They first became known to the world as blurry images from subway cameras. But the men accused of attempting to bomb London’s transit system July 21 had clearly defined their militancy in the months leading up to the failed attacks.
The suspects had sharpened their radicalism in the streets, mosques and housing projects of rough ethnic neighborhoods, investigators, witnesses and friends say. They were brazen voices in an unsuspecting city, marginalized East Africans who lived by their wits, dabbling in street crime and reportedly manipulating the immigration and welfare systems. During workouts at a West London gym, they channeled their private rage into public diatribes.
Brothers Ramzi and Wharbi Mohammed sold Islamic literature and recited religious verses on a gritty North Kensington street of antiques stores and cafes, skirmishing with a shop owner who chased them away. Hamdi Issac, now jailed in Rome, belonged to a gang of extremists who waged a belligerent campaign to take over a mosque in South London. Roommates Muktar Said Ibrahim and Yasin Hassan Omar were loud militants, praising Osama bin Laden to neighbors at the rundown building where Ibrahim is accused of preparing five backpack bombs.
Their agitation allegedly gave way to action after July 7, when four young British Muslims, three from the northern city of Leeds, ignited bombs on three subway cars and a bus, killing themselves and 52 others. Issac claims that his group struck two weeks later in an improvised, independent tribute to the dead bombers. Despite similar methods and targets, British authorities say they have found no link between the two plots.
In any case, those who had run-ins with the July 21 suspects remember aggressive rhetoric rooted in anger against Britain’s support of U.S. policy in Iraq. During interrogations in Italy, Issac has returned obsessively to the war in Iraq, a senior Italian anti-terrorism official said.
“He’s calm -- he seems scared,” said the Italian official, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons. “He’s open, gentle, polite; he doesn’t get mad even when you provoke him. But when you ask him why he did it, he starts with the speech about Iraq: They are killing women and children, no one’s doing anything about it, on and on. That’s when you can see there has been a brainwashing.”
The men’s outspokenness reflects the unpredictability of potential jihadis. The 19 hijackers involved in Sept. 11, for example, masked their deadly intentions by trying to blend into Western society. Militants in Europe in other cases have been less discreet: Before setting off to fight and die with militants in Iraq last year, a group of young Parisian jihadis first caught the attention of police with aggressive behavior at street protests against banning Islamic head scarves in schools.
The suspects in the attempted London bombings were also preoccupied with other things: They dedicated themselves to ripping off the state, authorities say. They resided in public housing, collected unemployment and welfare benefits and used multiple identities to bilk the government for large sums, investigators say.
“These were people who came as refugees, were made welcome and treated properly,” said a British official who asked to remain anonymous. “And they decided to abuse the social security system to a huge degree.”
Months before the failed attacks, the Mohammed brothers strolled amid the shopkeepers and cafe owners on Golborne Road in North Kensington, a stretch of dusty awnings, shops and Moroccan grills where incense whirls with scents of mint tea and fish on ice. Golborne is a testament to the neighborhood’s shifting ethnic dynamic: The Portuguese who first migrated here have given way to Moroccans and East Africans and, according to residents, rising crime.
Ramzi and Wharbi set up a tarp-covered stall on the corner of Golborne and Wornington roads, half a block from the clattering cups at Lisboa Patisserie, where the men often relaxed over coffee.
“They were handing out Islamic literature, and I had a kind of altercation with them,” said a neighborhood antiques dealer, who feared retribution and gave his name only as Jerome. “There were four or five of them. They spoke in Arabic and English. I thought they were being unbearable and intense and I asked them to leave. They had had the stall for months and didn’t have a license.”
The brothers moved down the street and eventually disappeared. Ramzi, 23, lived about two miles away in Dalgarno Gardens, a maze of brick buildings that shadow drug dealers and working-class families.
“Ramzi was a cool guy,” said Jamal Kamiri, sitting the other day on a bench behind Ramzi’s apartment. “When I was younger, he used to play football with us. He used to carry a 9-millimeter pistol, but guns are common here and he wasn’t a troublemaker. He carried it for protection.
“Ramzi disappeared for about nine weeks in 2003. I don’t know where he went. When he came back, he was more religious. He started carrying the Koran and dressed in more traditional clothing like those long Pakistani shirts.”
The Mohammed brothers are now in jail. Wharbi is charged as an accomplice.
On July 21, the short, sturdily built Ramzi was photographed wearing a New York sweatshirt while sprinting away from the scene of the attempted bombing at the Oval subway station in South London, police say.
Issac, the suspect being held in Rome, lived in a ground-floor two-bedroom apartment near that station.
Neighbors remember Issac, 27, as a muscular man with a long beard who wore Islamic robes even while riding his mountain bike in the predominantly black Stockwell area. He regularly made the long trek to the Finsbury Park Mosque in North London, a notorious crossroads for multiethnic terrorist networks, according to Issac’s confession in Rome.
When London police cracked down on the mosque in 2003, Issac set his sights on his own neighborhood. He joined a group of about 20 militants who had left Finsbury Park and tried to take over a mosque in Stockwell, said Toaha Qureshi, a mosque trustee.
“These are angry young men,” Qureshi said in an interview. “Those people who do not agree with their ideology are their enemies, whether they are Muslim or not.... He was inciting racial and religious hatred. He was trying to turn our mosque into another Finsbury Park.”
As the feud escalated, Issac’s group handed out leaflets and harassed worshipers and sometimes children, Qureshi alleged. “We even had a few scuffles with them,” he said. “They resorted to fisticuffs.” Mosque leaders went to police, who helped them fend off the radicals’ challenge by installing security cameras and limiting access to the premises, Qureshi said. The harassment subsided over the last year.
Issac is the youngest of five brothers from a predominantly Muslim region of Ethiopia near the Somali border. Issac and two brothers joined the immigrant diaspora to Italy in 1989.
But police do not believe Issac was radicalized in Italy. As a teenager, he studied at a vocational center, enjoyed hip-hop music and dated an Italian girl who nicknamed him Bambi because of his big eyes. He departed for Britain in 1996. Exploiting British laws that virtually guaranteed residence to refugees from war-torn Somalia, he posed as a Somali and adopted the alias Hussain Osman.
The masquerade did not end there. Issac used five false identities and alternately claimed Eritrean or Somali nationality to obtain welfare benefits fraudulently, according to British authorities.
In London, he married Yeshiemebet Girma, the daughter of an Ethiopian diplomat. They have three children, including a 7-month-old baby. Girma, 29, and her sister, a recent university graduate, are now in jail charged with assisting Issac while he was a fugitive.
Neighbors noticed that Issac’s appearance changed during the last year. He shaved his beard and abandoned his robes in favor of jeans. They also reportedly saw him in the company of Ibrahim, 27, the chunky, goateed ex-convict who was the recruiter and mastermind of the plot, according to Issac’s confession in Rome.
Ibrahim, an Eritrean immigrant, obtained British citizenship last September despite having served a five-year prison sentence for armed robberies. He found Islam in the same penitentiary where radical imams converted Richard Reid, the convicted shoe-bomber of Jamaican descent imprisoned in the U.S. for trying to blow up a Paris-to-Miami flight.
Like Issac, Ibrahim was fond of aliases. He used six false identities and two national insurance numbers to collect assistance illegally, officials say. He had a gregarious, sometimes bombastic manner, according to neighbors at Curtis House, the North London public housing complex where he lived in a dilapidated, crime-ridden apartment tower.
Neighbors and local merchants recall Ibrahim hanging out with his gangly Somali roommate, Omar, a former foster child. Omar is accused of attempting to bomb a train near the Warren Street subway station. The duo played spirited games of soccer in nearby Arnos Park, neighbors said in interviews, and even took part in a tenant meeting with a legislator to complain about water leaks that had flooded their ninth-floor apartment. But the two also spouted radical sentiments and praised Bin Laden during visits to a local grocery.
Investigators believe Ibrahim and Omar may have first met the other suspects at the Finsbury Park Mosque. But Issac told Italian investigators that Ibrahim emerged as the group’s leader during workouts at a gym in West London, the senior Italian anti-terrorism official said.
That gym was apparently an outlet of the Fitness First chain located among fast-food outlets on the first floor of a shopping mall near the Shepherd’s Bush subway station, the scene of one of the attempted bombings. Employees declined to comment about the suspects. The bomb that Ibrahim allegedly used to try to blow up a double-decker bus July 21 was contained in a sports bag issued by the Fitness First chain, authorities say.
In addition to workouts, Ibrahim led discussions about politics, mainly condemnations of the U.S. and British role in the Iraq war, authorities say.
Ibrahim showed videos of bloodshed in Iraq to his recruits, who included an African now believed to have been a failed fifth bomber, the Italian anti-terrorism official said. Investigators think he was Manfo Kwaku Asiedu, 32, a Ghanaian charged last week as a conspirator.
Unlike the bombs used in the deadly July 7 attacks, the devices found two weeks later featured a classic signature of suicide attackers: hand-triggers requiring the bombers to ignite the explosives, the Italian official said.
In another event consistent with the mentality of imminent suicide bombers, Omar, 24, was married at his neighborhood North Finchley Mosque just four days before the attacks, a mosque official said in an interview. Past cases suggest that militants, including some of the Sept. 11 bombers, often undergo drastic, even life-affirming, rituals before an attack.
“It was just a small, normal wedding with the guardian and two witnesses,” said the official, who had said earlier that Omar had in the past criticized the mosque for not espousing radical Islam. “There was a feast in the mosque. His family and friends attended.”
Nonetheless, Issac has insisted to interrogators that Ibrahim’s plan was to frighten Londoners and make a political statement, not kill anyone. Issac claimed that the bombs contained a nonlethal mix of explosives that also included flour. He also denied any ties to a larger network such as Al Qaeda.
But British investigators continue hunting for links between the July 7 and July 21 cases.
“They don’t put much stock in this claim that [the July 21 group] just wanted to make a symbolic act,” the Italian anti-terrorism official said.
Brazen or clandestine, improvised copycats or trained Al Qaeda soldiers, the alleged would-be bombers apparently crossed the line between talk and action with alarming speed.
Ibrahim designated the targets and built the knapsack bombs, according to Issac’s confession, using “a very basic design,” the Italian official said.
“Muktar prepared all five backpacks in 24 hours,” the official said, citing Issac’s confession. “And they were ready to go.”
Times staff writer Janet Stobart and special correspondent Vanora McWalters contributed to this report.