Hours before embarking on his secret mission that would cause carnage on a London Underground train, Shehzad Tanweer could not leave without saying goodbye to one of his friends.
They had spent the evening playing cricket in Beeston, Leeds. As usual there was banter, but Tanweer had something serious to say: “Whatever you do or whatever happens, make sure you look after yourself.”
His friend, a companion since childhood, was at a loss to understand his meaning. “What? Are you going somewhere? Take me as well,” he replied.
But that was all Tanweer could let slip. “Nah, I’m not going anywhere,” he said, “just look after yourself.”
The next day was July 7, 2005. Tanweer and three co-conspirators travelled to London where they killed 52 people by exploding bombs in their rucksacks on three Underground trains and a bus.
Since then the besieged and bewildered Asian community of Beeston has largely closed its doors to police and prying reporters. Those who speak out fear being shunned.
But over the past year the friend to whom Tanweer said goodbye has been talking to an intermediary who approached The Sunday Times two weeks ago. The friend has now spoken to this newspaper. His identity is known to us, he still lives in Beeston and knows family members of two of the bombers.
During the interviews he alleged there was a fifth bomber who pulled out at the eleventh hour. It is a serious allegation against a man who has never been questioned by police over the attacks.
The friend’s account also provides the most detailed description yet of Tanweer’s character.
He was, says his friend, a decent but “easily led” young man who had been indoctrinated by a cabal of Islamic extremists that operated outside the mosques. These figures, including Mohammad Sidique Khan, the bombers’ ringleader, bombarded youths aged as young as 12 with speeches on Muslim oppression and jihad.
“He [Tanweer] is not going to be remembered in a bad way by everybody,” said the friend. “He was a good lad, nobody ever complained about him. Basically everybody thinks he was brainwashed.”
The Home Office’s official account of the July 7 attacks concluded there was nothing remarkable about the backgrounds of the bombers.
Tanweer was born in December 1982 into a hard-working and prosperous family who had emigrated from Pakistan.
He met his friend while they were at primary school. They attended separate schools but lived close to each other.
The friend recalls: “He had a nice family. His dad didn’t have a beard or anything. His family weren’t overly religious people.” He was known by the nickname “Kaki”.
The two played computer games together and took part in football tournaments, winning several trophies.
The friend says he used to “laugh his head off” when Tanweer chased his sisters around the house. But Tanweer also demonstrated a more mature side from an early age. “He was a safe guy. He was decent . . . kind and caring, he put others first before himself.”
He demonstrates this with two stories. When they were in their early teens they would get younger children to climb horse chestnut trees to pick conkers for them. The friends would then scarper, taking the conkers.
“Kaki would always say, ‘Nah, come on, let’s go back. That’s not fair.’ So we would go back.”
When they were 16 the friend dragged some younger children out of a shallow pool at the swimming baths and threw them into the deep pool. “He [Tanweer] said, ‘What are you doing? Stop messing about!’ He put all the little kids back in the little pool and then he got in with them. He helped build up their confidence and when they were confident he brought them into the big pool.”
At that stage, Tanweer was not overly religious. Although gambling is frowned upon in Islam, the pair visited several casinos together. “He would call me up and say, ‘Let’s go and lose some money,’ and off we’d go,” he said.
But Tanweer began to change. “He started to get a bit more serious. He grew a beard and had his hair long. When he was about 20 he said he wanted to give the casinos a rest.”
It started with the setting up of a youth club at the Hardy Street mosque in 2001. “We went there together on the first day it opened,” said the friend. “He was the one who told me to go. We played a bit of pool and did a bit of boxing.”
But there were figures in the community who used the youth club as a way of getting a new and more radical message to the teenagers. “It began about a month after the youth club opened . . . they would start with a story about how Muslims were being killed in Afghanistan and then they’d have a discussion.
“The men talking were probably in their thirties, although they looked older because of their beards and everything. There were children listening as young as 12.
“They would fill their heads with how all our brothers and sisters are dying, being raped and killed and how we are sat here doing nothing. They would always end up talking about having a holy war.”
Tanweer took the talks seriously and became a regular attendee. One of the speakers was Khan, the softy spoken teaching assistant known locally as Sidi.
Both Tanweer and Khan became regulars at the Iqra Islamic bookshop in Beeston. Last month Martin Gilbertson, a computer expert, revealed how the store and a neighbouring youth project were used to produce chilling DVDs depicting crimes by the West on the Muslim world.
Gilbertson claimed the films created an “atmosphere conducive to the bombers”. Two years before the attacks he told police of his concerns and named Tanweer and Khan. His warnings were not heeded.
“Kaki was a regular. I used to see him there every day. I used to say, ‘Are you paying rent there or something? You spend more time there than at home’,” said the friend.
Another regular at the bookshop was Hasib Hussain, whose bomb killed 13 people on a bus at Tavistock Square. “Kaki met him about two years ago when Hasib was about 16. He was a bit of a drop-out. A religious, quiet lad. He kept himself to himself.”
The friend believes in hindsight Tanweer must have received his final training on a three-month trip to Pakistan in late 2004. He believes Tanweer’s video confession, released earlier this month, was made then.
But when Tanweer returned there were still no clues that he was preparing for a suicide attack. “He just went back to normal life as if nothing had happened,” said the friend.
Tanweer’s bomb killed seven people and injured 171 in a Tube train near Aldgate station. “After the bombings, one of my mates called me. He asked me if I had known Kaki was going to London and I had this feeling, something in the back of my mind, saying he had done it.
“I was more shocked than upset, I couldn’t believe it, he was just a normal lad . . . We played sports. We used to go to Alton Towers together.”