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The stamp of terrorist

Khan's video suicide statement is strikingly similar to Conrad's mocking Professor

THE GOVERNMENT has deployed a new weapon in the battle with terrorism: the narrative, the tale, the long short story. The promise to deliver "an authoritative account or 'narrative' of what happened" on July 7 last year was a ploy to avoid a full inquiry, but it also, perhaps inadvertently, addressed a profound psychological need.

Stories are how we understand the world. To be able to comprehend events as horrendous as the London bombings, we require a cast of characters, some sense of psychological motivation and unfolding drama.

The bombing plot cries out for a narrative plot, a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. We think of terrorism as a modern curse, but writers as varied as Joseph Conrad, Henry James and Fyodor Dostoevsky have all tried to make sense of terrorism by placing it in the context of a story.

The narrator of the Government's July 7 story is unlikely to win any literary prizes. He begins with that traditional British curtain-raiser, a weather report: "7 July began unsettled, with heavy showers in places." (You feel he was just itching to write: "It was a dark and stormy night . . .") This is as close as the civil servant-author gets to a literary flourish.

Yet the 35-page Report of the Official Account of the Bombings in London is a gripping read, a page-turner that relates a tale simultaneously extraordinary and frighteningly banal. We follow three of the bombers as they trundle down the M1, and then board the train to London, their knapsacks crammed with home-made explosive.

Here are the cricket-playing Shehzad Tanweer, who owned a red Mercedes and worked in his father's fish and chip shop; Mohammad Sidique Khan, better known as "Sid", the soft-eyed ringleader; and 18-year-old Hasib Hussain, burly and not too bright.

The narrator can hardly conceal his bewilderment as he relates how Hussain's mother found him in the family kitchen in his pyjamas, eating a bowl of cereal, 24 hours before he blew himself to pieces on the top of the No 30 bus, killing 13 other people.

The exceptional thing about this narrative is that it is, in so many ways, unexceptional. The writer searches for reasons. Hussain scribbled "Al Qaida No Limits" on his RE schoolbook but, as the narrator dryly observes, there is a long way between "extremist doodling" and suicide bombing.

Only in the case of Jermaine Lindsay, the Jamaican-born fourth bomber, does the psychological profile offer any clues: a broken home, a harsh step- father, a mother who moved out. Even so, he was hardly unusual.

Like many of the most compelling stories, this one raises more questions than it answers. The men who carried out this appalling slaughter were, on the outside, averagely angry, averagely religious and averagely integrated. Twelve thousand statements, 6,000 hours of CCTV footage and 26,000 exhibits have produced a picture of four utterly unremarkable people.

We are told that the July 7 bombers represent a new breed of terrorist, almost impossible to stop because they blend into the background. But camouflage has always been the key to terror.

 

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