The suicide bomber in his own words
Shazad Tanweer wrote the statement below on his university application form. Five years later this o
I have many interests and would like to keep my options open regarding my future career. I know that I am still curious about human behaviour and the scientific study of the human mind. I also have a keen interest in the way we grow physically as well as cognitively. I believe the 3 A levels that I am studying at present will enable me to continue my studies and hopefully help me find answers to some of my questions on human behaviour.
Like tens of thousands of other sixth-formers in the weeks before Christmas 2000, Shazad Tanweer sat down at a computer in Leeds one day and tried to sum up, in a few paragraphs, who he was and what he had achieved in his 17 years of life. This was the personal statement to accom-pany his Ucas application form - intended to give university admissions tutors an idea of the sort of person they might be inviting on to their campuses.
"I am a hard working young man with a friendly personality. My main hobbies apart from sports are socialising with my friends," he wrote. "I realise that self-discipline and hard work are required to succeed. However I am more determined than ever to work at my studies and I know that I can make a contribution to university life." He mentioned winning a local sports personality of the year award, a first place in the Leeds athletic championships, a trial with Yorkshire cricket club and a work placement teaching PE at a primary school.
And looking beyond university, he wrote: "I have many interests and would like to keep my options open regarding my future career. I know that I am still curious about human behaviour and the scientific study of the human mind. I also have a keen interest in the way we grow physically as well as cognitively. I believe the three A-levels that I am studying at present will enable me to continue my studies and hopefully help me find answers to some of my questions on human behaviour." Lucid and well-written, this was the work of a thoughtful young man, and a teacher at Tanweer's school, Wortley High, added a reference praising the writer's "commendable perseverance", his ability to "combat most problems", his "quick grasp of new ideas", his "natural ability" and his "quiet efficiency".
The submission date on the form is 14 December 2000. A little over four years later, in a borrowed council flat in Leeds, this same young man was employing his ability, his efficiency and his aptitude for science to create a solution of nail-varnish remover, peroxide and perfume so toxic that the fumes bleached his hair and the plants on the window sill withered. And on 7 July last year he boarded a train on the London Underground and, between Liverpool Street and Aldgate stations, detonated a bomb containing crystals from that solution, killing himself and seven other people.
Published here for the first time, the remarkable and vivid contents of Tanweer's Ucas form prompt a question that is heavy with implications for the future of Britain and its young Muslims. Somewhere in the years after 2000, this "motivated, modest and mature" young man, as the teacher described him, with a love of sport and an admirable curiosity about human nature, lost interest in his university ideal and became a suicide bomber. What changed him?
Private and reticent
A few months after sending off the form,Tanweer was accepted to study sports science at Leeds Metropolitan University. One of his tutors there, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me he came to be interviewed through a recommendation from another pupil of hers, Ajay, who was Tanweer's best friend during their time at Leeds Met. At the interview, Tanweer was "quite quiet", she said. "He didn't appear to be all that outgoing or bubbly, but he had the right credentials for the course."
Her impression was that he remained a reticent person throughout his time at university. "There was never any rapport with Shazad, and that was commented on by other staff as well. You know, it didn't feel like you got to know him in any way. You could classify [his nature] as private," she said. In his first year he got very good grades in some of his modules, but after that things started going downhill. First there was a problem of plagiarism - it appeared that Tanweer was copying from Ajay - and then his attendance fell away.
Tanweer gave university administrators a note, signed by his father, saying that his mother was sick and he had to work in the family chip shop. The tutor says that when she asked Tanweer about this, he snapped. "It was like: 'You don't understand. I've had to help out and you don't understand that that's what I'm expected to do. Get off my case.' I suppose he was challenging my understanding of his culture." In her five years of teaching, she said, Tanweer was only the second student to shout at her.
By the end of the second year, Tanweer had almost stopped attending. He passed the second year of the course, entitling him to a qualification, but unlike his friend Ajay he decided not to enrol for the third year, which would lead to a full degree.
From 2003 it is harder to piece Tanweer's life together. We do know that he really did work in the family chip shop at the top of Beeston's main street, Tempest Road. The shop is small, with room for only four or five people, but from 11.30am to 5pm it is almost always full.
A little further down the road are the other buildings of local importance: the Hardy Street Mosque, the Hamara Healthy Living Centre and on Lodge Lane the Leeds Youth Access Point. A hundred metres down is the Tanweer family home, one of the few detached houses in an area of dilapidated Victorian terraces; and near the bottom of the hill on the left is the Iqra bookshop. All these buildings, clustered no more than a short walk apart, played significant roles in Tanweer's life. When you consider that Beeston is cut off from the rest of Leeds by the M621 motorway, you get an idea of the village-like insularity of the place.
A friend of Tanweer's, who didn't want to be named, told me that Tanweer was always very friendly with customers. "If you used to go into the fish shop, he'd throw you in a free fish cake or a piece of chicken or something like that. He was a nice lad, how ya doin', how's family and that. Straightforward respect. He had beautiful customer service at the fish shop. So he was a nice guy and he was studying at university and, we knew, basically into Islam."
Tanweer also had two Sikh friends. "There were a few Sikh lads who were neighbours who live a few doors away from them. Two brothers that live there. They're about his age. Basically always you'd see them lads, nice peaceful lads who wouldn't say nothing to nobody for no reason. They just keep themselves to themselves."
That was before the end of 2003, at which point things started to change. "I started to see Shazad hanging around with Sid [Mohammad Sidique Khan, regarded as the leader of the 7 July bombers] and the rest of the boys, and then I thought, well it's probably that he's moved to, like, the more elder generation who started preaching Islam." Sidique Khan was seven years older than Tanweer.
I asked Shazad's younger brother, Nikki, about these changes, which came just as Shazad was turning 21. Nikki works in the chip shop and invited me upstairs to his father's little office to chat while he ate his fish dinner and drank his Coke. I asked him about the note that Shazad gave to the university, about his mother's illness and how he missed classes because he had to work in the chip shop. Nikki smiled. It wasn't true that their mother had been sick, he says. Shazad was just bored with college and didn't want to go any more - he had had the same problem at school. In fact, Nikki told me, Shazad wasn't doing much work at the chip shop either.
Tanweer's family - his parents, younger brother and two sisters - seem in the dark about his extremist activities. His father, Mohammed Mumtaz Tanweer, told reporters they were mystified: "All the bombings and killings were awful. Only the group of four or God alone knows why they carried out this terrible act." He went on: "As far as I can understand, my son was more British in h
More from New Statesman
- Online writers:
- Steven Baxter
- Rowenna Davis
- David Allen Green
- Mehdi Hasan
- Nelson Jones
- Gavin Kelly
- Helen Lewis
- Laurie Penny
- The V Spot
- Alex Hern
- Martha Gill
- Alan White
- Samira Shackle
- Alex Andreou
- Nicky Woolf in America
- Bim Adewunmi
- Kate Mossman on pop
- Ryan Gilbey on Film
- Martin Robbins
- Rafael Behr
- Eleanor Margolis