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Last Updated: Monday, 30 April 2007, 12:53 GMT 13:53 UK
Bomb plot shocks school friends
By Richard Smith
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

(Clockwise from top left): Omar Khyam, Salahuddin Amin, Waheed Mahmood, Jawad Akbar and Anthony Garcia
Jawad Akbar went to Hazelwick school in Crawley
Five men have been convicted at the Old Bailey of conspiring to bomb civilians in Britain. Several of them came from Crawley, in the shadow of London's Gatwick airport.

"Dear Tara, Cheers for being a good friend and a lover. Cheers for the Saturday nights. Only joking!! I'll miss you, please come back for sixth form. Good luck in your exams and future. Never forget me, I'll forget you. Jawad A."

The author of the cheeky message from happier days was Jawad Akbar, who has been convicted of plotting to detonate a huge bomb in or around London.

Akbar was 16 when he wrote the note in a yearbook to his classmate Tara Bignell.

Tara Bignell
If none of this had have happened I'd still remember Jawad as the shy guy who likes a laugh, a gentle person
Tara Bignell

Tara lost touch with Akbar soon after she left school in Crawley, West Sussex.

But she told BBC News she could not believe the boy she had known could have been capable of such a plot.

"If none of this had have happened I'd still remember Jawad as the shy guy who likes a laugh, a gentle person. The guy that hid behind other people, who followed other people. Now I don't really want to remember him," she said.

The school, Hazelwick, is diverse with no reported racial tensions.

An excerpt from Jawad Akbar's letter
Tara Bignell still has a letter which Akbar sent her

Head teacher Gordon Parry is one of the many struggling to understand what went wrong.

"It was a shock, and you do then go into this mode of self-examination and think, 'well, what did we do that might in any way have encouraged them along these lines?', and we really can't identify anything that did".

Looking through their GCSE results the word that really sums the Crawley boys up back then is average. Omar Khyam was the possible exception - a footballer, and captain of the cricket team.

There is no evidence of them being particularly interested in religion either.

So what happened to change these ordinary boys into young men capable of planning a major terrorist attack?

Although the community had isolated these people, they still exist
Nasir Ahmed

A clue can be found in Tillgate Park in Crawley. Back in the late 1990s a hut there was used on occasion by a small but radical Islamic group called al-Muhajiroun.

The group's leader, Omar Bakri Mohammad, became infamous for refusing to condemn the 9/11 and 7 July attacks.

He also lectured in Crawley. Some believe Mr Mohammad was a bad influence on a minority of the town's young Muslims.

"He had succeeded in polluting youngsters' minds," Nasir Ahmed of Crawley Eagles Cricket Club said.

'Betrayed'

"And unfortunately after he left, although the community had isolated these people, they still exist. We don't see many of them now in Crawley, but they haven't completely been got rid of."

It is all a long way from the Jawad Akbar remembered by Tara Bignell.

"I feel betrayed. It could have been me, my friends in the club. It could be my family shopping in Bluewater. People he grew up with, people that know him. Why would you want to hurt anyone?"

Akbar joked to Tara he would forget her - but she now wants to forget him.




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