London Student Has Key Role In Terror Network
by Nick Fielding
The London Times
September 23, 2001
As a pupil at his London prep school, the academic talents of Ahmed Omar Sheikh were already apparent to his parents and teachers. Not only was he mathematically gifted, but he also displayed a flair for chess, winning a competition for all-comers from the capital.
After A-levels at private school, a future in the City beckoned as he began his course in mathematics and statistics at the London School of Economics (LSE).
That was seven years ago. Today he is the subject of an international manhunt, identified by British and Indian authorities as an Islamic terrorist linked to Osama Bin Laden, the prime suspect behind the attack on the World Trade Center. Omar Sheikh's intelligence, his experience as a fighter in the "holy war" for independence in Kashmir and his charisma have even led Indian intelligence experts to describe him as a potential leader of the fractured Islamic movement.
How the boy from the well-to-do family in Wanstead, east London, came to join the world of Islamic terrorism provides an insight into the kind of people such organisations are now looking to recruit. Like many of the World Trade Center bombers, he is highly educated, articulate and committed to his cause.
Omar Sheikh, now 27, first emerged as a figure in the Islamic movement in 1994 when he kidnapped three Britons and an American in India. He was caught when police stormed his hideout. An officer and one of the kidnappers were killed in the exchange of fire.
However, after three years in prison awaiting trial, all charges against him were dropped after a hostage exchange. He and two other Islamic militants were freed in return for the release of 154 hostages seized when hijackers took over an Indian aircraft on Christmas Eve 1999 and flew it to Afghanistan. One of those hijackers is suspected of being involved in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
British officials have now asked India for legal assistance in seeking information on the whereabouts of Omar Sheikh, whose family still lives in Wanstead. British security services confirmed this weekend that they wanted him for questioning.
Since the hostage exchange, Omar Sheikh has disappeared, though he is believed to have returned to Kashmir, where he began his terrorist career fighting with Muslim militants for independence from India.
Although his parents were from Pakistan, there are few clues in Omar Sheikh's early upbringing to explain his conversion to radical Islam. His parents were ambitious for their bright son and paid for the best education they could afford.
He repaid them by working hard. At Forest School in Snaresbrook, east London, where he took his A-levels, he got not only an A grade in mathematics but also a merit in a special paper. Popular with staff, who saw him as "pleasant and communicative", he was made head of house and a school monitor.
"He had a jolly good brain and was a willing and capable student," said George Paynter, his tutor in economics at the school. Besides A in mathematics, he also got an A in economics and a B in general studies.
One of the only signs of his future interest in Islam was his decision to take an AS-level in religious studies in the sixth form, which he passed.
According to Paynter, he also had a "penchant for arm-wrestling in professional contests". With the support of a glowing reference from the school, he secured a place at the LSE.
For the first year, he pursued his course with the same dedication as he had his school studies. It was 1993, the height of the war in Bosnia between Muslims and Serbs. Omar Sheikh decided to join a charity mission to help fellow Muslims. The desolation, stories of rapes and murders of the Muslims affected him profoundly.
He returned to Britain, but, disenchanted with his studies, decided to go to Afghanistan and train as a guerrilla fighter under the aegis of Bin Laden. From there he joined Harakat ul-Ansar, one of the most militant Kashmiri separatist groups. Now known as Harakut ul- Mujaheddin, the group is close to Bin Laden.
When Bin Laden issued a fatwa calling for attacks on America in February 1998, it was signed by one of the organisation's leaders.
Whether Omar Sheikh will play a part in an American conflict is unknown. His key role within the group is, however, confirmed by the Indian authorities.
"He has a good-quality educational background and is highly motivated," said an Indian police officer who handled his case. "The fact they were willing to organise a plane hijack to get him free shows they think he is very important."
Copyright 2001 Times Newspapers Limited
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