My brother the bomber
by Shiv Malik
What turned Mohammad Sidique Khan, a softly spoken youth worker, into the mastermind of 7/7? I spent months in a Leeds suburb getting to know Khan's brother. A complex and disturbing story of the bomber's radicalisation emerged
Shiv Malik is a freelance journalist. He is writing a book on British terrorism
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The suburbs of Leeds, unlike those of other British metropolises, have not been cowed by the centre. The centre of Leeds is actually quite small, so the suburbs are not just points on the spokes of a giant wheel, but are integral to the city. Horsforth, Adel, Belle Isle, Harehills: these are distinct small towns, each with its own character. Headingley is famous for its cricket ground, Kirkstall for its medieval abbey, and so on.
One of the most isolated and undistinguished suburbs of Leeds is Beeston. It is situated on a hill overlooking the city, and although it is only a 25-minute walk into town, few people do walk because the M621 separates Beeston from the rest of Leeds like a trench. Before the events of 7th July 2005â€”with which Beeston will forever be associatedâ€”outsiders had few reasons to have heard of it. Nor is it a desirable place to live. It is one of the poorest places in England, and partly for that reason it has always attracted immigrantsâ€”formerly the Irish, more recently Pakistanis. But while the centre of Leeds has developed rapidly, Beeston has remained a ghetto of relative deprivation.
Nonetheless, people who have lived in Beeston for years say that until the drug dealers moved in five to ten years ago, the appeal of the area was its strong sense of community. But after hard drugs arrived, neighbourliness was abandoned as people scurried home past the crack dens and wrecked houses. Heroin and crack helped to sustain a certain level of racial segregation tooâ€”it's hard to be nice to strangers when you're living in a drugs warren.
I had come to Beeston in September 2005 on assignment with the BBC. Jim Booth, a producer with the Manchester news and current affairs department, had asked if I would like to help a research team and a scriptwriter put together a factual drama based on the lives of the four 7/7 bombersâ€”three of whom came from Beestonâ€”that the BBC was planning to air on the first anniversary of the bombings. I had lived in Leeds for many years, and so I was familiar with Beeston's shabbiness. Many journalists who landed there after 7/7 saw its poverty and assumed that there must be a direct link to the bombings. But the more we learned about Beeston and its bombers, the more this hypothesis turned out to be a red herring. Although poverty and exclusion are themes that wound their way through the lives of the Beeston bombers, it is the internal frictions within a traditional Pakistani community in Britain that best explain the radicalisation that led to the deaths of 56 people.
Suicide bombing is not just a religious phenomenon. It is employed by many secular organisations, including the Kurdish PKK and the Marxist Tamil Tigers. In fact, until 2000, the Tamil Tigers had carried out more suicide attacks than all other groups put together. Over the years, the profiles of individual bombers have also varied, from young boys to, more recently, women. Ariel Merari, a Tel Aviv University psychologist, has profiled 50 suicide bombers and found that there were hardly any common factors. None were deranged or schizophrenic. Few had problems like depression. Merari concluded that the only factor linking all forms of suicide terrorism was the way bombers were recruited and trained. It is the psychology of the group, not the individual, that is key.
This was something that the French sociologist Ă‰mile Durkheim identified nearly 100 years ago in Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Durkheim contrasted "egotistical" suicideâ€”caused by a person feeling disconnected from societyâ€”with "altruistic" suicide, which occurs when "integration is too strong."
For my BBC research team, our first month in Leeds was a write-off because no one would talk. This silence was the first sign that Beeston's Pakistani community might harbour the kind of cohesive group in which an "altruistic" mentality could flourish. We had only the basic facts. We knew that the 7/7 ringleader, Mohammad Sidique Khan, 30 at the time of his death, had been married with one child and had worked as a youth worker and learning mentor. The other two Beeston bombers, Shehzad Tanweer and Hasib Hussain, had known Khan through his youth work. Tanweer, 22, was said to be working in his father's fish and chip shop after having completed a two-year further education course in sports science at Leeds Metropolitan University. Hussain, just 18, was awaiting results for a series of NVQs that he had taken at a local college.
But nobody in Beeston wanted to add to those facts. At first it seemed that the community was just fed up with journalists asking dumb questions. But eventually, we realised that it wasn't just irritation keeping people silent; it was intimidation.
We discovered this after our first important source agreed to give us an off-the-record interview. Aliâ€”I've changed his nameâ€”was a switched-on, well-meaning wide boy. He wasn't part of the bombers' circle of friends, but he was the same age, and a solid member of the Pakistani community. After a couple of weeks of negotiation, and for a little cash, he agreed to meet us in a Thai restaurant in town. He started with the drugs problem: "To be honest with you, the downfall was a few years back. There were a lot of drug addicts in the area, which dragged everything downâ€¦ I wouldn't say that we're stuck-up people, but you move to an area and spend money on your property. You want to live there, and if somebody's gonna come up and throw syringes in your garden and put a brick through your window, you want to fight the battle. At the end of the day it's your pride more than anything else."
Ali told me that the older generation didn't know how to deal with the drug problem. They were largely illiterate and didn't know the system, so they would sooner move out than try to fight the dealers. The only people who seemed to do anything about the drug-taking were a group of second-generation Pakistanis called the "Mullah boys." This was a fluid group of 15 to 20 members that formed in the mid-1990s, initially as a response to the drugs issue. Mohammad Sidique Khan was a leading member. Ali told me that on several occasions, the group kidnapped young Pakistani drug addicts and, with the consent of their families, held them in a flat near the Wahhabi-inclined mosque on Stratford Streetâ€”and forcibly cleansed them of their drug habits.
What we learned from Ali was later corroborated by an ex-drug user called Asim Suleman. He had been cold-turkeyed by the Mullah boys in 1996, and Sidique Khan, Khan's friend Naveed Fiaz and Tafazal Mohammed, Khan's line manager in his youth worker job, had asked Suleman back to help with another round in 2001. Following 9/11, the Mullah boys had become increasingly religious. Initially, this new-found godliness was welcomed by the older generation in Beestonâ€”until the group began marrying people of their choice.
In Beeston Hill, the dilapidated heart of Beeston, Pakistanis make up 20 per cent of the population. They are a minority, but large enough to have been able to form their own partially ghettoised and cohesive community. Almost every family is ultimately from a rural part of Pakistani Kashmir called Mirpur, where the rules of tradition are strict and unforgiving. In Mirpur, as in many poor parts of the world, the basic structures of lifeâ€”justice, security and social supportâ€”are organised by the local tribe and not by a central state. One consequence is that people can't just marry whom they want. If they did, then over time tribal lands would be broken up by the rules of inheritance, and the economic base of the tribe, or baraderi (brotherhood), would be destroyed. This is one reason children in rural Pakistan are often treated as the property of their elders and encouraged, or forced, to marry within the baraderi.
Families that allow children to marry for love are considered to have lost their izzat, or honour. In most circumstances, the only way for the family to regain it is to kill the offending boy or girl. Pakistan has the highest number of honour killings in the world.