BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom (AFP) - In multi-ethnic Birmingham, residents were struggling to understand how Britain’s second-largest city could be linked to a deadly terror attack in London after a series of police raids.
Overnight, armed police stormed an apartment on Hagley Road, wedged between restaurants selling pizza and Persian food, one of three locations in Birmingham raided just hours after a car and knife rampage outside the Houses of Parliament.
“I was shocked. That’s my neighbours,” said Muhammed Ali, a 20-year-old retail worker. “It’s scary.”
The road is in the leafy district of Edgbaston – a cricket-loving corner of a city unused to the sight of armed police blocking off streets.
“It’s a very calm area. There are loads of university students here so it’s very surprising this happened right here,” said Lucas Camoes, a 23-year-old warehouse worker.
“I don’t feel safe at all. A bit paranoid.”
‘A NICE GUY'
Dean Kibble, 19, who lives a few doors down from the raided flat, said: “I’ve lived in Birmingham for 19 years and you just wouldn’t think it would happen in your own city, right next door. You don’t know who you are living next to these days – you could be living next to anyone”.
It later emerged that the attacker, named by British authorities as 52-year-old Khalid Masood, had lived in a three-storey house that was also raided in the Winson Green suburb, north west of the city, for seven months until last December.
Neighbour Iwona Romek told local paper the Birmingham Mail that “he was a nice guy” with a young wife.
Eyewitnesses told the paper that the property was raided at in the early hours on Thursday morning while more police arrived in a riot van later in the day to search the property and its gardens.
Police also raided a third property in the city, making a total of seven arrests in Birmingham on “suspicion of preparation of terrorist acts.” An eighth person was arrested in London.
CAR RENTED IN BIRMINGHAM
Birmingham has been associated with Islamist plots in the past, but few would have linked their post-industrial city to the Islamic State group, which claimed the London assault was carried out by one of its “soldiers”.
A police cordon surrounded the flat on Hagley Road, with two local police officers standing guard outside the brown front door while detectives from London went inside.
The blinds were down on one window, and cardboard covered the other.
The flat’s owner, Farhad Makanvand, turned up to collect the mail from the Shiraz restaurant next door, but he said he knew little about his tenants.
“I do own the flat but it is run by an agent. I have nothing to do with the tenants,” Makanvand told AFP.
A car hire firm in Solihull on the city outskirts has confirmed that the Hyundai vehicle used in the attack was rented there.
‘TINY MINORITY’ BEHIND ATTACKS'
Britain’s top counter-terror officer Mark Rowley has acknowledged that Muslim communities “will feel anxious at this time” over worries of an Islamophobic backlash, and said police would work with community leaders to ensure protection.
Birmingham is home to large South Asian and Muslim communities, last year hosting Europe’s largest celebrations for the Eid festival.
The proportion of Muslims in Birmingham is 21.8 percent of the population – compared to a national average of 4.5 percent, according to the latest census figures.
Birmingham hit international headlines last year when a court jailed two men for handing money to Mohamed Abrini, a suspect in both the Paris and Brussels attacks.
In 2008, a man from Birmingham was also convicted for intending to kidnap and kill a British Muslim soldier.
There was then a scandal in 2014 over a concerted attempt to introduce Islamist teaching into several schools in the city through their governors.
But Muhammad Afzal, chairman of the Birmingham Central Mosque, said the attacker’s motivations had nothing to do with true Islam.
“We are shocked by what happened yesterday,” Afzal told AFP.
“There are three million Muslims in the UK, and it is a very tiny, tiny minority” that was involved in extremism, he said.
“The majority of the indigenous population respect that a majority of Muslims are peace-loving."