LEEDS, England — A gaggle of teenage boys and young men, all Muslim, stand on the street corner, watching and laughing.
They’re part of the story. They know they’re part of the story. And they don’t want to let you in on it.
“Tell George Bush I’ll talk for 50,000 pounds,” says one.
“Tell George Bush I’ll punch him in the jaw for 50,000 pounds,” says another.
They laugh. They’ve seen the media horde and stared it down. They’ve looked into the eye of the camera and not blinked.
“I don’t speak Eeeenglish,” says one of the young men, drawing out the word when approached by a reporter.
He stares at you, daring you to believe him. You don’t. These kids speak English like they were born here _ which they were.
You’ve come to their neighborhood because four young men _ one of them living on this block, Colwyn Road _ traveled from Leeds to London, bombs in their rucksacks, to blow a hole deep into British society and to blow themselves up in the process.
This was the nightmare conclusion to the London terror. The suicide bombers were British-born and British-schooled, and at least two lived their lives in this British neighborhood _ and somehow embraced what Prime Minister Tony Blair called an “evil ideology whose roots lie in a perverted and poisonous misinterpretation of the religion of Islam.”
You’ve come because you want to see the place and maybe find some clue as to how any of this could have emerged from here.
And if anyone knows, the young men on the corner might.
This is Beeston, a working-class neighborhood in the working-class city of Leeds, a city of 700,000 in the industrial north that dates back more than a thousand years. The red-brick houses date to Victorian times and suggest better days. They’re called back-to-back terraces _ row houses _ with narrow alleys separating one row from another.
Wash hangs from lines in the front lawns. Children play soccer in the alleys. Police tape blocks entry to Shahzad Tanweer’s house. It’s the big one, by neighborhood standards, with rosebushes in front and policemen on either side.
Tanweer, 22, was educated at Leeds, the university that is the centerpiece of this diverse town _ a town that is 15 percent Muslim, mostly Pakistani, and boasts 30 ethnicities.
Tanweer left his home last Thursday, went to London, and blew up himself and whomever else he could on the Aldgate train.
Tanweer’s uncle, Bashir Ahmed, talks to reporters and tells them that the news is unbearably shocking and that he’s not sure if his family can survive it. “Our lives have been shattered,” he says. “It’s impossible to describe it. We have had a very pleasant time here. I don’t think we can continue here.”
And down the block, Irshad Hassain invites you in for tea and conversation. He says that he has known the family for 25 years and can’t believe it’s possible.
“Nobody who has lived here, respecting the English people, can blow them up,” he says. He then proposes that the four bombers were “set up,” that they must not have known what they were doing.
“I believe there was a mastermind behind this who had to kill the four boys, because otherwise they would have had evidence,” Hassain says. “That is the reason they were blown up, because I don’t think they realized they were going to be killed.”
This is a theory that I hear often.
By all accounts, Tanweer fit in well with the neighborhood. He played cricket. He majored in sports science. He had many friends. Much is being made of the fact that he apparently recently went to Pakistan _ and, in another theory, that the trip might provide a vital clue.
The police are looking for a mastermind _ their term _ who might have persuaded the four bombers that there is some glory in killing innocent people.
You look around. You don’t see much glory.
You see cameras rolling and reporters saying that the neighborhood is devastated. And while that’s true, the neighborhood is also transfixed by the media circus that has descended upon it. One man who won’t give his name says, “People here are still trying to absorb what happened. When they get the answer, no one will be here to ask them. The cameras will all be gone.”
The worry here is of a backlash. “You’re making it worse, you lot,” says one man in a Muslim skullcap to a group of reporters. A man whose family comes from Northern Ireland tells me he heard rumors of an anti-foreigner march coming to the neighborhood.
Harry Broxholme, the cab driver who took me here from the Leeds train station, thinks the British laws aren’t tough enough on would-be terrorists.
“This little island should be easy to police,” he says. “If I say something wrong about someone from Pakistan, they’ll throw me in jail in two minutes. But if someone comes to a mosque and preaches the worst things about this country, nothing happens. Nothing.”
He drops me at South Leeds Fishery, a fish-and-chips place owned by Tanweer’s father, where Tanweer occasionally worked. The men who work there won’t talk, but some of the people who eat there will. They’ll tell you how shocked they are, how they can’t believe someone in their neighborhood was responsible.
As I walk back to Colwyn Road, I see a brown-skinned man and white-skinned man in a mock argument, maybe for the benefit of the cameras. “This is the good side of the block,” the brown-skinned man says. And they both laugh.
Standing outside his house is Eddie Healy, wearing a Yankees cap. He has lived here for years and says he finds the neighborhood “entertaining.” When the police came the other day, he says, “I thought it was a drug bust.”
He is not entertained by the latest news, though. Like everyone else, he is startled by it.
“It’s shocking that to think that people you know would want to go out and do that and say it’s for the greater good of their religion,” Healy says. “And all their religious leaders are absolutely distancing themselves from it.”
He says he worries about reprisals in Beeston. He says he also worries that there are more terrorists in the neighborhood.
It’s late in the afternoon. And there’s a news conference at the neighborhood Muslim center. Muslim and Christian leaders come together to show solidarity, and all the leaders say they had no clue of any radical elements in the community.
You know that can’t be the whole story. I walk into a barbershop, where you can usually get honest answers. Asad Qayyum is sitting with a group of men. When told about the news conference, he says emphatically, “They’re not telling the truth.”
He says that people come here preaching jihad _ and that everyone is aware of it. He says he worries about the young men in the neighborhood and who might try to influence them.
“You cannot go away from reality,” Qayyum says of the community leaders. “And, in my opinion, that is what they are doing.”
The truth is, of course, that four young men left Leeds last Thursday with terror in their hearts _ and that’s too much reality for anyone to avoid.
(Contact Mike Littwin of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)