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British-bred terrorists: was it something they ate?

A small street in west London has been swamped by journalists demanding answers about 21/7.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics UK

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This time last week, the Lisboa patisserie on Golborne Road in west London was just an ordinary café. Then it was exposed as a haunt of Wahbi and Ramzi Mohammed, two of the men held for the 21 July attempted bombings (Ramzi is suspected of trying to blow up a Tube train near Oval; Wahbi is reportedly suspected of being the fifth bomber, who bottled it and dumped his bomb in a bush). Today, the café’s punters drink coffee and mint tea in the glare of the media spotlight.

This is a familiar story. Every time a British-bred terrorist comes to light, journalists descend on his local community demanding answers. They scour shop-fronts, photograph his school, press people for anecdotes – as if these details would give a clue as to why he turned bad.

There is now a media trail around the quiet streets near Ladbroke Grove. As well as the Lisboa, this takes in the mosque at which the brothers prayed, the spot where they handed out leaflets about Islam, the food van where they ate, and a market stall selling Islamic tapes and books. Residents field a daily barrage of questions. ‘Did you know them? Do you recognise the photos?’, a headscarved American journalist asked Mr Gomez, the Portuguese owner of the Lisboa. ‘What was his favourite food?’, another journalist pressed the owner of the food van.

Those who did know them have become minor celebrities. The white Muslim convert from the north of England who runs the Islam stall, and who knew Wahbi quite well, recounts how one evening he had two major TV stations set up on either side of him. The food van man, who knew both the brothers, has answered the same questions every day for days.

Neighbours are pushed for worrisome telltale signs that might help make sense of everything. Anything will do: perhaps he fought at school, didn’t have a girlfriend, liked martial arts…? The London Evening Standard thought it had struck gold when it reported the imam of the mosque saying how the brothers used to ‘pray on their own’; that Ramzi once attacked the imam for saying that Islam forbids terrorism; and that they broke a display cabinet at the mosque to replace a poster with one of their own (1). The article also quoted another witness, saying that the brothers ‘wore long beards and robes’, and ‘didn’t like us because we didn’t agree with their views’.

The community is implicated, too. By zeroing in on this café, this shop, this street, the suggestion is that they might have had something to do with it. The Moroccan shopkeeper in Le Marrakech, a store near the Lisboa café, told me that a reporter marched in and ‘flashed up pictures. He said “Do you know them? They came into your shop!”. It was like an interrogation’. She recounted how one TV station went inside the nearby O’Porto café to film people drinking. Unsurprisingly, nobody fancied being shown on the evening news sitting in the ‘terror café’. ‘Everybody ran out’, she said, so the cameras were left filming steaming cups of coffee.

But these investigations yield little. These are just normal streets, and the bombing suspects appeared as normal people. The mosque, the Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, disowns the Standard’s quotes. ‘Perhaps they overheard some conversation’, one of its representatives told me. In a statement, the mosque says that ‘it has certainly never been used by any radical group in the manner suggested by the articles’. As for the imam, he ‘categorically denies’ the statements attributed to him. ‘In particular, Mr Dahdouh denies suggesting that he was harassed and threatened by Ramzi and Wahbi Mohammed. In fact, he does not know either of them.’ This mosque is no mad mullah haunt. It was opened by Prince Charles in 2001, and runs embroidery classes, IT training, and ‘lifestyle classes for the elderly’.

There are no clues in Wahbi’s favourite food, either. ‘I don’t know what it was’, said the food van man, exasperated. ‘Sandwich?’ As for the terror café, ‘We just serve coffee’, said one waitress. ‘Lots of people drink coffee here – Moroccans, English. We don’t ask names.’

‘I don’t know what’s driven them to all this’, the shopkeeper at Le Marrakech shrugs. ‘I can’t understand it at all. And so local….’ She remembers the brothers and their friends as ‘quiet, they used to talk about Islam. They were just doing a job’. Others echo this impression of the brothers. The Islam stallholder remembered Wahbi as a ‘family man, he went to the mosque. Everybody liked him’, while the food van owner praised them as ‘some of the nicest guys you could choose to be with. Charitable, friendly’. The arrests came out of the blue. Wahbi was seen last Thursday, the day before he was arrested and a week after the attempted bombings – at the mosque, and in Golborne Road. ‘Now I’m saying, did I know them well or not?’, said one man.

Rather than revelation, the media glare just produces irritation. A man in the road near the mosque said he is ‘fed up with all the cameras. They are scaring the kids’. The food van man admitted to being ‘a bit sick of it, to be honest’. He juggled sandwiches and soup as he was being questioned, taking an order then a question. Meanwhile, the man on the Islam stall was annoyed that he’d missed his prayers. ‘I’m supposed to pray five times a day’, he complained. ‘I missed a lot yesterday because of all this.’

Lurking under the surface, though, there were signs as to why Wahbi and Ramzi might have felt so dislocated from British society. There was an underlying sense of estrangement, a sense of being under siege in a foreign land. Though people may have lived here all their lives, and have easy, genial relationships with Londoners of all cultures, some talked about Britain as if it were the Gaza Strip. The Islam stallholder claimed that ‘the media incite hatred for Muslims. Muslims have their wives raped, sexually abused, stabbed – gangs come up with a knife and stick it in you. Muslims don’t have a voice’.

Indeed, some even suspected the authorities of setting up the bombings. A young black Londoner buying tapes about Islam confided: ‘I think the government did it. They want to bring in ID cards and anti-terror legislation. They are looking for scapegoats.’ The food van man claimed that there was a ‘big question mark’ over the arrests, and that he thought it was a ‘set up, to get these nice guys’. Just as the pictures of man on the moon are doubted by some conspiracy theorists, the CCTV images of Ramzi running away cut little ice in Golborne Road.

This sense of disengagement isn’t particular to Muslims communities – it can be seen across British society. Interestingly, one man cited the Diana affair as evidence for why the bombings looked like an inside job. ‘Who killed Diana? The Queen. It was a very suspicious “accident”.’ The idea that the authorities are out to get us has become common fare, reinforced by TV programmes like The X-Files. Oddball Diana theories have become legitimised by both the media and the Metropolitan Police, which has blessed them with a top-level investigation.

Muslim communities’ sense of not belonging is more intense, though – and this may well be the result of official policies. The small shuttered door to the Kensington Mosque on Golborne Road had two police guards outside, who told me that they were there ‘24-7’. Why? The place was locked, empty, and on a buzzing high street full of Moroccan shops. The officer told me it was to ‘send a message to the Muslim community’ that they were being protected, and to tell others ‘we’re here, don’t do anything’. No wonder Muslims think they’re going to be stabbed, when they cross a police line every time they go to mosque. Had there been any trouble in the area? The officer looked doubtful: ‘There was some graffiti down the road. I don’t know what it said though.’

So Golborne Road gets journalists pointing the finger and blaming it for breeding terrorists – and it gets the police protecting it from the surrounding barbarians. The residents are cast as either villains or victims. Both approaches are strategies of non-engagement, treating communities as communities apart.

There is no explanation for why Wahbi and Ramzi Mohammed, instead of two other brothers, might have tried to detonate bombs on 21/7, or why Golborne Road produced these failed terrorists rather than any other road. People go off on one for a variety of reasons, and they don’t even let on to their wives, so they’re hardly going to let on to the food van man. But perhaps the ground for such nihilism is there in people’s sense of not belonging – a sense that is likely to be intensified by the official response to the problem.

How could ‘charitable, friendly’ men from a nice part of west London possibly want to blow up a Tube? One thing’s for sure: it had nothing to do with café Lisboa’s delicious coffee.

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Topics Politics UK

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