'It's shocking that it's so close to home'

July 22, 2005

Post-7/7 realities: monitoring debate, reporting suspicious applicants

Leeds University's campus looked like the cover of a glossy prospectus this week. Students and proud parents were back for graduation, and ice-cream vans did a brisk trade in the hot weather.

But behind the celebratory scenes there was unease among students and academics. Some of the recent police raids in the city have been on houses in the very heart of the student area of Leeds.

Now detectives are focusing attention on a recent Leeds biochemistry PhD graduate, Magdi el-Nashar, who denies any connection with the London attacks.

Ali Alhadithi, a medical engineering student, regularly prayed with Dr el-Nashar at the university's prayer room.

"I'm really disturbed that university students have come under the spotlight," said Mr Alhadithi, who was president of the Islamic Society last year.

"He (el-Nashar) was quite a devout Muslim and was one of our regular attendees for the five daily prayers. I usually saw him at least twice a week," he said.

"He was a very sweet person, very humble, down to earth, very outgoing. He always greeted people with a big smile. I believe he's a victim. I hope he turns out to be innocent."

An academic from the biochemistry department, who wished to remain anonymous, said: "There is a universal feeling of surprise and bafflement about it all. It is a large department. It's like a microcosm of the universe. People here come from all over the world. There are Greeks and Turks, Arabs and Jews, Northern Irish and Southern Irish, and they all rub along very well."

Mr el-Nashar rented a flat in Burley, an area of Leeds populated largely by students and Asian families. Video rental shops sit happily alongside places such as the Asian-run Exotic Food Store, while the sound of student chart hits mingles with bhangra beats from street to street.

"I walk through here all the time - it's so shocking that it's so close to home," said Jo Currie, a 21-year-old broadcast journalism student at Leeds.

"It's bizarre that it could be anyone around you. I knew that they were young, but I hadn't realised that some of them might have been students. That's even more surprising."

Her friend Rebecca Morton, 19, a sports science student at Leeds, was evacuated from her house during one of the raids. "I thought they were having a laugh at first, but then it got a bit scary. They could live anywhere," she said.

Anna Biggs, 29, completed her earth sciences PhD at Leeds in 2002, and now lives just a few doors up from Dr el-Nashar's flat on St John's Terrace.

"I'm actually not surprised that some of them might have been students because the motivation is so difficult to understand that their education isn't really relevant," she said.

Back at graduation, there's still nothing to suggest that anything is amiss - until a bus glides into view, displaying a West Yorkshire Police advert:

"Have you experienced or witnessed a hate incident?".

Students at Leeds are hoping that they've seen the last of such incidents for a long time.

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