When MI5 recently stepped up their investigations into the whereabouts of Islamic terrorists in London, news leaked out of some startling intelligence about Osama bin Laden's alleged trusted lieutenant, Khalid al-Fawwaz.
It was suggested, first, that he had been living in Britain for years with his family; second, that he had a day job as a civil servant in Neasden; third, that he allegedly directed operations for what The Sun called "the UK arm of the Islamic war lord's terror group" from a semi-detached house in Dollis Hill; fourth, that when bin Laden needed a satellite telephone, al-Fawwaz allegedly bought one for him in a shop off the North Circular Road, posted it to America and arranged to get it into his alleged boss's hands via Pakistan; fifth, that when the terror group he is alleged to have run received tens of thousands of pounds from bin Laden, they sensibly opened a savings account at Barclays, Notting Hill; and, sixth, that when the al-Qa'ida group claimed responsibility for the 1998 bomb attacks on the American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, al-Fawwaz's alleged cell chose the local fax shop, the Grapevine in Kilburn High Road ("Call the world for less"), to do it from.
Terrorism is no laughing matter, but there's something about this putative combination of fundamentalism and fax machines, mullahs and memoranda, that's gratifyingly absurd. British humour is uniquely place-sensitive and politically conservative. The central premise of the TV sitcom Citizen Smith was the patent absurdity of a south-east London Marxist cell (led by "Wolfie" Smith) called the Tooting Popular Front. Peter Sellers made a record inviting listeners to marvel at "Bal-ham – Gateway to the South". And readers of Private Eye will know how engrained on the British consciousness are the suburbs of Neasden and Dollis Hill, those twin monuments to glum, unexcitable mediocrity.
It leaves one startled even to imagine that such places could be crucibles of terrorism. But, of course, their very mediocrity and facelessness is what makes the flyblown satellite districts of London the perfect settings for desperate men plotting unimaginable acts of destruction. Did we imagine that, when bin Laden and his henchmen plotted how to make two jets crash into the Twin Towers, they sat around a boardroom table in Peshawar with an entourage of mad-eyed suicide bombers and a committee of Taliban zealots? Did it never occur to us that the terrorists' operating centre might be a front room in a London side-street, with the rattle and whine of motorway traffic in the distance and the clank of English trains forming the soundtrack for their soft, utterly determined negotiations? Well, perhaps it did; but only now has the thought sunk in.
The past fortnight has seen a whole series of arrests from respectable urban and suburban homes, in Europe and in America, several of which are pictured here. Some will no doubt turn out to have been arrests of innocents, just as it may well turn out that some of the the homes in our photographs have never housed any but the most upright, innocuous residents. There have certainly been many confident statements from investigators about various suspects that have turned out to be quite wrong. But that is not the point. The point is that the seeds of doubt have been sown.
In the reasonable modern mind-set, the suburbs can no longer be seen as comfortable, slightly absurd places for the semi-retired and the unadventurous. In a war where the biggest threat is not from an expansionist nation but from a secret alignment of invisible enemies in the arid hills of Asia Minor, Western suburbia has become the new front line. No longer will Slough or Bexleyheath, Richmond or Theydon Bois be considered beyond the pale of world events. It is from just such modest surroundings that terrorists may now be expected to emerge, like rats from the basement; and it is from precisely such modest, unassuming backyards that the battle – a chemical battle, a random strike, a stray bomb, a 747 falling out of the sky – will be directed.
Charles McGrath, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, recognised this on the fateful day as he stood on his New Jersey porch watching Manhattan smoulder. "As night fell," he wrote, "those of us who were home had a gin and tonic or a glass of chardonnay and exchanged news, what little there was. Like everyone else in America, we realised we were living in someplace new. Its exact boundaries were still unclear, but wherever it was, it had no suburbs."
There's a special don't-blame-me pathos about the houses where terrorists are alleged to have lived – the look of a family dog who has turned and savaged the toddler in his cot, and now knows that he is doomed.
Check out the residence in Dollis Hill where al-Fawwaz is accused of having plotted. It's a small, mean-looking, metal-windowed, two-storied place, with a pitched roof and a glass front door. Think Through the Keyhole. What kind of people lived here? The Sky mini-dish, stuck like a giant fly on the pebble-dashed frontage, is a misleading clue. It suggests that the inhabitants are more keen on sport, movies and the shopping channel than on any pretensions to smartness. Above the door a message in Arabic dedicates the house "In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful" – a fine sentiment for the merciless to endorse, but also, less ironically, for the upright wrongly-accused. Either way, it's one nicely counter-balanced by the Metropolitan Police anti-burglary sticker in the front window. The curtains are firmly drawn, in a way that suggests they've been drawn all day long for several weeks, the occupants shunning the light of day for the sickly illumination of the 40-watt bulb.
But that's just stereotypical projection. We cannot assume that everyone who has been rounded up in connection with the current terror inquiries has committed any crime; and nor, even if we could, could we know how the average fundamentalist mastermind works. Yet that does not prevent us from imagining them perched, all day, over maps of Manhattan, frowning at diagrams of airport layouts, sternly inspecting timetables of American and United Airlines, and dreaming of post-mortem glory in Paradise with 72 virgins. It's hard to imagine them doing ordinary things – going into the kitchen, for instance, and making themselves a cheese and pickle sandwich. Or watching sport, movies and the shopping channel. But they just might. In fact, guilty or innocent, they probably did. What was it Hannah Arendt said about "the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil"?
Or check out this utterly typical three-storey house in South London. Its two floors of bulky bay windows, topped by a servants'-quarters attic, the faux-posh pillars around the front door, the pathetic plastic air-vents and window box all yell "Brixton" at you. It's a place whose ground floor you'd rent shortly after leaving university, and whose whole three floors you might buy in your thirties for its "potential". But this house is where Zacarias Moussaoui lived, a man who is alleged to have linked up with and perhaps also housed some of the 11 hijackers who passed through London between January and June this year before they re-located to the US and killed some 7,000.
Moussaoui is now under arrest in America. Does he miss the doner kebabs at the Palace Taverna, the easy-terms bike shop, the Superfoods convenience store and the plethora of off-licences in the Brixton Road? And, assuming that he is the rabid fundamentalist he's alleged to be, did the presence of so much multi-cultural humanity make him think any differently about the Judeo-Christian tyranny of the decadent West?
Terrorists – and less clear-cut supporters of "direct action" – seem to have a virtual fetish about suburbia. They seem mesmerically drawn to the margins of cities where life is supposedly more relaxed, more genteel and polite than the howling vulgarities and competitive stress of the Big Smoke. Where Betjeman once wrote about the "chintzy chintzy cheerfulness" of his snoozing suburbanites, politico-religious extremists now plot random destruction. The IRA, who once ran a bomb factory near Clapham Junction, now have a cell in Ealing, where two bombs have so far been detonated. A security firm that trains British Muslims to fight in Afghanistan is based above a refrigerator repair shop in Battersea. (Their induction into the arts of knife-fighting, sniping and ambushing is conducted in a mosque in Finsbury Park.) Ibrahim Eidarous, an alleged leader of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, lived in a small, mid-terrace house in Willesden Green. ("You'd think butter wouldn't melt in his mouth," said a neighbour. "It's hard to imagine he would be involved with the things he has been accused of.") He and al-Fawwaz are reported to have run an office together, under the name of the Advice and Reformation Committee, from an office in Beethoven Street, in north-west London's Queen's Park.
Further afield, news breaks almost daily of terrorists having made temporary homes in ordinary places: in apartment buildings on the outskirts of Miami, in the back end of Michigan, in California, in Hamburg, or, most recently, in Spain, where Mohamed Atta – who piloted the first aircraft into the first tower – stayed in Salou in July. Some of the places are little more than glorified youth hostels; others have Moroccan-style white walls to make foreigners feel at home, while some are garish as sticky cakes. What they have in common with the suburban dwellings raided in Britain is their air of outraged innocence and gulled stupidity. It will be hard to look at such buildings in the future as inoffensive leisure accommodation.
Can these really be the operations centres of the Third World War? Can we assume that it's in, and from, the homes of suburbia that the offensives will be organised? That, instead of a conventional war with armies and barracks and front-lines, these twitching-curtained windows will conceal the making of deadly plans, the verbal negotiations of suicide, the deployment of dead-eyed zealots on to the Tube to Heathrow? That's probably pitching it a little high. The chances of any of us discovering that our genial neighbour has been secretly brewing up sarin gas in his potting shed, or e-mailing the bin Laden "base" in Peshawar, are infinitesimal. But that's what's so disturbing about this change in our worldview: we have begun to regard our fellow citizens with a new, and in nearly every case unjustified, paranoia.
For the most part, this paranoia is only lightly held. My Dulwich neighbours on the school run make little jokes about the mist on the playing fields being an anthrax cloud, without literally believing they will imminently be gassed. But we won't think of home and security and an Englishman's castle in the same way ever again.
There is, though, one symbol of hope; and, perhaps surprisingly, it's found in Neasden, the butt of so many jokes and home of Khalid al-Fawwaz. For the past six years in Neasden, in among the boring brick semis thrown up in the housing boom of the 1930s, has been an astonishing sight – the Swaminarayan Temple, a magnificent pinnacled Hindu folly carved from limestone and 2,000 tons of grey Carrara marble, shipped from Italy to London via India in 1995 and built in a matter of weeks for £10m. The temple stands out with astonishing dignity in this north London Nowheresville, as a glowing reminder of the power of religious worship in the East; and its troublesome presence in the grey agnostic wastes of modern Britain. Hindus themselves are hated infidels to the Taliban, but their temple here is a heartening monument to multiculturalism – the only hope for the future when the dust and rubble of deadly Islamic fundamentalism has finally been cleared away.Reuse content