August 28, 2006 12:00 PM

Handsome, laid-back, quick with a laugh or a smoke—that was the Don Stewart-Whyte everyone once knew. But in the past few months, he’d changed. He’d converted to Islam, quit drinking, shaved his head and taken the name Abdul Waheed. “I used to call him the terrorist in jest, and he used to call me the infidel,” says Paul How, part-owner of the hip nightclub @Blue Room outside London, where Stewart-Whyte, 21, worked as a bar boy. But toward the end, his new fervency stopped being funny. “Once, he wore a [fanny pack], and I jokingly said, ‘There’s not a cord in there, is there?'” says How. “And he said, ‘You don’t need a cord, just a mobile phone or electrical current.’ Like he’d looked into it. Don just got more extreme as time went by.”

On Aug. 8 British police stopped his Nissan Micra near London, smashed a window and dragged him out of the car, one of several dramatic raids that netted 24 suspects in an alleged plot to blow 10 airplanes out of the sky. To many friends, neighbors and relatives, the only thing more shocking than the brazen terror plot—the suspects allegedly planned to board U.S.-bound jets with undetectable chemicals that, when mixed in-flight, would explode—was the identity of many of those in custody, most of whom were seen as nice people from good families. “We’re absolutely gobsmacked, really shocked,” says Hazel Kleinman, 65, who lived next door to suspects Ibrahim Savant, 25, and his wife, Atika Sidyot, in the pleasant borough of Walthamstow in northeast London. “We used to joke about how he was getting very religious. We thought it was a phase he was going through, but perhaps it wasn’t just a phase.”

Interviews with several people who knew some of the suspects produced the same reaction: How could these ordinary men and women be terrorists? A far cry from angry extremists grouped in shadowy cells, most of the suspects were well-known in their communities. Cossor Ali, 23—detained along with her 6-month-old daughter—reportedly planned to smuggle explosive chemicals onto a plane in her baby’s milk bottle, an act those who watched her grow up cannot comprehend. “She and her sisters were raised right in front of us,” says a disbelieving Mohammed Mir, who lives across from Ali’s parents in Walthamstow. “She is a very nice, quiet girl.”

Brian Young, 28, grew up Christian in High Wycombe, not far from Stewart-Whyte. Three years ago he switched to Islam, took the name Umar Islam and married a Muslim woman. Reportedly he also dropped out of touch with his Caribbean-born parents. Still, Mohammad Yasin, a local politician who worshipped with Young at a High Wycombe mosque, doubts he is capable of murder. “I have never seen any extremists in Wycombe, and I meet everyone,” says Yasin. “This shocked me.” Young’s brother told PEOPLE his family is devastated by the arrest, but refused to comment further. “I have an opinion of what is going on but I’m not going to tell you,” he says. “My brother is in God’s hands now.”

Perhaps the most puzzling case is that of Stewart-Whyte. Raised in a prominent family—his late father was a politician, his mother is a gym teacher, and his half sister Heather is a model who was once married to tennis star Yannick Noah—Stewart-Whyte mowed neighbors’ lawns for free and hung out in trendy clubs. Then, say friends, he tired of the party scene. That’s when “he found religion,” says a friend who worked with him in an electronics store. “He found what he was looking for.” Earlier this year he converted to Islam. Just a month ago he married a Muslim woman he’d known for only two weeks.

Yet even after converting, he struck most people as a gentle soul. “Once, a guy was cut in a fight, and Don got the glass out, wiped the blood off and wouldn’t leave his side,” says How, adding that Stewart-Whyte’s favorite movie was Team America, a comedy that lampoons Muslim extremists and U.S. foreign policy. How’s business partner grew concerned enough about Stewart-Whyte to mention him to a policeman, but nothing came of it. Then Stewart-Whyte began having panic attacks. “He had to leave the bar sometimes,” says How. “Once, he came in and said, ‘I got to go,’ and he left his moped at work and took a taxi home.” How believes his friend “was easily influenced. If he’s involved in this, he’s just a minnow. Someone got to him.”

British officials released one of the suspects and, at press time, had yet to formally charge any of the rest. Meanwhile, forensic specialists continued to search homes in towns in and around London, leaving neighbors stunned and heavy-hearted. “I find it very, very hard to believe he would be involved in mass murder,” neighbor Paul Kleinman says of Savant, whom he has known for years. “But if he is guilty, he deserves what’s coming to him.”

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