Friends Describe Bomber's Political, Religious Evolution
22-Year-Old Grew Up Loving Western Ways And Wanting for Little

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 29, 2005

LEEDS, England -- The day before Shehzad Tanweer strapped on a backpack filled with explosives and made his way into London, he took part in a cherished British pastime: a pickup soccer match in a park here.

It was a ritual he carried out most days, if he wasn't playing cricket. Whites, blacks, Asians -- everyone in the neighborhood would come out. For a couple of hours, they would forget their races, religions and prejudices and play only as Britons.

On that day, Tanweer's black hair was showing some fashionable brown streaks, recalled several friends who were there. Apart from that, there was nothing unusual about him -- not a sign that he would soon be killed by a bomb he carried onto a London subway train.

"He was laughing and joking like normal," said Saeed Ahmed, 29, downcast eyes reflecting the shock that still lingers.

Of the four men investigators have concluded were the London bombers, Tanweer, 22, seemed the most unlikely to commit such a fanatical act against the nation where he was born and bred, friends said. He seemed to enjoy everything British and Western, and had the means to do so.

That's why three weeks after the July 7 bombings, many friends, relatives and elders in Tanweer's community still dwell in a realm of denial. "I think there was somebody else behind it," Ahmed said. "If you saw Shehzad on the street, he wouldn't even say boo to you."

Tanweer came from a Pakistani family who had toiled their way to prosperity and given him every opportunity. They were a classic immigrant success story, seeming proof of the multiculturalism that Britain often boasts is woven into its society.

But friends say that at around age 18, the slim and boyish-looking Tanweer underwent a political and religious transformation. He began to feel secretly distant from things British. He hung around with people who were convinced that Islam was under siege around the world.

Tanweer and the other bombers are an aberration: The majority of Britain's 1.6 million Muslims are law-abiding and Muslim leaders have condemned the attacks as violating the tenets of Islam. Yet recent events have brought back to the surface old questions about the nation's ability to embrace and assimilate Muslims.

"Who is responsible?" asked Mohammed Arshed, 44, a Muslim community leader in the Beeston neighborhood, where Tanweer lived. "These young men have been raised in the British education system. They ate British food. They were exposed all their lives to British culture.

"Our community is looking at itself for answers. But we're also looking for answers from the government," he said, referring to failed social policies and lack of opportunity.

'A Very Genuine Family'

"They are just a normal family, like any other Pakistani family," said Mohammed Iqbal, a Leeds City Council member. "They are respected, a very genuine family." Everywhere you go in Beeston, a scruffy patch of red-brick rowhouses and corner shops in south Leeds, you can hear the Tanweer family described this way.

Mumtaz Tanweer, Shehzad's father, arrived in 1961 from the eastern Pakistani city of Faisalabad. He was part of a wave of immigrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who established self-contained communities of South Asian culture, religion and food in the industrial heartland of north-central England.

He had come, with the help of his parents, to study for a degree in textile manufacturing, said Safina Ahmad, 23, a cousin of Shehzad who acted as spokeswoman for the family in four e-mail interviews last week. When Mumtaz Tanweer graduated, he wanted to set up his own fashion clothing business. But he lacked the start-up money. So he became a Yorkshire police officer.

In a few years, he saved enough to open a corner shop. Slowly, he built it into a thriving business that today includes a slaughterhouse and a fish-and-chips shop. Along the way, he returned to Pakistan to marry his wife, Parveen. They settled in Bradford, about 10 miles from Beeston.

Mumtaz Tanweer "always worked hard because he never wanted his kids" to struggle like he did, Ahmad wrote.

Whites sometimes hurled racist epithets at him and his brother-in-law, who also lived in Britain. But the two men never became alienated from their adopted land, relatives said. "They both remember being surrounded by very welcoming and caring communities that they felt very much a part of," Ahmad wrote.

The family moved to Beeston 20 years ago. Today, Mumtaz Tanweer is a pillar of the Pakistani community. He doles out legal and business advice freely to friends and neighbors and helps fill out forms for those in the community who can't read or write English. "If you wanted to borrow anything, he would help you," said Mohammed Ali, 36, a shopkeeper.

The Tanweers have three other children. They live in a large, two-story white house with maroon trim -- one of the largest in the neighborhood. Mumtaz drives a silver Mercedes; Shehzad was often seen driving a red Mercedes.

The family is not known for being particularly religious, friends and neighbors said. They typically attended Friday prayers at a mosque on Hardy Street, but seldom prayed five times a day, as some Beeston Muslims do. Shehzad's mother and sisters wore fashionable traditional outfits like those favored by many Westernized, urban Pakistani women, neighbors said.

"I don't understand where his hatred came from," said Saeed Ahmed, Shehzad's friend.

Finding 'Our Identity'

Shehzad Tanweer's boyhood dream was as British as it got: to become a professional cricketer. He favored tracksuits and T-shirts so he could play cricket or football at a moment's notice, said Safina Ahmad, his cousin.

"He was my best mate growing up," said Chris Whitley, who lives across the street from the Tanweers and is white. "He couldn't go a day without playing cricket."

At the same time, Tanweer wafted like smoke toward his other culture. At home, he was the obedient Muslim son. He worked in his father's fish-and-chips shop. He visited Pakistan several times with his family, but reluctantly. He learned passages of the Koran, but only after some arm-twisting.

"When our parents would try to teach us to read the Koran, we treated it the same way kids treat homework: try anything to get out of it," Ahmad recalled.

At Wortley High School, and then Leeds Metropolitan University, where he studied sports science, Tanweer was popular and never experienced the racism that older Asians felt. "He felt completely integrated and never showed any signs of disaffection," Ahmad wrote.

Tanweer was never interested in foreign policy or politics, said Ahmad, adding that she never once saw him reading a newspaper or watching the news. Nor did she see him attend any protests against Britain's involvement in Iraq or Afghanistan, or against Israel.

But while he grew up with most everything he could ask for, the same was hardly true for many of his contemporaries.

Unemployment among Muslim youths is 22 percent at a time when overall joblessness is 5 percent, the lowest it has been in decades, according to Britain's Office for National Statistics. Muslims rank at the bottom in having school degrees and decent housing.

A common sight in Beeston is Pakistani youths hanging idly in clusters on street corners, chatting away in Punjabi slang. Others smoke marijuana and drink beer in Cross Flats Park, breaking sacred codes of their faith. At other times, the alienation turns violent: In 2001, young Pakistanis turned out on Bradford streets to battle the largely white police force.

Many British Muslim youths also feel like strangers in their parents' Pakistani culture. Drinking, dancing and dating women, especially white women, are frowned upon.

"We're not English, and we're not Pakistani," said Saeed Ahmed, Tanweer's friend. "In the last few years, we had to find our identity. A lot of people here have gone back towards their religion to find out where they come from."

Tanweer, friends say, was one of them.

"He was more British than Muslim up until he was 18," Whitley recalled. "He started going to mosque a lot more."

"We grew apart," he added.

Many of Tanweer's friends said in interviews that he became more religious after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

"Shehzad definitely opened his eyes because of September 11th," said Ashid, a friend who did not give his last name out of fear the police might question him. "That's when many young people got back into Islam around here."

In Beeston, Tanweer and two other bombers frequented a local Islamic bookstore, the Iqra Islamic Learning Center. As they learned about Islam, they found it impossible to ignore the mounting deaths of their Muslim brothers across the globe, Tanweer's friends recounted. Ashid said he once saw Tanweer and Mohammed Sidique Khan, 30, one of the other bombers, watching a DVD that purported to show an Israeli soldier killing a Palestinian girl.

On a recent Wednesday, some of Tanweer's Muslim friends were playing soccer in Cross Flats Park. Others who said they had known him watched from a bench, some of them smoking marijuana.

In conversations with a reporter, they spoke about conspiracy theories they had downloaded from radical Web sites. There was no plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Nor did any bring the twin towers down. It was an American plot, they said.

"Why should we care about the London bombings when thousands of innocent Muslims are being killed in Iraq?" one friend demanded. Like the others, he refused to give a name. He said he understood Tanweer's anger. He paused, then added that he might have done the same.

It is unclear what finally possessed Tanweer to take that final step. By some theories, he was influenced by the older Khan, a popular primary-school teacher's assistant and youth worker. In the months before the bombings, they were often seen together.

Tanweer rarely brought friends home, said his cousin Ahmad, so all that his family knew about Khan was that Shehzad had a friend who worked at a local school. She added that "none of us know who was behind the plans."

In December, Tanweer went to the Pakistani city of Lahore to learn how to correctly pronounce readings from the Koran and stayed for two months, his relatives said. Khan accompanied him. Authorities are investigating whether they received terrorist training.

Tanweer's uncle, Tahir Pervaiz, was quoted in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn as saying: "Osama bin Laden was Shehzad's ideal and he used to discuss the man with his cousins and friends in the village."

When he came home, Tanweer was his usual, confident self. The week before the bombings, he was laughing and play-fighting with his young cousins, Ahmad said.

On July 7, Tanweer told his family that he was going to visit a friend.

They were expecting him back that day.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company