be armed and dangerous.
"There's a very real risk they will have gone straight to a safe house and be just locked into it, perhaps with a lot of supplies there," London Mayor Ken Livingstone said in an interview with the BBC.
Also Tuesday, Blair held a rare meeting with opposition leaders in Parliament to discuss proposed anti-terrorism measures that would enable authorities to prosecute people for incendiary rhetoric and keep suspects in prison for up to three months without charges.
At a news conference afterward, Blair dismissed suggestions that Britain's supporting role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq had inflamed tensions among Muslims and had made Britain more vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
"I think most people understand that the roots of this go far deeper," he said. "Why are they trying to kill people in Afghanistan? Why are they trying, every time Israel and Palestine look as if they could come together in some sort of settlement, they go and wreck it. Why are they killing people in Turkey? What is their excuse there, or in Egypt, or in Saudi Arabia?"
Special correspondent Audrey Gillan contributed to this report.