What turned Mohammad Sidique Khan, a softly spoken youth worker, into the mastermind of 7/7?by Shiv Malik / June 30, 2007 / Leave a comment
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 2005—with which Beeston will forever be associated—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 immigrants—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 too—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 bombers—three of whom came from Beeston—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 Émile Durkheim identified nearly 100 years ago in Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Durkheim contrasted “egotistical” suicide—caused by a person feeling disconnected from society—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. Ali—I’ve changed his name—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 down… 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 Street—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 Beeston—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 life—justice, security and social support—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.
When the first generation of Mirpuri immigrants moved to Britain in the 1960s, the baraderi system should in theory have faded away, as social services were supplied by the state. But traditions have their uses for preserving solidarity in a migrant community, and the mechanism still flourishes. Explaining his parents’ attitudes, Ali said they would “rather you marry someone from your own caste, your own community, your own relations.”
So when the Mullah boys started conducting marriages from the premises of Iqra, the local Islamic bookshop on Bude road, it caused a stir. Ali says that when Sidique Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and his brother married white girls, and a Bangladeshi girl married an Afro-Caribbean guy, the community elders became very worried.
But the Mullah boys were armed with faith. As long as the marriages were between Muslims, they didn’t care about tribal tradition. And since the outsiders all converted to Islam before the marriages, the older generation’s insistence that their young marry their cousins was simply ignored.
Connected by ideas and isolated from the community as pariahs, the Mullah boys seemed to be the kind of group that Merari and Durkheim had identified. I asked Ali if he could set up an interview for me with someone from the group. He agreed to help, but the next day he rang back, apologising—he couldn’t help any more. People had found out that he had been talking to journalists, and they were going to make life difficult for him if he carried on. Before I could ask any more questions, he hung up.
No one seemed prepared to answer any more questions, and Jim Booth and I were now getting worried that our drama would never be finished. The scriptwriter had little more than a pile of notes on Islamic theology and some studies on the psychology of suicide bombing. We needed a bit of luck, and it turned up in the shape of Sidique’s brother.
The breakthrough came when I struck up a conversation about 7/7 with a loquacious Leeds cabbie. “You know Khan had a brother. He’s a taxi driver. Works for City Cabs like me,” he said. Until that moment, no one had ever mentioned Khan’s siblings, let alone a cab-driving brother working in Leeds. The cabbie, a Pakistani, went on: “It’s a blue cab, his. He looks just like his brother. Last week I picked up these white lads and they saw him and said, ‘Doesn’t he look like the bomber?’ and I said, ‘Oh yeah, you think all Pakis look the same don’t you?’ I had to keep ’em quiet otherwise you don’t know what’ll happen. They could’ve killed him what with tempers running high. Yeah, Gultasab his name is. Does the railway station. Night shift.” And then he gave me Gultasab’s cab number.
Leeds railway station taxi rank is just outside the station entrance. After a few wasted nights passing the time with drunken clubbers, I resolved to stick it out past midnight. Finally, at 1.50am, a hackney carriage with a blue advert for medical insurance and the right licence number arrived at the front of the rank, and I got in. In order to win Gultasab’s trust, I had decided to start a normal conversation before revealing my real purpose, but nerves got the better of me and I opened with the most inappropriate line in the book: “Haven’t I seen you before?”
Like his brother, Gultasab had soft, hazel-coloured eyes, and like most cab drivers in their thirties he had a paunch, which sat well enough on his largish frame. Unlike most cabbies, however, Gultasab was very private. He later told me that it stemmed from what he saw as his traditional Pakistani mentality, which discourages talking about one’s personal life.
Gultasab’s voice was slow and quiet. When he replied to my questions, I had to strain to catch what he was saying. After I’d asked him to drive me to Bradford—a 20-minute journey—I said that I was sure I had been in his cab before. I feigned trying to recall his name: Gultasab, was it? He said that it was, but sorry, he couldn’t remember having met me.
While his voice was quiet, his diction was clear and he didn’t have the usual clipped and stumbling Yorkshire-Pakistani (or “Yorkshirestani”) accent of many Leeds cab drivers. Having lived all of his life in Yorkshire, Gultasab, like his brother, spoke with a gentle Yorkshire lilt. But when I asked him where he was from, his immediate reply was Rawalpindi, one of Pakistan’s major cities. This meant the Khans were Punjabi, not Mirpuri. In a Pakistani city, this wouldn’t have meant much, but in Britain, where migration had accentuated small differences, it meant the Khans would have been at one remove from Beeston’s community of first-generation migrants.
I asked him how big his family was. He paused, blanked the question, then asked me what I did. Since I hadn’t been given permission from the BBC to go undercover, everything I said had to be technically true, so I told him I was researching the Leeds drugs problem for the BBC. He told me that the problem in Beeston, where he lived, was bad, but that it was a lot better than four or five years ago, when people would just deny the whole issue. It wasn’t until we got to Bradford and I asked him to pull into a petrol station forecourt that I said: “Look, I can’t tell a lie.”
Saying nothing, he began writing a receipt while I searched my pockets for the £15.60 charge. Only when he had handed me my change did he turn to face me and say, “So, you can’t tell a lie?” I replied: “Yeah, I know who you are. You’re Sid’s brother.”
A look of resignation came over his face as if he had been waiting for this moment to arrive. He said that he had seen me hanging around at the station and figured that I had been waiting to get into his cab. I told him that I would leave if he wanted, but he replied: “You’re just doing your job.”
I explained that the BBC wanted to make a drama about his brother and 7/7 and, to begin with, we just wanted to talk to him, off camera and off the record. I apologised for having jumped him in his cab, but I thought that he would have slammed the door on me if I had followed him and turned up at his house.
Suddenly his tone became hostile: “If you had come to my house I wouldn’t have answered at all. I would have just said ‘no comment.'” Over the next seven months, this would be the only moment when he would raise his voice in my company.
When the BBC team visited the parents of the 7/7 bombers, they found they had little inkling of what had happened to their sons. Most of them felt a confused mixture of sorrow and shame; some had been driven into depression or denial. As Gultasab and I sat parked in the petrol station, it became clear that he, too, was suffering. Once he had confirmed that he wasn’t being recorded—I emptied my bag and showed him my dictaphone—he told me that the death of his brother had been very hard for the family, and that it was too soon for him to talk about it. He looked away and seemed to be holding back tears. He then looked back at me and said that he found the events of 7th July impossible to understand, and that his family were as confused as everybody else. “You probably know more than me,” he said. As well as the pain of the event, there was a criminal investigation and so he was apprehensive about getting involved. He said he had to keep his head down.
He gave me a lift back to Leeds and by the time he dropped me off at my house it was 2.35am. As I left, I gave him my phone number and asked him if I could get in his cab again sometime soon. “I won’t bite your head off,” he replied, and then he drove away.
Mohammad Sidique Khan was born at St James’s hospital in Leeds on 20th October 1974 to Tika Khan and his first wife, Mamida Begum. He was the youngest of four children, three boys and a girl. Tika was a foundry worker, already in his fifties, and one of the first Pakistanis to settle in Yorkshire. Soon after Sidique was born, the Khans moved to Tempest Road in Beeston. Sidique’s first school was mainly white and he seemed to integrate well—he was called Sid. Later he attended Matthew Murray high school, which was more Pakistani, but he still had many white friends. One of them, Robert Cardiss, remembers Sidique as a young teenager in the late 1980s. “Sid wasn’t in your face or outspoken, but… he wasn’t completely strait-laced either. He was friends with the in-crowd. He had white mates as well as Asian, and he would quite often be round the back of the gym at breaktime smoking a fag with the rest of us. He didn’t have any girlfriends that I know of, but he’d talk to girls. He was friendly.”
But Sidique was on a collision course with his family and background. One important reason for this was religion. At some point in the mid-1990s, when he first got involved with the Mullah boys, he became interested in Wahhabi fundamentalism; this pitted him against his family’s traditional approach to Islam.
Gultasab told me that the first time he noticed his brother had become a Wahhabi was when he started praying differently—Wahhabis add extra hand gestures between prostrations. Sidique had attended Friday prayers from a young age, and the three brothers, Hanif, Gultasab and Sidique, would fast together during Ramadan. But it was during one particular Ramadan, when Sidique was in his late teens, that he began to take a greater interest in religion. “As young men of a certain age do,” said Gultasab.
Gultasab told me that his brother had found that the traditional, community-run mosque on Hardy Street had nothing to offer him. The people who ran the mosque had no idea how to connect with the second generation, said Gultasab. They spoke and wrote in Urdu, and the only time they interacted with the younger Muslims was when they taught them to recite the Koran by rote—in Arabic.
The Wahhabis did things differently. They delivered sermons and printed publications in English. Sidique’s Urdu was poor, so the only things on Islam he could read were Wahhabi-approved publications. Gultasab said that Sidique’s progression to Wahhabism was reinforced by the fact that some of his friends, and future Mullah boys, were converting too.
(The government’s official account of Sidique’s radicalisation runs to a few paragraphs, and states: “after an incident in a nightclub, [Sidique] said that he turned to religion and it changed his life.” Gultasab said that this was “bullshit.” It was, he told me, a “gradual change,” which happened over years.)
A second source of friction between Sidique and his family was his determination to marry for love. During the years of his conversion to Wahhabism, Sidique fell in love with his future wife, Hasina Patel. The pair met at Leeds Metropolitan University in 1997; Sidique was taking a one-year course to convert a business diploma from a local college into a degree, while Hasina was studying for a three-year sociology degree. Her family was from India, and she was a Deobandi Muslim—a South Asian Wahhabi-linked movement directly opposed to the Khan family’s traditionalist Barelvi convictions.
In 1999, it seems that Sidique began to consider the step from Wahhabi fundamentalism to a form of jihadism actively committed to violence. By this time his life had become intensely narrow: the mosques where he prayed, the buildings where he helped to run Pakistani youth groups, the Iqra bookshop where he gave talks, his brother’s house—every place in his life was within a quarter of a mile of the centre of Beeston Hill’s Pakistani community.
So it was strange to learn that Khan’s earliest known attempt at recruiting for jihad took place in Manchester, 45 miles away. The discovery was made in 2006 by two journalists, Jonathan Hacker and Claudio Franco. The pair found that in summer 2001, Sidique had been working with Omar Sharif and Asif Hanif—the two Britons who travelled to Israel in 2003 to commit suicide attacks—to recruit youngsters for training in Afghanistan.
Kursheed Fiaz, a Manchester businessman, knew Hanif’s family because they had migrated to Britain from the same village in Pakistan. Fiaz explained to Hacker and Franco that in the months before 9/11, Hanif, Khan and Sharif, along with others, made a total of four visits to Fiaz’s office to preach to his teenage nephews. As a traditionalist Sunni, Fiaz said he was sceptical about what Khan would say but he was willing to let him have the pulpit anyway.
“We are taught from day one that Islam is something traditional. The rules, laws and regulations are set,” said Fiaz. “We are told how to pray, how to communicate with people, how to show respect for humankind. No one can come up today and say there’s a new way. But my lads thought, ‘We’ll have a chat with them. See what they’re made of.'”
The first few meetings were casual and Sidique Khan talked about the importance of religious duties. Only at the fourth meeting did he get to the point. To reinvigorate the youngsters with pure Islamic ways, Khan would have to take them to Pakistan, Syria or Afghanistan. “That’s when I got a bit wary,” said Fiaz. “When I asked Sidique what this was about, he said, ‘Nothing, just to visit shrines and mosques.'” Fiaz asked Khan and his friends not to return.
The recent Bluewater shopping centre bomb plot trial revealed that in 2003 Sidique was associating with Mohammed Quayyum Khan, a suspected al Qaeda contact. In July 2003, Quayyum would send Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, one of the other Beeston bombers, to receive training in bomb-making in Pakistan. However, Fiaz’s testimony reveals that Khan was plugged into a wider Islamist network well before the Iraq war, and even before 9/11.
Sidique’s recruitment techniques may not have worked well in Manchester, where no one trusted these strangers, but in Beeston he had a very different standing. For several years before his conversion to violent jihadism, Sidique had built a solid reputation as a youth worker among local young Pakistanis. It was while studying at Leeds Metropolitan University in 1997 that he had first volunteered for community youth mentoring. At this time, youth provision in Beeston was managed by Maz Ashgar, who explained to me that his junior, Tafazal Mohammed, and the people beneath Mohammed, like Sidique, represented one of the few modernising influences within Beeston’s Pakistani community.
“These guys were doing good work on drugs, racial issues and education aspiration issues. They had a different outlook on things, as they were either born here or had been here from a very young age,” said Asghar. “They’d absorbed the wider culture.”
Asghar told me that the group understood that if the Mirpuri community wanted to lever itself out of poverty, it needed to branch out from standard employment roles—taxi drivers and restaurant work. Youth mentoring was a part of this.
Nick Prica, who later took over from Asghar, explained that Khan would spend three hours a night as a “detached worker… going out and talking to kids and gaining their trust so you can help them through various problems. Like a mentor.”
Prica said that Khan was a “sharp, switched-on professional.” When Khan took on a £17,000-a-year role as a learning mentor at the racially mixed local primary school, Hillside Primary, in March 2001, Prica said that he had gained an enviable combination of experiences: community; young people; children. “He looked like a tower of strength within the community.” (Sarah Balfour, ex-headmistress of Hillside, which has now closed, is married to the Labour MP for Hemsworth, Jon Trickett, who invited Sidique to the House of Commons a year before 7/7.)
However, there were difficulties. Prica told me that a few of the Beeston youth workers had problems with rules. And by late 2004 some youth workers began taking unregistered leave to Pakistan—among them Sidique and Khalid Khaliq, who was arrested in early May in connection with 7/7 and recently charged with owning an al Qaeda training manual.
Of the four bombers, it is the association between Khan and Shehzad Tanweer, the Aldgate bomber, that was the closest. They are thought to have known each other since childhood. And when, in 2001, Khan, Naveed Fiaz and Tafazal Mohammad got into dispute with the board of the Hardy Street mosque over the mosque’s basement space—which they had been using as a gym and a youth meeting place—they resettled in an empty loft above Tanweer’s father’s fish and chip shop on Tempest Road. This is also the time that Tanweer, according to his brother Nikki, stopped attending university.
The brother of the 18-year-old Hasib Hussain, the bus bomber, played cricket with Tanweer when they were children. It is not known how Hussain met Khan, but from 2001 onwards Hussain was involved in local youth work projects. By late 2004, Khan was a regular visitor to the family home.
A source close to Jermaine Lindsay, the one 7/7 bomber not from Beeston, told the BBC that it was very likely that Lindsay (who was born in Jamaica and brought up in Huddersfield) was introduced to Khan through his associations with the radical preacher Abdullah Al-Faisal, who twice preached in Beeston before being jailed in 2003 for inciting racial hatred. Lindsay, who was 19 when he blew himself up, was in regular contact with Khan from late 2004.
Little is known about the final countdown to 7/7. It is not even clear whether all four bombers had met together before that day. Khan and Tanweer made a final long trip to Pakistan in November 2004, and in June 2005 they went on a reconnaissance trip to London, where they met Lindsay. According to some sources, Khan’s al Qaeda contacts were waiting on the outcome of the May 2005 British election before making a final decision to proceed.
It seems that Khan had been able to develop his plans relatively unhindered. He was a big fish in a small pond—”a tower of strength in the community.” Beeston’s village-like atmosphere ensured that those whom Khan recruited would remain always in his sight. But even before Khan began talking directly about the evils of western policy in Iraq and recipes for explosives, young recruits—including Khan himself—were being shaped in Beeston and similar places by an acute crisis of identity.
Among those who study British race relations, there’s an informal theory that states that 30 years after the establishment of any sizeable ethnic minority community, there will be riots. After Jewish migration into Britain in the 1900s, there were riots in the Jewish communities of east London during the 1930s. After the 1950s migration from the Caribbean, there were riots in 1981 in the Afro-Caribbean areas of Toxteth, Chapeltown and Brixton. And after the 1970s Pakistani immigration into northern England, in the summer of 2001, like clockwork, serious unrest kicked off in Oldham, then spread to Leeds, Burnley and Bradford.
One explanation is that it takes about 30 years for a sizeable second generation to establish itself and then become frustrated with its status, both within its own community and the wider society. This frustration arises in part from a question of identity. Whose culture and values do you affiliate with? Those of your parents or of your friends? Those of your community or of your country?
Hassan Butt, a former recruiter for the British jihadi network (the term violent Islamic extremists in Britain use to describe themselves), who twice met Sidique Khan, says that the reason radical Islamic movements in Britain have been able to recruit thousands of young Muslims is that they have managed to exploit this identity problem.
Butt—who was interviewed in the August 2005 issue of Prospect, just after 7/7—left the jihadi network in February 2006. (His route out, documented in a recent interview on the US current affairs programme 60 Minutes, has been slow and painful, and earlier this year he was attacked near his home in Manchester for his betrayal.) After he left the network, Butt told me that as a recruiter, his most important job was to discover what his potential recruit identified with, and then to pick holes in it. For example, if the potential recruit felt Pakistani, then Butt would focus upon the difficulty of being both British and Pakistani. Butt and many other recruiters find this easy because they know what it is like. Having lived in Britain all his life within a strongly Pakistani household, Butt felt neither British nor Pakistani. “When I went to Pakistan,” he said, “I was rejected. And when I came back to Britain, I never felt like I fitted in to the wider white British community. And you’ve got to remember that a lot of our parents didn’t want us to fit into the British community.”
Religion—in this case a purified and politicised version of Islam, far from the traditional “folk” religion of the first generation—was a natural way of transcending this cultural dislocation. “Here come the Islamists and they give you an identity… you don’t need Pakistan…