The deadly existence of a quiet man

Darcus Howe on Dhiren Barot, the al-Qaeda plotter who was jailed for life earlier this month

Not much is known, even now, about this al-Qaeda sleeper, Dhiren Barot, but the simple fact is that he was trained in faraway places with strange-sounding names to visit upon us, his fellow residents of the UK, the most appalling violence. He pleaded guilty to all the charges of conspiracy to murder. "Guilty" was the only word to fall from his lips. He sat in court throughout the sentencing hearing, flicking through his papers impassively. No Islamic rhetoric, no defiance in the name of the Prophet.

I know that, in this country, there are thousands of Pakistani Muslims, men and women, who are determined to enter the process of modernisation on their own terms. I have met them, and continue so to do. Some of them, young men in the main, speak of violence as a necessary part of their struggles. The most heated discussions revolve around the al-Qaeda line that all non-Muslims are potential targets, all 50 million of us in the UK. After all, they argue, we voted for Tony Blair and his government and are therefore responsible for the invasion of Iraq. But a lot of it is bluff and bluster. They do not number, as the head of MI5 suggests, 1,600 potential Dhiren Barots. Just a handful would emerge as bombers.

In all my peregrinations throughout the black and Asian movement on British soil, I have never met anyone whose personal profile remotely resembles that of Dhiren Barot.

He was brought up a Hindu in Kingsbury, a nondescript suburb in north-west London; he converted to Islam in the fret and fever of the radicalisation of Pakistani youth. His parents are East African Asians, culturally millions of miles away from the Pakistani community. He attended Kingsbury Grammar School, gained a handful of O-levels, then went to a further education college to study tourism of all things, acquiring a City & Guilds certificate for his efforts. Barot sat at his Air Malta station in the West End selling tickets. He had no friends, no enemies: to all appearances just a simple, self-contained lad at ease with his ticketing career.

All this puzzled me until I recalled the eponymous hero in Bartleby, the Scrivener, a Herman Melville short story, who copied legal documents by hand, content to continue this boring work as a life-long activity. Whenever Bartleby was asked to deviate from his set job, he would reply: "I prefer not to." He would not swerve an inch from the path he had set himself. Here lies the similarity with Barot. One day Barot announced to his boss and fellow workers, who had expected him to stay at his station at Air Malta until his retirement: "I prefer not to."

He said quietly: "I'm off on a long journey abroad." And off he went to the east, accumulating all this know-how of military matters in his cool and quiet way, reducing, by his manner, this extraordinary activity to a simple ordinariness.

He returned to London, where he was arrested and taken to Paddington police station. Under interrogation, he answered the questions with Bartleby's mantra, or near enough: "I prefer not to." He saw nothing extraordinary in murdering thousands of people with the same ease as he sold thousands of tickets. We may never see his like again. I prefer not to.