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23 Arrests Preceded by Quiet English Lives

Times Staff Writer

They were middle-class university students and avid cricket players; one was studying biomedical sciences, another worked at Heathrow Airport, a third was a bookkeeper and a fourth drove a taxi.

They lived in tidy neighborhoods where Urdu and English mix, along with polo shirts and shalwar kameez, loose-fitting tunic and pants popular in South Asia. Where people cheer for the British soccer team after praying at the local mosque on Fridays. Many of the suspects have wives and small children. They went to work in the morning and came home for dinner in the evening.

Until Thursday, the 23 suspects in custody in Britain in the alleged airline bombing plot were largely unnoticed by their neighbors who, to a person, described them as living quiet, unremarkable lives.

The only noticeable feature, some said, was that in the last few months several had become more overtly devout, growing beards, wearing long robes and inviting others to the mosque. The change was especially marked in the two converts to Islam who had British parents.

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There are differences within the group, aged 17 to 35, with some less educated, but more are of middle-class backgrounds, apparently assimilated into British society, than the men involved in last summer’s suicide attacks on the London transit system that killed 52 people. But similar to that group, many of the suspects appeared to have become radicalized in Britain and had traveled to Pakistan, where they may have been directed toward violent activity through training or intellectual and spiritual instruction.

In all three communities where arrests were made -- East London, High Wycombe and Birmingham -- there are close ties to Pakistan. Merchants do a steady business in 20-pound sacks of basmati rice and immigrants know the price of a round-trip ticket to Karachi, and even airline schedules, by heart.

“It’s quite common to go back and forth here, everyone does,” said Ali Raza, 31, a taxi driver who was chatting with three Pakistani friends Friday afternoon across the street from the home of Ali Sarwar, one of those detained. “The travel office is right around the corner.”

An example of the ties are Tayib and Rashid Rauf, British nationals and close relatives arrested in the case, one in Pakistan and one in Britain.

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Of the 19 suspects whose assets were frozen by the Bank of England, 14 live in East London and four in High Wycombe. The 19th lives in Birmingham. Four others were also in custody Friday night in connection with the case.

In High Wycombe, the spartan two-story brick house at 36 Walton Drive looks exactly like its neighbors. And on a street where nearly every third house is home to Pakistanis, the occupants, two brothers of Pakistani background and their families, went about their business largely unnoticed. That changed dramatically early Thursday when, with helicopters hovering, police swooped in and grabbed Assad Sarwar, 26, who lived there with his wife and brother.

Sarwar and his brother attended the local school and were enthusiastic cricket players, said Ali Lone, 28, a former classmate who is a management consultant.

A neighbor who called herself Mrs. Ali, 25, a homemaker from Lahore, Pakistan, has lived down the street for two years. She said the only notable feature of the family was Sarwar’s wife. “The lady wears a burka, everything covered in black, except her eyes. It struck me.”

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A few blocks away on Hepplewhite Close is the home of Don Stewart-Whyte, a 21-year old recent convert to Islam, who lives there with his wife and mother. The block is well-groomed, with tall trees and flower plantings, and with immigrant and white British families. Several people expressed disbelief that Stewart-Whyte would be involved in terrorism.

Lone, who also grew up with Stewart-Whyte, described him as an exceptionally bright boy who was accepted to Dr. Challoner’s Grammar School, passing an entrance exam. However, he dropped out, Lone said.

Another longtime neighbor, Shauib Bahatti, who emigrated from Rawalpindi in Pakistan more than 20 years ago, said Stewart-Whyte had been a normal boy, an avid soccer player, who drank a little and smoked a little, “just like other boys.” He said Stewart-Whyte had recently converted and sometimes stopped by “to invite me to come with him to mosque.”

Most neighbors could not recall whether Stewart-Whyte had held a steady job recently and local news reports said he had worked at several places, including a local chain restaurant.

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Two neighbors said they believed he may have attended an informal mosque a few blocks away affiliated with Wahhabis, an extreme group of Sunni Muslims. At that site Friday evening, a bearded man in shalwar kameez refused to answer questions, saying there was no imam working there and the center was only a school -- despite a sign on the door saying, “Check with the imam or a representative before leaving any brochures or pamphlets.”

On the eastern edge of London, in the town of Walthamstow, one of the suspects detained is the son of an architect and an accountant. Oliver Savant adopted Islam, the name Ibrahim and Muslim-style dress about four or five years ago, neighbor Hazel Kleinman said.

“He lived next door and I’ve known him since he was born,” she said. “We were very shocked.”

Neighbors said Savant’s mother was British and his father was of Iranian origin. “He was the younger of two brothers, the other older brother was a high flier in the City,” doing well in London’s financial district.

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Walthamstow has long rows of small terraced houses. Once Cockney and Afro-Caribbean, it has become largely Muslim in the last two decades, neighbors said. On Queens Road, shops include an Asian food store, three jewelers as well as the New Stylish Hairdresser and Shahzad’s Fashion Garments.

On one side of Queens Road is the Masjid-e-Umer, the mosque where several of the suspects are believed to have prayed. No one from the mosque wanted to talk to the media until they had spoken to the building’s trustees. On the other side of the road is house number 104, with white lace drapes on the windows, pebbled stucco on the outer walls, and two policemen at the door.

It is the home of Waheed Zaman, 21, a biomedical student at London Metropolitan University, who is one of the educated members of the group. He was also an Islamic activist at the university and was reported to have spoken at rallies and written for the student magazine.

Zaman’s friend Nasser Fazal, 23, said, “I spoke to Waheed about the 11 September attacks a few times. He was convinced it was all a Jewish conspiracy.”

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In Britain, the investigation suggests that some of the suspects are involved in student organizations with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a worldwide Islamist group. Despite the rise of radicalism among Muslim students on campuses across the country, the Brotherhood-aligned groups are considered less militant than Hizb ut-Tahrir or the now-dissolved Al Muhajiroun, organizations that influenced British-Pakistani militants, including two young men who committed a suicide attack in Tel Aviv in 2003.

Several suspects in the alleged airline bombing plot belonged to the Federation of Student Islamic Societies, an umbrella group of youth organizations, British anti-terrorism officials said.

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Times staff writers Janet Stobart in London and Sebastian Rotella in Ferrol, Spain, and special correspondent Vanora McWalters in London contributed to this report.

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