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London Bomb Suspects Stood Out as Radicals

August 15, 2005|Jeffrey Fleishman and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — They first became known to the world as blurry images from subway cameras. But the men accused of attempting to bomb London's transit system July 21 had clearly defined their militancy in the months leading up to the failed attacks.

The suspects had sharpened their radicalism in the streets, mosques and housing projects of rough ethnic neighborhoods, investigators, witnesses and friends say. They were brazen voices in an unsuspecting city, marginalized East Africans who lived by their wits, dabbling in street crime and reportedly manipulating the immigration and welfare systems. During workouts at a West London gym, they channeled their private rage into public diatribes.

Brothers Ramzi and Wharbi Mohammed sold Islamic literature and recited religious verses on a gritty North Kensington street of antiques stores and cafes, skirmishing with a shop owner who chased them away. Hamdi Issac, now jailed in Rome, belonged to a gang of extremists who waged a belligerent campaign to take over a mosque in South London. Roommates Muktar Said Ibrahim and Yasin Hassan Omar were loud militants, praising Osama bin Laden to neighbors at the rundown building where Ibrahim is accused of preparing five backpack bombs.

Their agitation allegedly gave way to action after July 7, when four young British Muslims, three from the northern city of Leeds, ignited bombs on three subway cars and a bus, killing themselves and 52 others. Issac claims that his group struck two weeks later in an improvised, independent tribute to the dead bombers. Despite similar methods and targets, British authorities say they have found no link between the two plots.

In any case, those who had run-ins with the July 21 suspects remember aggressive rhetoric rooted in anger against Britain's support of U.S. policy in Iraq. During interrogations in Italy, Issac has returned obsessively to the war in Iraq, a senior Italian anti-terrorism official said.

"He's calm -- he seems scared," said the Italian official, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. "He's open, gentle, polite; he doesn't get mad even when you provoke him. But when you ask him why he did it, he starts with the speech about Iraq: They are killing women and children, no one's doing anything about it, on and on. That's when you can see there has been a brainwashing."

The men's outspokenness reflects the unpredictability of potential jihadis. The 19 hijackers involved in Sept. 11, for example, masked their deadly intentions by trying to blend into Western society. Militants in Europe in other cases have been less discreet: Before setting off to fight and die with militants in Iraq last year, a group of young Parisian jihadis first caught the attention of police with aggressive behavior at street protests against banning Islamic head scarves in schools.

The suspects in the attempted London bombings were also preoccupied with other things: They dedicated themselves to ripping off the state, authorities say. They resided in public housing, collected unemployment and welfare benefits and used multiple identities to bilk the government for large sums, investigators say.

"These were people who came as refugees, were made welcome and treated properly," said a British official who asked to remain anonymous. "And they decided to abuse the social security system to a huge degree."

Months before the failed attacks, the Mohammed brothers strolled amid the shopkeepers and cafe owners on Golborne Road in North Kensington, a stretch of dusty awnings, shops and Moroccan grills where incense whirls with scents of mint tea and fish on ice. Golborne is a testament to the neighborhood's shifting ethnic dynamic: The Portuguese who first migrated here have given way to Moroccans and East Africans and, according to residents, rising crime.

Ramzi and Wharbi set up a tarp-covered stall on the corner of Golborne and Wornington roads, half a block from the clattering cups at Lisboa Patisserie, where the men often relaxed over coffee.

"They were handing out Islamic literature, and I had a kind of altercation with them," said a neighborhood antiques dealer, who feared retribution and gave his name only as Jerome. "There were four or five of them. They spoke in Arabic and English. I thought they were being unbearable and intense and I asked them to leave. They had had the stall for months and didn't have a license."

The brothers moved down the street and eventually disappeared. Ramzi, 23, lived about two miles away in Dalgarno Gardens, a maze of brick buildings that shadow drug dealers and working-class families.

"Ramzi was a cool guy," said Jamal Kamiri, sitting the other day on a bench behind Ramzi's apartment. "When I was younger, he used to play football with us. He used to carry a 9-millimeter pistol, but guns are common here and he wasn't a troublemaker. He carried it for protection.

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