By Joshua Partlow and John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, August 12, 2006
LONDON, Aug. 11 -- They were lunchtime companions, worshipers kneeling on the same mosque floor, friends praying to the same God. One was the medical student cramming for exams at the next table. Another was the sprinting player jostling for the ball down the soccer field.
And so to some friends and acquaintances -- those who gathered outside the mosques of northeast London and in the quiet suburbs to the west of the city -- the possibility that the young British Muslims also might be involved in an audacious plot to explode airplanes over the Atlantic Ocean was almost impossible to reconcile or believe.
"They're just normal guys, they're probably being painted as hateful monsters, but they were just normal guys," Louis Melvin, 26, said Friday as he stood near the Masjid-E-Umer mosque in the Walthamstow neighborhood of London with other young men who said they were friends with some of the suspects. "If they were plotting this for the last year, they wouldn't have been able to spend all that time talking to me about trivial things like soccer," Melvin said.
Although the identities of all the accused have yet to be disclosed, the Bank of England on Friday froze the assets of 19 of the 24 suspects arrested the day before, in the process releasing their names and ages to the public. All 19 had Muslim names, most were in their twenties -- they ranged in age from 17 to 35 -- and 13 of them lived in London, according to the list.
The bank's actions came at the order of British Chancellor Gordon Brown, citing concern over financing terrorists. But Muslim leaders in Britain condemned the release of the names, saying that it was unusual for suspects to be identified before they were formally charged and that it could impede a fair trial.
"There is a perception that this is a trial by media," said Jahangir Mohammed, director of the Center for Muslim Affairs, an independent research organization based in Manchester. "The general feeling is that people believe this has been concocted and it is very timely" as a diversion from the war between Israel and the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.
Several Muslims said they condemned any terrorist plot but were skeptical about the police investigation and evidence that tied so many seemingly normal, middle-class Muslims to the alleged plot.
Police "need to be careful" about linking terrorism to the Muslim community "as a whole" and "demonizing the community," Khalid Sofi, a senior member of the Muslim Council of Britain, told the BBC. He said that British police made sweeping arrests of Muslims based on ethnic and religious profiling and used unwarranted stop-and-search procedures, and that most of the Muslims were released without being charged.
British Home Secretary John Reid said that it was a "normal procedure" to release the names of those whose bank accounts were frozen and that knowing their identities is "part of the obligation of ensuring that people cannot deal with such individuals in the transfer of assets."
British police on Friday released one of the suspects, who was not identified, without charging him.
"Of those we have arrested, some will be released without charge -- that is the nature of an investigation. Some will interpret that as meaning the evidence is not there, but there is a good reason for us to have acted as we have," said Rob Beckley, a senior police officer who heads community and counterterrorism programs for the Association of Chief Police Officers.
He said he had heard the suggestion among some Muslims that this was a "smoke screen" to knock the war in the Middle East off front pages. "Frankly, any idea that this was manipulated is nonsense," he said.
Several of the suspects lived in Walthamstow, a working-class northeast London neighborhood that is home to many Pakistanis, African Muslims and Polish immigrants. Residents live in brick homes and townhouses, along streets spotted with pubs, market stalls and fast-food restaurants.
For the Friday afternoon prayer service, dozens of Muslim men came to the Darul Uloom Qadria Jilania mosque in the area, around the corner from where police stood sentry outside the home of one of the suspects. The worshipers, some wearing white dishdashas , the traditional Muslim robe, and others wearing blue jeans and backward baseball caps, knelt to pray on a white sheet spread out on the sidewalk in front of the mosque.
After the prayers, several young men denounced the United States, Israel and the British police for what one man called a "war on Islam." Some of the men accused the police of fabricating the terrorist plot and wrongfully arresting their friends.
Such raids and arrests strike a particularly sensitive nerve in England. Police raided a home in Forest Gate, east London, in June and arrested two brothers, shooting one of them, mistakenly thinking the men possessed a chemical bomb. Both men were released without charge.
"This plot never existed!" Abid Aslam, 28, shouted about the most recent arrests to the gathering television cameras.
"It's absolute propaganda, it's all about the Jews and oil," said another man.
The men began chanting, "God is great. God is great."
Ishtiaq Hussain, 25, who grew up in the neighborhood, said he was friends with two of the suspects, Ibrahim Savant and Waheed Zaman. Savant, 25, is a soccer-loving half-British, half-Iranian Muslim convert formerly named Oliver, Hussain said. Zaman, 22, took biochemistry classes and led prayer groups at London Metropolitan University, where he was friends with a diverse group of people, Hussain said.
"He's humble, he's got a big heart. He would never hurt a fly. I mean, he's a nice geezer, he's not an extremist," Hussain said of Zaman. "If evidence does come out that they were plotting something, it would be very hard to digest. Very, very hard."
In the same neighborhood, another crowd gathered along Queens Road outside Zaman's home, in a two-story building next door to the New Stylish Hair Dresser and across the street from the Masjid-E-Umer mosque.
If Zaman was a fanatic about anything, it was the Liverpool soccer team, which he followed in an online fantasy soccer league, said his friends. "The last time I saw him was two days ago. We got together to watch 'Star Wars' together," said one of his friends, who declined to give his name.
"You can't condemn someone with no proof. They are innocent until proven guilty," said another of Zaman's friends.
The British press reported Friday that two of the suspects were white men who recently had converted to Islam. The Guardian newspaper said another suspect worked at London Heathrow Airport, and other news outlets reported that at least one suspect taken into custody was a pregnant woman. British police refused to confirm the reports.
At least four of the suspects lived to the west of the city in a suburb called High Wycombe, according to the Bank of England list. One of the suspects, Assad Sarwar, was a Pakistani man who lived in a two-story brick duplex along Walton Drive with his brother and the rest of his family, neighbors said. Some neighbors, watching from across the street as police in hazard suits walked in and out of the house, said they were befuddled and dismayed by the situation.
John Arnold, 28, who knew the Sarwars, echoed the sentiments of several others trying to understand the arrests: "They were just normal kids."
Staff writer Anushka Asthana in Washington contributed to this report.