'He told me he was going to get 80 virgins'

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As police continued a fast-moving manhunt for the two men ­ along with two unknown accomplices ­ a contrasting picture of the pair emerged. Some friends said they were normal men who played football in the park every Sunday and, seemingly, both wanted to consider themselves part of British life. But another picture ­ of criminality, hardline Islamic beliefs and hostility to their adopted country ­ also emerged.

Said Ibrahim, 27, also known as Mohammed Said, arrived in Britain from Eritrea in 1992, aged 14, to join his family who had been in the country for two years. He was granted exceptional leave to remain and is believed to have lived with his family in Henselin Close in the Stanmore area on the northern outskirts of London and, until 1994, attended Canons High School in Edgware. He was granted British citizenship last September. Omar, 24, who arrived from Somalia in 1993 when he was 12, was granted indefinite leave to remain here.

Ibrahim appears to have had a chequered life. Reports emerged last night suggesting that he was convicted at the age of 17 for being part of a teenage gang which terrorised commuters at railway stations.

The gang was reportedly caught robbing at knifepoint in 1995, and Ibrahim is believed to have been sentenced to five years in jail in 1996, qualifying for early release in 1998. Reports last night suggested he had served time in Huntercombe Young Offenders Institution in Oxfordshire and a prison in Aylesbury.

The Home Office was unable to comment last night on how Ibrahim was able to obtain a British passport following his conviction and prison sentence.

His family said yesterday that he left home in 1994 and had not visited for "many months". In a statement, they said they were "shocked" by the naming of their son as a suspected bomber.

One neighbour, Anthony Nolan, 25, said: "[Said Ibrahim] just seemed so normal. I don't think there is any suicide-bomber look, but nevertheless he just seemed a friendly guy. I probably only ever saw him around here twice in the years they've lived here."

Other neighbours said that Said Ibrahim spoke Arabic and had been to Saudi Arabia in 2003, the same year that he applied to become a British citizen.

For some time, he had been living with Omar and two other unidentified men in a ninth-floor, one bedroom council flat in Curtis House on an estate in New Southgate in north London.

Omar had been placed in foster care by Enfield council after arriving in Britain without his family. He lived with his foster parents until the age of 18, before being housed in the borough when he was given indefinite leave to remain. It is not known how the two men met.

One local shop owner said Omar had tried to steal food and was "always looking for ways to make money". Another witness said Said Ibrahim could be regularly seen outside Arnos Grove Tube station, some four minutes walk from Curtis House, smoking marijuana.

Omar, the official tenant, was behind with the rent and may have faced eviction proceedings. His income support payments were stopped in June, although it is not clear why.

Said Ibrahim is believed to have recently moved out and been living in Hackney ­ although he returned regularly to Southgate. It was Hackney where the bus on which he was said to have left a bomb was bound, but the police and Hackney council were unable to provide details about where he might have lived.

At Curtis House, the two men joined others in regular trips to the park. Vance Noor, 18, who lives in an adjoining housing block, said: "The two guys would come out every Sunday. It was always around the same time ­ 4pm to 7pm. They were part of a group of about 11 Somalis who used to come out to play [football]. The two guys ran about loads, especially the tubby one [Ibrahim], who was a mad tackler. He always gave as good as he got on the pitch.

"They didn't have sports clothes ­ they wore jeans and T-shirts but they did have football boots. They just seemed to be normal guys. They were friendly but didn't talk much beyond that. We just knew them as regular guys. They weren't that good at football though."

There was another side to the men, who began holding prayer meetings in Curtis House. It is not known whether either man visited local mosques, but some reports linked Said Ibrahim with mosques in Finsbury Park and Brixton.

Kausor, 23, an Asian man who said the pair had recently persuaded him to become more devout, said: "They were devout Muslims. They prayed five times a day. We talked about Islam and current issues. We talked about the Ummah [Muslim brotherhood] and how it was being attacked."

Said Ibrahim was also reported to have grown a beard and to have begun wearing traditional dress. A neighbour of Ibrahim, Sarah Scott, age 23, who lives two doors down from the Stanmore home Ibrahim used to live with his parents, described a conversation they had last November. "We were standing outside our houses chatting. He asked me if I was religious and I said I did not believe in anything. He said I should. He told me he was going to get 80 virgins when he got to heaven if he praised Allah.

"He smiled and laughed as he said it, then he gave me this book about Islam and told me to read it.

"He was quite Westernised. The reason we got friendly was because we used to sit outside our parents' houses to smoke. I've known him since I was 11. When I saw the photograph of Said in the paper it all made sense.I remembered what he had said to me and I was terrified."

Miss Scott, a shop assistant, said Ibrahim had visited his parents' home two weeks ago. She said he had never mentioned jihad or terrorism, but gave her a pamphlet, Understanding Islam, with highlighted passages, one of which read: "Anyone who says 'there is no God except Allah' and dies holding to that will enter paradise."

Yesterday, the flat at Curtis House remained sealed off, suspected of being the "bomb factory" where the men made the devices that failed to explode last week. The search continued for its last occupants, captured on CCTV, about bomb the city that adopted them.

The immigration question

Tens of thousands of asylum-seekers fleeing turmoil in east Africa have arrived in Britain over the past decade.

About one third have been granted asylum after satisfying the Home Office that they face torture or persecution if they are sent home.

Another third have been allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds. Typically - and like Muktar Said Ibrahim and Yasin Hassan Omar, who came as dependants of adult relatives who claimed asylum - they have been granted exceptional leave to remain, usually for a period of four years.

They can then reapply for that permission or to be awarded the status of indefinite leave to remain, as Omar did.

Eventually the option of applying for British citizenship is open to refugees, providing they can satisfy the authorities that they speak good English and that they are of good character.

According to the Home Office, 43,225 Somalians, excluding dependants, applied for asylum between 1995 and 2003. About 16,000 were granted asylum and another 15,000 were given exceptional leave to remain.

Some 4,670 Eritreans applied for asylum over the period, with 1,125 awarded asylum or given permission to stay. However, failed asylum-seekers are not returned to the two countries because of unrest there. Much of Somalia is gripped by civil war, while reports of torture and repression have come from Eritrea.

Police and immigration officials are checking through the records of tens of thousands of asylum-seekers from east Africa in the 1990s in an attempt to identify associates of the bombers.

Nigel Morris