A busted terror plot in Britain puts the spotlight on radicalized Muslim professionals
July 16, 2007 issue - What could possibly have inspired Bilal Abdullah, a medical doctor, to ride a blazing Jeep Cherokee into the busy Glasgow airport terminal? Last week Shiraz Maher, a former member of an Islamic fundamentalist group that had tried to recruit Abdullah, told the British media this story:
In the ancient university town of Cambridge, Abdullah shared an apartment with a man who played the guitar, apparently not well, and sang off key. Abdullah later "boasted," Maher recalled, that he had warned his flatmate that if he kept on playing and singing, "I'm going to smash the guitar." To make his point a little more emphatically, Abdullah popped a video into the DVD player. It showed Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, the vicious chief of Al Qaeda in Iraq (killed by an American airstrike last summer), beheading a hostage. "If you think I'm messing about, this is what we do," Abdullah warned his roommate. "This is what our people do. We slaughter." (Maher says that Abdullah thought the threat was funny.)
Last week every intelligence service engaged in the War on Terror wanted to know: was Abdullah inspired by the example of Al Qaeda in Iraq to try to set off a pair of car bombs in London and then immolate himself on a suicide mission in Scotland? Or was he actually carrying out a mission planned by Al Qaeda in Iraq? The answer is not known, at least publicly. Counterterrorism officials who asked for anonymity discussing sensitive matters told NEWSWEEK that there is some evidence of links between Abdullah (or alleged co-conspirators) and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But they could not be sure if the ties were coincidental and possibly irrelevant—or part of a larger plot. The ineptitude of Abdullah and another would-be suicide bomber, who tried to set himself on fire after the car failed to explode, suggests an amateurish operation. Abdullah and the other man survived, and their car bombs in London turned out to be duds.
Still, intelligence officials were asking themselves if the aborted bomb plot was a fire bell in the night. Last week President George W. Bush was once again warning that if America failed to defeat terrorists in Iraq, "they will follow us home." The president's many critics learned about Abdullah's story—how he had been radicalized in Iraq after the March 2003 invasion—and saw the fulfillment of their fears, that the war in Iraq would serve only to breed terrorists, who would, in time, strike out against the West.
The story line was made more chilling by early reports that police had rounded up eight suspects in Britain and Australia—seven of them physicians and one a medical technician. How could doctors, sworn to save lives, be so zealous about killing? Abdullah, of course, is hardly the first M.D. with mass murder on his mind. Haiti's butchering Papa Doc Duvalier was a doctor. So is Osama bin Laden's sidekick, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Indeed, the most dangerous extremists are not embittered young men without jobs or hope. They are the elites, or, more typically, the sons of the elite, who are working out some grievance or vengeance and have the know-how and means to find truly dangerous weapons. Evidence collected from the caves of Afghanistan suggested that Zawahiri had a special interest in chemical and biological weapons. More readily than most people, doctors can lay their hands on the ingredients for gas or germ warfare. Some also have access to the sort of radioactive material that could be used to fashion a dirty bomb.
It is possible that the bomb plots will turn out to be the work of a sinister "doctors' cell" embedded by Al Qaeda to cause mayhem in Britain. It is also possible that the medical personnel rounded up by the authorities were friends or colleagues of the would-be suicide bombers, but not involved in a conspiracy. At least three of them are thought to be related by blood—brothers Kafeel and Sabeel Ahmed, and Mohamed Haneef, the doctor detained in Australia.
Kafeel seems to have been the other man in the Jeep Cherokee. Jumping out of the car as it crashed into the airport terminal, he poured some sort of flammable liquid over his head and lit himself on fire. Badly burned, he has yet to be questioned, according to investigators. Going to Britain from India, Ahmed is an engineer, not a doctor as initially reported. There is some suspicion that he was the bombmaker, working out of a garage in Scotland. If so, he does not appear to have been a very clever one. Instructions on making a car bomb are not hard to find on the Internet. But the two Mercedeses found in Central London packed with propane cylinders and nails were crude and possibly ineffectual. A government expert following the investigation pointed out to NEWSWEEK that propane cylinders require prolonged exposure to heat before they will explode, and the resulting blast would not have been powerful enough to shatter the vehicle into metal shards.
Ahmed and Abdullah may have been bunglers, but their story is still ominous. Scion of a prominent Iraqi family, Abdullah, 27, was born in England, where his father had come to study medicine. The family returned to Baghdad, where they reportedly enjoyed the privileges of a Sunni family with good connections to Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. Quiet and studious, Abdullah was always devout. A high-school classmate and friend, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation, recalled seeing Abdullah become worked up when classmates said "Merry Christmas" to each other. "This is not for us Muslims, it's only for Christians," Abdullah shouted. He was radicalized, says this friend, on a trip to Jordan in 2000. "When he came back he was completely changed," says the friend.
A British relative told The Washington Post that Abdullah showed his zeal, preaching in the place of an absent mullah at a mosque in Cambridge, where he lived for a time while he episodically pursued his medical studies in Britain. Abdullah's father, a prominent doctor, had wanted his son to study medicine. "His heart was not in it," the Post quoted the relative as saying. "To be honest, he passed because his father was a well-known professor, and that's the way it worked in Iraq." The troubled young Abdullah would have preferred being a mullah, said the relative. "I saw him praying one time and he had tears in his eyes."
Abdullah was in Baghdad when the Americans invaded and deposed Saddam—a disaster for Abdullah's prominent Sunni family. As sectarian violence spread, Mohammed Rawi, the president of Baghdad University and the former dean of the College of Medicine, was found shot in his office. Rawi was a Baathist who allegedly had provided medical care for Saddam. Not long after the killing, Rawi was replaced by a Shiite. This infuriated Abdullah, according to his high-school friend. At the time, Abdullah told his classmates, "A Sunni dean was killed and a Shiite dean must be killed." Abdullah also began speaking out bitterly against the American occupiers.
Abdullah returned to England in 2004. Living over a kebab restaurant in Cambridge, he tutored the owner's children in religion, chemistry and biology. He also intensely followed the news in Iraq by Internet. The relative interviewed by The Washington Post said that he did not know what or who might have influenced Abdullah, but as for Al Qaeda, "he liked what they were doing in Iraq." At some point, he became friends and possibly roommates with Kafeel Ahmed. A devout Muslim from India, Ahmed had fought with the leaders of the mosque near his home in Bangalore over his attempts to get its followers to adopt more-conservative practices. (Angry local toughs reportedly threatened to break his arms and legs.) Some investigators say that Ahmed left behind a last will and testament before the two men set off on their failed suicide mission.
Of their mutual friends and acquaintances swept up by police after the bombing attempt, the most intriguing may be Mohammed Asha, arrested, along with his wife, Marwa, as they drove up the motorway between England and Scotland. The child of educated, middle-class parents, Asha graduated from the Jubilee School in Amman, Jordan (set up by Queen Noor for gifted children), with the third highest academic ranking in the country. His grades in medical school were a perfect 4.0. "About once in 10 years a student comes along that good," says Zuhair Abu Faris, head of the Jordan Medical Association.
In 2005 he went to Britain to work as a neurologist and continue his studies. Last week his family denied that Asha could have possibly been a terrorist plotter. "He was no more religious than normal," his father, Jamil, told NEWSWEEK. "It's impossible for my son to do this; he has no time but to study. I know my son and he is not into these things." But family members seemed to struggle to gloss over some sort of change in Asha and his wife when they returned to Jordan on a visit in 2006. Asha was sporting a long, Islamist-style beard. Asha's father put the physical change down to his son's admiration for a mentor who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
It may or may not be significant that Asha made at least preliminary inquiries about coming to practice medicine in the United States. Asha, as well as another doctor held for questioning last week in the bombing attempt, contacted a U.S. organization that licenses foreign doctors. But according to an FBI official speaking anonymously about the ongoing investigation, no evidence has turned up that any of the British suspects ever traveled to the United States or had any significant connections inside the country. Generally speaking, U.S. counterterror officials contacted last week by NEWSWEEK were not flashing red alerts about the prospects of an imminent terrorist attack on the homeland.
In Europe, there is more jitteriness in the intelligence community. In April, the London Sunday Times published a hair-raising leak of a secret British intelligence document prepared by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center. The newspaper reported that Al Qaeda in Iraq was planning "large scale" terror attacks against Britain and other Western countries. It quoted a member of the network vowing that the operation would be on a par with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and would "shake the Roman throne." Concerns heightened last month when a video surfaced, purporting to show a "graduation ceremony" at which a senior Taliban commander was depicted sending off squads of masked men to be suicide bombers in Germany, Britain, Canada and the United States.
Most intelligence officials dismissed the tape as fanciful propaganda, but some acknowledged it could contain an element of reality. German authorities are particularly on edge. Last month two German citizens were arrested by Pakistan as they made their way over the border from Iran, apparently headed for Afghanistan. Some German investigators believe the two suspects (still believed to be in Pakistani custody) were on their way to be trained for attacks on the West. A senior Interior Ministry official, August Hanning, told a press conference that the current situation recalled the summer of 2001, when, as he put it, "obscure threats surfaced, which, as we know, became reality."
With Stryker Mcguire, Ginanne Brownell, Emily Flynn Vencat in London, William Underhill in Glasgow, Silvia Spring in Newcastle-Under-Lyme, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Baghdad, Sudip Mazumdar in New Delhi, Christopher Dickey in Paris, Jason Overdorf in Bangalore, Rod Nordland and Ranya Kadri in Amman and additional reporting from our Iraqi staff