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updated 7/12/2005 9:34:48 AM ET 2005-07-12T13:34:48

If the London bombers were foreign Islamist terrorists "sleeping" within the British population, as many believe, their neighbors probably saw them as "straightforward blokes," "unassuming family men," who were "friendly but never talkative."

These phrases were all applied to members of an al-Qaida cell in Leicester, the trial of two of which in 2003 resulted in the first important convictions in the U.K.'s domestic war against terror. It also gave a fascinating public insight into the milieu of Islamist terrorists operating in the U.K. Predictably, the lives of jihadis living in Britain were furtive and based on multiple deceptions. What also emerged, as the judge and jury waded through seas of evidence, was just how shabby and mundane they were.

It is a world of run-down rented houses in immigrant districts where men traveling on false passports doss down among cardboard boxes stuffed with gory videos of suicide bombings and war-zone atrocities. The furniture is of battered chipboard in most poor homes. But in the terrorist safe houses, the drawers are stuffed with forged documents, the unsorted documentation of credit frauds and propaganda espousing hatred of Jews and the west.

Lucky break
It is thanks only to a lucky break that the two Leicester men are no longer quietly committing their frauds and recruiting British-born Muslims to travel abroad for terrorist training. In 2001 the Dubai authorities arrested Djamel Beghal, the al-Qaida officer who allegedly recruited "shoe bomber" Richard Reid, on passport offences. Under interrogation, Beghal, who lived in Leicester between 1998 and 2000, admitted to plotting a bomb attack on the American embassy in Paris.

News of the arrest panicked an accomplice of Beghal, Kamel Daoudi. He fled Paris for the improbable terrorist hotspot of the Midlands city, a workaday place with a large Muslim population. He had been there just months before, visiting his contact Brahim Benmerzouga. The illegal immigrant from Algeria, 31, had arranged a trip for Daoudi to a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan.

This time MI5 was watching, on high alert following the Sept. 11 attacks on New York, in which Beghal was later implicated. With the police in tow, they swooped on the homes of Benmerzouga and his associate Bagdad Meziane, arresting both men along with their unexpected guest, who had arrived in the early hours of the morning. Daoudi, a computing expert, was carrying a laptop containing computer files on guerrilla warfare and the Taliban.

Daoudi was extradited to France, where he was this year jailed along with his mentor Behgal for the embassy bomb plot. The Leicester court had jailed Benmerzouga and Meziane for 11 years each two years earlier. They were convicted of raising about $434,000 (250,000 pounds) for al-Qaida through a series of credit card frauds. They were also found to have provided false passports, visas and military radio parts.

Polite but distant
The two men appeared calm, even cheerful as they sat in a bomb-proof dock at Leicester crown court during the lengthy trial, which included a five day hiatus for deliberations by the jury. Local people said the pair had always been polite but distant. The poor Prospect Hills district where they lived is ethnically diverse, with a large Bangladeshi population. However, the two Algerians, thought to have been radicalized by the savage civil war in that country, did not mix with Asian co-religionists. They worshipped at a small mosque where the preaching was in Arabic, rather than Bengali or English.

The two men arrived in the U.K. separately in 1997, traveling on false passports, although Meziane, 38, later succeeded in claiming political asylum. They both worked for a while in a factory in Corby making sandwiches, the kind of low-paid work where illegal immigrants face few questions. Mostly they subsisted through benefits fraud. They also appeared to make money by buying and selling old cars, which they repaired in the street.

Observers who sat through the endless hours of evidence in court were struck by how amateurish and low-rent the activities of the U.K.'s best documented al-Qaida cell were. It was the porousness of borders and the lack of checks on identities — arguably important elements to the free society Islamist extremists despise — that made it possible for the men to remit large sums to terrorists overseas.

The environment in which Meziane and Benmerzouga operated was similar to that evoked by Joseph Conrad in "The Secret Agent," a novel about eastern European anarchists sheltering in London in the 19th century. There, too, the activities of plotters living on the margins of normal society seemed cheap and trivial.

© The Financial Times Ltd 2013. "FT" and "Financial Times" are trademarks of the Financial Times.

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