Whitewater rafting trips popular with corporate executives seeking team-building skills may have been used by London suicide bombers for just that purpose -- a fact that has led investigators to this Welsh town.
Since photographs appeared showing at least two of the July 7 bombers shooting the rapids here -- with one flashing a victory or peace sign -- residents of this playground for rafters and fishermen have been coming to grips with the fact there may have been terrorists in their midst.
Now, investigators are following up clues that the second wave of attackers who unsuccessfully tried to strike two weeks later had links to this same small town.
"They were up here for a bonding weekend to prostrate themselves over their bombs before they died," said innkeeper Richard Fullard, 62.
A restaurant operator in town, Ceri Williams, 55, said the pictures made her realize, "there are extremists everywhere."
Suspected suicide bombers Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shahzad Tanweer rode the rapids in a morning session at the Canolfan Tryweryn National Whitewater Center about a month before detonating explosives on the London subways in attacks that killed 55, including the four bombers.
The revelations have caused many to scratch their heads in this town of 2,000 -- a place where people take part in sheepherding contests and where the Celtic tones of Welsh are heard.
The town is also known for the gwyniad, a prehistoric fish.
But that was before a June 4 rafting trip on the Tryweryn River in Snowdonia National Park gave this town another claim to fame. Many found it chilling that the bombers would go looking for a good time only weeks before what appeared to be a deadly mission.
Some terrorism experts, like Bruce Hoffman of the Rand Corp, said the trip might have been a business-like exercise in team-building -- an effort to help the group coalesce.
In particular, he noted that the London attacks occurred almost simultaneously -- a factor which alone takes discipline and team effort.
"The business parallel explains a lot," Hoffman said. "Why not a corporate-building exercise like whitewater rafting?"
Magnus Ranstorp, at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, recalled that several of the attackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks in the US visited Las Vegas in the weeks before flying passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
"Some had been drinking and carrying out, how shall I say it, `un-Islamic behavior,'" he said. "It's almost like a right to do something you wouldn't otherwise do before you depart."
A Canolyn Tryweryn official, Jon Gorman, said neither he nor anyone else remembered Khan and Tanweer as hundreds of rafters of all ethnic groups use the center daily.
Many visitors are "young lads" looking for adventure -- "that doesn't make it an al-Qaeda training center," he said.
Gorman said police asked him not to discuss whether the boat on which Khan and Tanweer rode the rapids was comprised of people in a single group.
He also declined to reveal who else was on the excursion, saying that he gave that information to the police after reviewing forms rafters sign giving emergency contact information.
Each trip costs ?280 (US$490), which Gorman said is usually split by up to six or seven people on the boat, who travel with one instructor. Police have photographs of 18 men who booked three sessions on that day, another official at the center said.
Police have refused to comment on reports that a brochure from the center was found in an explosives-laden backpack that failed to detonate on a bus on July 21.
But police have been combing the town to try to find out more, searching for anyone who might have known the bombers. They've asked to see the guest registers at some local inns for the weekend of June 4.
One hostel owner, Stella Shaw, said police were interested in six "Muslim" guests she had at her hostel on the night of June 6, but said she did not house either Khan nor Tanweer.
And Fullard said the police came and looked at his books for that weekend as well -- even though he says he wouldn't take in a group of single men. But few in the town seem concerned that they are in any danger.
If anything, many seemed defiant and unconcerned that anyone would associate Bala with the bombers.
"They've been and gone," said John Williams, 61, as his wife bustled about to take care of the lunch customers, "and they're not likely to come back anymore."
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