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AIR THREAT INVESTIGATION

23 Arrests Preceded by Quiet English Lives

Neighbors of most of the suspects describe them as unremarkable, if a little overtly religious.

August 12, 2006|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

HIGH WYCOMBE, England — They were middle-class university students and avid cricket players; one was studying biomedical sciences, another worked at Heathrow Airport, a third was a bookkeeper and a fourth drove a taxi.

They lived in tidy neighborhoods where Urdu and English mix, along with polo shirts and shalwar kameez, loose-fitting tunic and pants popular in South Asia. Where people cheer for the British soccer team after praying at the local mosque on Fridays. Many of the suspects have wives and small children. They went to work in the morning and came home for dinner in the evening.

Until Thursday, the 23 suspects in custody in Britain in the alleged airline bombing plot were largely unnoticed by their neighbors who, to a person, described them as living quiet, unremarkable lives.

The only noticeable feature, some said, was that in the last few months several had become more overtly devout, growing beards, wearing long robes and inviting others to the mosque. The change was especially marked in the two converts to Islam who had British parents.

There are differences within the group, aged 17 to 35, with some less educated, but more are of middle-class backgrounds, apparently assimilated into British society, than the men involved in last summer's suicide attacks on the London transit system that killed 52 people. But similar to that group, many of the suspects appeared to have become radicalized in Britain and had traveled to Pakistan, where they may have been directed toward violent activity through training or intellectual and spiritual instruction.

In all three communities where arrests were made -- East London, High Wycombe and Birmingham -- there are close ties to Pakistan. Merchants do a steady business in 20-pound sacks of basmati rice and immigrants know the price of a round-trip ticket to Karachi, and even airline schedules, by heart.

"It's quite common to go back and forth here, everyone does," said Ali Raza, 31, a taxi driver who was chatting with three Pakistani friends Friday afternoon across the street from the home of Ali Sarwar, one of those detained. "The travel office is right around the corner."

An example of the ties are Tayib and Rashid Rauf, British nationals and close relatives arrested in the case, one in Pakistan and one in Britain.

Of the 19 suspects whose assets were frozen by the Bank of England, 14 live in East London and four in High Wycombe. The 19th lives in Birmingham. Four others were also in custody Friday night in connection with the case.

In High Wycombe, the spartan two-story brick house at 36 Walton Drive looks exactly like its neighbors. And on a street where nearly every third house is home to Pakistanis, the occupants, two brothers of Pakistani background and their families, went about their business largely unnoticed. That changed dramatically early Thursday when, with helicopters hovering, police swooped in and grabbed Assad Sarwar, 26, who lived there with his wife and brother.

Sarwar and his brother attended the local school and were enthusiastic cricket players, said Ali Lone, 28, a former classmate who is a management consultant.

A neighbor who called herself Mrs. Ali, 25, a homemaker from Lahore, Pakistan, has lived down the street for two years. She said the only notable feature of the family was Sarwar's wife. "The lady wears a burka, everything covered in black, except her eyes. It struck me."

A few blocks away on Hepplewhite Close is the home of Don Stewart-Whyte, a 21-year old recent convert to Islam, who lives there with his wife and mother. The block is well-groomed, with tall trees and flower plantings, and with immigrant and white British families. Several people expressed disbelief that Stewart-Whyte would be involved in terrorism.

Lone, who also grew up with Stewart-Whyte, described him as an exceptionally bright boy who was accepted to Dr. Challoner's Grammar School, passing an entrance exam. However, he dropped out, Lone said.

Another longtime neighbor, Shauib Bahatti, who emigrated from Rawalpindi in Pakistan more than 20 years ago, said Stewart-Whyte had been a normal boy, an avid soccer player, who drank a little and smoked a little, "just like other boys." He said Stewart-Whyte had recently converted and sometimes stopped by "to invite me to come with him to mosque."

Most neighbors could not recall whether Stewart-Whyte had held a steady job recently and local news reports said he had worked at several places, including a local chain restaurant.

Two neighbors said they believed he may have attended an informal mosque a few blocks away affiliated with Wahhabis, an extreme group of Sunni Muslims. At that site Friday evening, a bearded man in shalwar kameez refused to answer questions, saying there was no imam working there and the center was only a school -- despite a sign on the door saying, "Check with the imam or a representative before leaving any brochures or pamphlets."

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