They were two ordinary boys from two ordinary homes — white, middle-class and raised by loving parents in the Buckinghamshire town of High Wycombe.
Thomas Evans grew up in a little cluster of semi-detached houses out in its leafy fringes. The sort of place where neighbours still look out for one another and find time to chat. With her owlish glasses and kindly manner, his mother Sally was the archetypal working mum, serving in a shop to provide for Thomas and his younger brother Michael after her marriage broke down.
Four miles away, on a modern estate with views of the Chiltern Hills, Donald Stewart-Whyte had a similarly solid background. His late father was a Tory Party agent. His mother Dorothea, a devout Christian, is a teacher, and Donald won a place at the local grammar.
Had they been born a couple of generations earlier, these two young men might well have found good jobs with High Wycombe’s world-renowned furniture manufacturers.
But the furniture industry has all but died now, and in recent years the town has changed beyond all recognition. Today, it is a cultural and ethnic melting pot. Its High Street is a confusion of exotic languages and clothing, and one in six of its 133,000 residents are of Asian extraction.
Indeed, within a small radius of the centre there are no less than eight mosques, the smartest of which was recently built on the site of a rundown Methodist church.
Coincidentally or otherwise, respectable old High Wycombe has developed an unlikely and unwanted reputation as a hotbed for Islamic fundamentalism, following a spate of terrorism-related arrests and the virulent internet posts by the so-called ‘Supermarket Jihadi’ — a former Morrisons security guard who has gone to join Islamic State.
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Given this much-changed ambience, it is intriguing to learn how both Tom Evans and Don Stewart-Whyte followed very different paths from those their conventional Home Counties parents had expected of them.
Beset by the tribulations of youth, they confounded their families not by dropping out to become hippies, or joining some anti-Establishment protest group, as troubled teenagers might have done in times past, but by converting to the Islamic faith.
According to High Wycombe’s Muslim community leaders, it is an option that is becoming increasingly attractive to disillusioned young whites (and people of other ethnicities, too).
And no doubt, for many, their new religion brings the spiritual comfort and meaning they crave. Or, to quote one white youth I found browsing in an Islamic bookshop: ‘I’d rather be in here, learning to live a purer life, than in the park smoking weed.
‘And I’d rather marry a girl who doesn’t go around flashing her belly-button and getting off her face.’
For our two middle-class converts, however, this modern form of teenage non-conformity has had cataclysmic consequences, albeit for markedly different reasons.
Tom Evans turned to the Muslim faith in 2010 after splitting up with his 16-year-old girlfriend. He was 19 at the time and working as an electrician, and, as his brother Michael told me this week, ‘he was at a low point in life’.
His family could barely believe how he changed. Once a jocular, outgoing lad who loved music, he cut himself off from his friends and spent most of his time at prayer meetings or in his room.
His mother said this week that he stopped playing music altogether and refused to enter the living room if the TV was on. He grew a beard, dressed soberly and embraced the culture of his adopted religion so fervently that he brushed his teeth with a twig.
Then, in the summer of 2011, he flew to Egypt, having told his family that he was going to learn Arabic and deepen his knowledge of Islam. From there he journeyed to Somalia to join the ranks of al-Shabaab, the fundamentalist terror group wreaking mayhem in the Horn of Africa.
Mrs Evans believes he became radicalised after leaving a moderate local mosque to attend a hard-line prayer centre, and my inquiries support this.
At the Wycombe Islamic Prayer Centre (the former Methodist Church), committee member Amjid Iqbal recalled how Evans at first attended meetings there, but soon drifted elsewhere because he disapproved of the mosque’s peaceful ideology.
‘Our imam gives regular sermons against Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and al-Shabaab, and even if people like him do come once or twice, they don’t stay long,’ he told me, declining to name the more radical centre to which Tom had gravitated. Whoever brainwashed him, though, they certainly did their evil work well.
The boy who was always laughing became one of the jihadist army’s most fearsome killers — a man so ruthless that in the Kenyan border villages, whose Christians he slaughtered, he became known as ‘the White Beast’.
It was a reputation Evans apparently relished. For the Mail has obtained a disturbing al-Shabaab propaganda video showing him sharpening a long knife before a bloody raid on the Kenyan island of Lamu last summer, in which a dozen Christians were brutally murdered.
Survivors recalled this week how the White Beast broke down doors with an axe to find victims, and personally beheaded one man whose hands were tied behind his back.
He had chosen to live by the sword — and last Sunday he died by it.
Returning to Lamu with fellow henchmen apparently intent on marking the raid’s anniversary with fresh carnage, 25-year-old Evans — who had changed his name to Abdul Hakim — was killed in a firefight with Kenyan soldiers.
His mother and brother learned of his death that same night, after hearing that a photo of his body had been posted on Twitter.
‘I just went numb. I couldn’t believe that was my son, my little boy, my little babe who I loved,’ said Sally.
Since Evans told her he never wanted to return to Britain, and she fears that his grave might become the shrine to a supposed martyr (though most of us would regard him as a murderous terrorist), she will not repatriate his body.
What, then, of our second High Wycombe convert, Donald Stewart-Whyte, who is now 29?
Though he also turned to Islam when his life was in turmoil, and has been very uncomfortably linked to Evans this week, following revelations by Mrs Evans that he visited her son at their house, his fortunes differed greatly.
Gesturing to a photo of her son playing tennis at about that age, still every inch the clean-cut, Buckinghamshire grammar boy, his mother told me how Don’s downward spiral had begun when he was 13 and his father developed cancer.
Within a few years, he was completely ‘off the rails’, drinking and smoking cannabis. Expelled from school, he enrolled at college. But drug-taking caused him to miss an entire term. After that, he flitted between jobs as a chef and a hairdresser.
His apparent salvation came when he was befriended by a young Muslim man who lived next door and who encouraged him to study Islam.
‘It gave structure to his life and something to believe in,’ said Dorothea.
‘He had been brought up as a Christian, but that obviously hadn’t done anything for him. He had been a tearaway. Then he came home one day and just said to me: “I’m going to be a Muslim.” He was a lot better behaved, a lot more thoughtful and appreciative, and I got my son back again.’
Perhaps so, but in 2006, just four months after this great sea-change, there came a shocking jolt. As he was leaving the house for a driving lesson, Stewart-Whyte was arrested by anti-terrorist officers.
He found himself accused of being embroiled in one of the most heinous terror plots devised since 9/11 — a plan to kill hundreds of airline passengers using liquid explosives concealed in innocuous-looking drinks containers.
He spent the following three years in prison on remand. When he stood trial with four other alleged plotters at Woolwich Crown Court in 2009, prosecutors claimed he had been groomed by a High Wycombe man named Umar Islam, who was later found guilty.
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Witnesses said Stewart-Whyte had expressed extremist views and knowledgeably discussed methods of getting liquid bombs on to planes. He strenuously denied this, insisting he had met Umar Islam only once.
While his co-defendants were found guilty and jailed, he alone was acquitted. However, Stewart-Whyte admitted possessing a loaded gun, silencer and ammunition (which was found stashed in a sports bag under the staircase), and for that he was sentenced to three years and six months in jail.
He was freed immediately because he had already been in custody for the time he would have served.
The prosecution did not suggest the weapon was related to terrorist activity, accepting his explanation that he had foolishly agreed to hide it for someone he knew during his wild days before his conversion.
Yet his association with a case that sparked panic among millions of travellers and for ever changed airline security has had a devastating effect on his own life. Before his arrest, his mother says, he was planning a career in the Army.
He has now been forced to moved away from High Wycombe — ‘to escape the hassle’, as she euphemistically describes his unending visits from the police and security services — and now works as a taxi controller and lives in a nearby town with his Moroccan wife, Fatima, and their three young daughters.
Despite being quizzed closely by border control officers whenever he leaves Britain, in December 2013 he was with the aid convoy to Syria from which Alan Henning, the Eccles taxi driver-turned-aid worker, was snatched and later beheaded. The authorities’ continuing interest in Stewart-Whyte owes much to his former association with the White Beast, however. So what was the nature of their friendship?
In a rare interview this week, Donald offered a straight-forward and plausible explanation.
They first met, he told me, while both were doing community work for young people, and occasionally saw one another afterwards.
At the time, Evans was having difficulty explaining his new faith to his mother, and seeing how easily Stewart-Whyte related to his own Christian mother, who seemed a remarkably similar type of woman, he asked Donald to speak to her.
Keen to help, Donald visited Sally and attempted to put her at ease, never suspecting that Evans would become viciously radicalised. At that time, of course, Britons were not yet flocking overseas to wage barbaric holy warfare.
‘Tom never discussed any extremist ideology or intention with me,’ Stewart-Whyte insists, adding that he had no more contact with Evans after he left for Somalia, and was ‘horrified’ by the brutality he is said to have perpetrated.
As for the reason Evans was lured down such a vile path, Stewart-Whyte does not hold with whispers I have heard that malign forces may be at work among vulnerable members of High Wycombe’s young Islamic community.
Nor does he believe the town has a bigger problem than others with a similar-sized Muslim population, pointing to the alarming proliferation of extremist internet propaganda as the single most widespread cause of radicalisation.
The hard facts suggest otherwise. According to one senior member of the Islamic community, who works with the police ‘Prevent’ counter-radicalisation programme, ten local youths are missing and feared to have been spirited away to jihad.
Meanwhile, the arrests go on.
Last December, anti-terror officers descended on a row of terrace houses close to the town centre and seized three men who were later charged with the alleged ‘Poppy Day Plot’ to kill the Queen at the Cenotaph last Remembrance Sunday. They are expected to stand trial later this year.
In the opinion of Hannah Stuart, expert in UK terrorism and radicalisation at the Henry Jackson Society think tank, it points to a worrying new frontier for the fundamentalist enemy within — a sign that radicalisation is ‘radiating outwards’ from London and other cities into their smaller satellite towns.
Situated just 30 miles from the capital, within easy reach of a network of motorways, High Wycombe is an obvious spawning ground.
Once, it was famed for producing furniture. Unless the fundamentalist brainwashers can be countered, it seems set to become notorious for producing terrorists such as the White Beast.