Bomb Plot Suspects Are Foreign Physicians

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By Kevin Sullivan and Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

LONDON, July 2 -- The suspected terrorist cell that allegedly attempted three car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow last weekend was dominated by foreign-born physicians working in British hospitals, according to British officials and news reports.

As many as five of the eight people in police custody in the fast-moving investigation are either doctors or doctors in training, according to the suspects' neighbors, colleagues and police sources quoted in news reports. One of two men who rammed a burning Jeep Cherokee into Glasgow Airport's main terminal Saturday was identified as an Iraqi physician.

A police investigation stretching from London through central England to Scotland continued Monday, with officers searching 19 properties and authorities announcing the arrest of three more suspects. Two men, ages 25 and 28, were seized near Glasgow, while a third was taken in Australia, where an official identified him as a 27-year-old foreign doctor working at a Queensland state hospital.

[Early Tuesday, Australian Prime Minister John Howard identified the suspect as an Indian national, the Associated Press reported. Howard also said that a second doctor was being interviewed based on information given to authorities by the first.]

As security was tightened at airports and train stations and Britain's terror threat level remained at "critical" -- meaning an attack is considered imminent -- many Britons expressed surprise at the notion of highly skilled medical professionals allegedly plotting what one analyst called "white-collar terrorism."

"You expect a radical to be a disjointed youth, a person who doesn't have a job, not a doctor," said Anthony Connor, who lives in Staffordshire near the quiet cul-de-sac where one of the arrested doctors, Mohammed Asha, lives in a two-story brick house. But terrorism experts said the suspects' profession is not a surprise -- many top al-Qaeda operatives, they noted, have advanced education.

British officials have said the bomb plot appears to be connected to al-Qaeda, but they have not offered evidence to support that view.

Edwin Bakker, a Dutch researcher who has studied terrorist attack patterns, suggested that the arrests could lead British officials and leaders of other European countries to tighten their relatively loose visa policies for academics or other people with advanced degrees from the Middle East.

According to the General Medical Council, Britain's medical regulator, close to 90,000 doctors now working in Britain earned their medical qualifications in foreign countries. They include 1,985 from Iraq, 2,581 from Egypt, 565 from Syria, 488 from Iran and 184 from Jordan.

"This is a potential gap in the defense," Bakker said in a telephone interview. "If it happens that these people have a link to foreign groups and used their education to get to Europe, then it will really jeopardize the chances of other people outside Europe with good degrees to come here."

In Parliament on Monday, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith praised the British public's response to recent reports of near catastrophe: "The fact that people have been prepared to go about their lives as normally as possible this weekend sends the strongest message to those who wish to destroy our way of life and our freedoms that we will not be intimidated by terror."

On Friday, two Mercedes sedans filled with propane cylinders and nails were left near a crowded London nightclub but failed to detonate. Police have said that near-attack and the next day's incident at the Glasgow Airport were related.

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