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.
Police said military bomb disposal experts conducted a controlled explosion Monday of a suspicious car parked at Royal Alexandra Hospital. Located two miles from the Glasgow Airport, the hospital is treating one of the airport attackers, who was badly burned. The hospital also was the workplace of one of the suspects.
Police have been aided by the large amount of evidence available, including cellphones found in the Mercedes sedans in London, according to a British security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The investigation's fast pace became clear with the disclosure that minutes before the airport attack, police contacted Daniel Gardiner, whose real estate company had arranged the rental of a home near Glasgow that police soon searched. Authorities reportedly had found cellphone records linking the house to the failed London car bombs.
Gardiner told reporters that he had rented the house to a "professional" man who passed a credit check and was "one of our better tenants."
One of the Glasgow Airport attackers was Bilal Abdulla, who worked as a doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, according to news reports. According to Britain's General Medical Council, which maintains records of all registered medical practitioners in the country, Abdulla earned his medical degree in Baghdad in 2004 and began working in Britain in August 2006.
Mohammed Asha was arrested late Saturday with his wife after police cars forced their vehicle to a stop on a highway in central England. Records show that Asha earned his medical degree in Jordan in 2004 and began practicing in Britain in March 2005. His family in Jordan told reporters that Asha, 26, is training to be a neurosurgeon, liked Britain and had no ties with extremist groups.
Officials at North Staffordshire Hospital, where Asha reportedly works, said they were cooperating with the police investigation. Asha worked from July 2005 until July 2006 at Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Princess Royal Hospital in Telford in central England, according to Adrian Osborne, a spokesman for the trust that operates both hospitals.
A third doctor, reportedly from Bangalore, India, was reported to be in police custody after being arrested in Liverpool late Saturday. The Muslim News, a British newspaper, reported on its Web site that the doctor's detention might have been a case of mistaken identity. A colleague told the Muslim News that the doctor might have been detained because he was using the cellphone and Internet account of a colleague who moved to Australia a year ago.
Mohammed Shafiq, 28, spokesman for the Ramadhan Foundation, a leading Muslim youth organization, said it was "absolutely baffling" that doctors -- professionals with good jobs and income -- would be involved in violent extremism. He said Muslim leaders have been most concerned about the radicalization of disaffected and unemployed youth, and they have been urging the government to help them find jobs.
Despite that widespread perception in Britain, one British security official said that although a physician would be the highest-educated bombing suspect arrested in recent plots in Britain, suspects in previous cases have ranged from university students to "social misfits and troublemakers."
"We've learned not to pigeonhole people socially at all," the security official said. "You can't really pigeonhole extremists into social or educational classes."
Security analysts said only a small number of people with academic degrees have been arrested in Europe or the United States on terrorism charges in recent years. But they pointed out that al-Qaeda's leadership ranks have been traditionally dominated by well-educated ideologues.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, deputy leader of the network, is an Egyptian-trained physician. Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the alleged chief planner of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking plot, earned a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina A&T University. The lead hijacker, Mohamed Atta, studied architecture. Al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was educated as a civil engineer.
More unusual, the analysts said, is that all seven suspects seized in Britain are reported to be foreign citizens who moved to the country relatively recently. Analysts said that virtually all suspected Islamic terrorists in Europe in recent years have been longtime residents.
According to a study released in January by Bakker, the Dutch analyst, more than 95 percent of Islamic militants accused or charged with committing terrorism in Europe from September 2001 to September 2006 had resided in Europe for at least several years and were radicalized while living there.
While the majority were of Arabic descent and had emigrated, about a third were born and raised in Europe. "There have been very few who came here from outside Europe to commit crimes," Bakker said.
Correspondent Mary Jordan in Stoke-on-Trent, England, and special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.