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The town that grew the suicide bombers

Shortly after the London suicide bombings, journalists descended on the  neighborhood of Beeston in Leeds, where three of the four London suicide bombers were raised. NBC News’ Aram Roston recalls his visit.
First Anniversary Of London Bombs Remembered In Beeston
A man walks with a young boy in the alleyways of Beeston, in Leeds, on Thursday as daily life continues a year after three of the four London suicide bombers set out to launch their attacks.Christopher Furlong / Getty Images
/ Source: NBC News

In the British government report on last year's London terror bombings, a section is titled: "Social Life of the Young in Beeston."

The heading has the clinical tone of an anthropological treatise on a distant tribe but Beeston is just a drab and derelict neighborhood in Leeds, three hours north of London, where three of the four London suicide bombers were born and raised.

In the days after the bombing, dozens of journalists, myself included, descended into Beeston's narrow streets looking for some sort of insight into what drove the homegrown terrorists to commit their heinous acts.

Driving up Beeston Hill past grimy red brick homes, I initially got the same gut feeling as I had driving along an Appalachian hollow, though this was an urban version. Drying laundry fluttered over tiny weed gardens. A pregnant woman with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other watched a police car drive by.

But it was the teenagers, British Muslims of Pakistani descent, who stood at street corners, smoking and laughing and taunting police investigators, who offered clues to the "social life" of Beeston.

They wore tracksuits and gold chains or imitation designer jeans and tank-tops, and their hair was gelled and well groomed. They had grown up around the bombers, and the thought was, maybe their experiences could offer some insights into what turned locals into eligible suicide bombers.

Did the alienation, cultural clashes and malaise play a role? Did it make the killers easy prey to al-Qaida recruiters? Or could it have been any place, anywhere, any hard luck town with a pub at the bottom of the hill and a mosque down the street?

Mixed neighborhood
Beeston, a poor racially mixed community, is lined with small row houses built in another era to house the factory workers who were one of the cornerstones of the British industry. The neighborhood has long accommodated immigrant communities — from Asia in the 1960’s to Eastern Europe and Africa today. Reportedly, almost half the households now are on some sort of state assistance.

The house of Hasib Hussain's family was better tended then most in the neighborhood, with flowers on the windowsill. At 18, Hussain was the youngest of the suicide bombers, and had killed 13 innocent people with his bomb on a double-decker bus.

A man dressed in a black t-shirt and slacks squatted on the ground leaning against a lamppost. He said he was Hussain's cousin, but didn't want his name used.

Hussain's relative was drinking a beer there on the sidewalk. "I'm a Muslim," he told me, "I'm just not a good one," he said, lifting the can up. It was Budweiser.

He seemed numb from grief, or perhaps he was drunk. I asked him if his cousin, had become more religious recently, and he nodded. For the family, which was somewhat secular, that had been treated as a confusing but quite positive development.

His acknowledgement reflected a trend that was evident among the groups of Pakistani-British teens — even these irreverent young men were attentive to the pious men of the neighborhood, and to their friends as they became more studious.

One youngster told me that when Shehzad Tanweer, who blew himself up near London’s Liverpool Station killing seven other people, appeared to be getting more religious, that had widely been regarded with admiration.

Tanweer, 22, was an integral part of the neighborhood. His father was a local businessman who owned a fish and chips shop and was considered prosperous.

In fact Tanweer, a strapping gregarious fellow, was so outwardly well-adjusted that the very day before the bombing he was playing cricket in the Cross Flatt's park, just down the street. It was a gracious park, with old trees and pleasant footpaths around large fields where boys could play soccer.

Violent tinge
When I visited the park one afternoon, a crowd gathered in preparation for a pickup soccer game. One teenager with a swagger, who had earlier told me he knew Tanweer, began to yell at a little stray dog looking for attention, and then threw a small log at the mutt. He must have broken its leg, and everyone laughed at the dog as it limped away.

Shortly after that incident there was a commotion under a large tree. Two young blond women had begun a fistfight, and young men circled around, calling out as they would to a pair of boxers. The woman fell to the ground and bashed each other in the dirt until one of the older men of the community broke up the fight, and the two women, blood pouring from their noses, walked away.

The man who broke up the fight was named Jimmy Hussein and he came over to talk. The diversity of the neighborhood, he pointed out, was driven home in the way that an "Asian" man like himself would graciously break up a fight between two "British" women as he called them.

He was in his thirties, but he reminisced about the old days in his Yorkshire accent. Back in the eighties, he said, he and the others of Pakistani origin banded together to rumble in the streets against the brutal skinheads of Leeds. His father, from another culture, told him to stay at home, but he'd sneak out to join the fray. Now things were stable in the neighborhood, although the young people still need a united front, he said.

As for the terror attacks committed by men from his neighborhood, he condemned them, and then launched into a rambling speech on foreign policy.

"If America goes to Iraq or Afghanistan," he asked absurdly, sticking his chest out, "what stops them from going here tomorrow?" he asked.

Youth mentor?
Down Hardy Street, several blocks from that park, one of the local mosques is housed in an unremarkable two-story brick building. Up above the frieze, in stone, are carved the words "Leeds Industrial Cooperative Society Ltd. 1897."

It was in the basement of that building that the ringleader of the bombing plot, Mohammad Sidique Khan, 30, used to work with local youngsters. Khan, the father of a 14-month-old daughter, blew himself up near the Edgware Road underground station in London, killing seven people.

It is anyone's guess what he taught his students. Whatever it was, one of his diligent pupils was Tanweer, and another was Hussain.

Khan mentored local youths, and worked as teaching assistant at the local school. The British government report on the bombing speculates that "Khan used the opportunities these places afforded at least to identify candidates for indoctrination..."

Asif Iqbal, 20, with a scraggly beard on a handsome face, angrily tried to defend Khan and the other bombers. "I didn't say it's right or wrong, I'm saying why have they done it? Get your head around that! He wasn't twisted or brainwashed... taking the easy way out, some criminal mastermind. This isn't no Hollywood blockbuster,” argued Iqbal. “They did what they believe from the heart. And people can't accept they could do something for what they believe in... If it's right or wrong, that's what they believed in."

Khan had grown up in Beeston, but later moved about 20 minutes away to a town called Dewsbury, where he married the daughter of a local woman active in philanthropy. Their neighbors said Khan's wife wore the complete abaya head-covering.

Vague definition of 'extremism'
One place Khan held forth, according to the locals, was a bookshop called the Iqra Learning Center. The police raided it and closed it down although it is unclear what intelligence they gained from the location.

One of the founders of the center, a friendly and polite man named Mohammed Zahir, had a little forked beard, wore a traditional robe and ran the Zakaria Money Saver Super Store. Framed Quranic verses decorated the walls of his shop, and the shelves were packed with soap, plastic buckets and electric fans.

What Zahir had to say about when asked about that attacks underlined how fluid the definition of "extremism" can be. "There is absolutely no extremism at all," he said, "just talk about how the West is oppressing Muslims and non-Muslims."

As Zahir was explaining his philosophy on extremism, an old English grandmother wearing a dress hobbled into the shop to buy a can of paint. She had no money on her, she told Zahir.

"Money is not the important thing for me," he cried out, "so long as I see a smile on your face." She did smile, and she tottered out of the store with the paint can. She too, was part of the social life of Beeston.

Aram Roston is an NBC News Investigative Unit Producer.