Egyptian chemist is no terrorist
Magdy al-Nashar helped one of the London bombers find an apartment. But he says terrorism is un-Islamic.
CAIRO — The accusations against Magdy al-Nashar, the 33-year-old Egyptian chemist who was briefly the focus of the investigations into the July 7 London bombings, confounded his Egyptian interrogators.
Even as British newspapers were reporting that explosives had been found in his apartment, and other tabloids branded him "Dr. Evil," the neatly groomed, and smiling Dr. Nashar appeared the most unlikely of terrorists.
"I have been dealing with fundamentalists and terrorists for 20 years," says Egyptian Interior Ministry spokesperson Hisham Eddin al Amr. "And there was no way this guy was one of them."
Nashar, who spent a year at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, before moving to Leeds, England to complete his PhD, was finally released by Egyptian authorities last Tuesday. He returned to his family home in the working class Cairo neighborhood of Basatin, a patchwork maze of poorly paved streets, barefoot children, and auto mechanics.
In the week since his release, he has set about persuading the world, and especially the British public, that he is not a terrorist.
"The bombers say terrorism is Islamic, and I say, come on, ... according to Islam, in war you're not allowed to kill ladies, old people, children, or even cut down a tree. So do you think it's OK to kill civilians living in their own country?
"Just because the attackers' names are Muslim, this doesn't mean that what they have done is from Islam. Just look at their age. They were teenagers one year or two years ago, and one of them was a convert, so what kind of knowledge do they have to stick something like [the London bombings] to Islam?"
When Nashar was first rumored to be the mastermind behind the July 7 bombings that killed 56 people, many Egyptians hung their heads. It seemed destined to be a mark of shame on a people who, like Muslims across the world, are struggling to disassociate themselves from the handful of terrorists who kill people in the name of Islam.
But as details began to emerge casting doubt on the accusations against Nashar, the case became a matter of national pride. Government officials proclaimed defiantly that they would not hand Nashar over to British authorities, calling it an issue of "national sovereignty." The Egyptian press, state-owned and opposition alike, rallied to Nashar's defense. Traditionally tight-lipped security officials leaked a full transcript of Nashar's statement to newspapers.
The Egyptian security apparatus, with a reputation of a 'torture first, ask questions later' approach, gave Nashar VIP treatment. He had his own air-conditioned room, a private bathroom, and good food. "I told them I would come again for a visit," jokes Nashar.
At a time when Arab Muslims in the West are coming under growing suspicion, Nashar is seen here as the ideal face of moderate Islam and cross- cultural understanding. He is being heralded as a lesson for a terror-rattled West not to prejudge all Muslims as terrorists. "I found it easy to live with American and European people because we deal with each other in the same way," says Nashar. "My parents taught me well, to do good things, to be nice, to be kind, and I think this is what American and European people are like."
"It was a good experience because it's a big mix of different cultures," he says of his time in Raleigh, N.C. "I found people of all different backgrounds living in peace and happy and helpful and friendly. I was impressed...."
Nashar explains how he met two of the London bombers. He met Lindsey Germaine, a Jamaican-born convert to Islam, at a Leeds mosque in October 2004. The following June, Mr. Germaine contacted Nashar and told him he wanted to move from London to Leeds. He asked him for help finding an apartment. "I had helped many people find flats, because I have lived in this area for about two years, and I'm a bit social. I know many people," Nashar says. "So I told him, 'Yes, I can help you.' And I asked my landlord if he could get him something."
He acted as an intermediary between his landlord and the young convert. When Germaine came to get the keys to the flat from Nashar, he was accompanied by a man who introduced himself as Mohammed. Mohammed turned out to be Hasib Hussain, who British police have identified as the man who blew up a bus in London's Tavistock Square.
"They seemed like normal people," says Nashar of Germaine and his British wife. "They didn't do anything odd. I didn't get any bad impression from him. His wife is pregnant, he has a son, he's young. I had no reason to doubt them."
When Nashar returned to Egypt on June 30, one week before the London bombings, he had just received a PhD in biochemistry from Leeds University. He returned to Egypt for six weeks to visit his family and celebrate his new degree. Two weeks into his stay, however, as he was leaving his neighborhood mosque, Egyptian security forces grabbed him.
His smile fades, and he seems genuinely upset when he talks about the headlines that appeared at the time of his arrest. "The British media didn't tell the truth," he says. "They made big propaganda against me, but now that I am free, they didn't do it the same way. They just mention it inside the paper."
The Independent newspaper in London reports that British police are still investigating Nashar, pending the results of forensic tests to discover whether his fingerprints or DNA was among the explosives and equipment found in a Leeds apartment where the bombs were made.
Still, Nashar is eager to return to Britain, where he has a British fiancée, an apartment, and all his possessions. He also has a year-long fellowship at Leeds University, which he was awarded after earning his first patent. He invented a cheaper and more environmentally friendly way to inject necessary enzymes into food and medicines.
"This is my aim, I want to do something for humanity and for the environment," he says. "I want to bring people cheap food and cheap drugs."
He says he won't stop his humanitarian quest because of his ordeal, but that he did learn a valuable lesson. "What I learned is be kind and be helpful to people, but bring witnesses with you."