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British manhunt widens

Three physicians are among eight suspects now held in bomb plots.

July 03, 2007|Janet Stobart and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — The profile of an extremist cell believed to be behind attempted bombings in London and Glasgow took shape Monday as authorities identified at least three suspects as doctors, two of them from Iraq and Jordan.

Three arrests made Monday brought the number of people in custody to eight, as police pressed an international manhunt for other suspects.

Two men, ages 25 and 28, were arrested in the Glasgow area in Scotland, and a 27-year-old man identified as a doctor was taken into custody in Brisbane, the capital of Australia's Queensland state, as he tried to board a flight, officials said. The Queensland premier told the Associated Press that a second physician held in Brisbane was being questioned.

Authorities said two key suspects who were arrested over the weekend in Britain are physicians from the Middle East in their mid-20s who arrived within the last three years and worked at hospitals in the Glasgow and Birmingham areas. Suspects in other recent terrorism cases in Britain have been largely British-raised, less well educated men of Pakistani or African descent.

One of the two, Bilal Abdullah, a 27-year-old Iraqi, is believed to be a lead figure in the suspected cell, said a British security official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case on the record.

Abdullah was the passenger in a flaming Jeep Cherokee that rammed into a terminal of the Glasgow international airport Saturday afternoon in an attempt to cause a massive explosion, the official said.

After a struggle with police and bystanders, a dazed Abdullah was captured along with the driver, who is hospitalized in critical condition with severe burns, the official said.

Investigators suspect that Abdullah also played a central role in the attempt to detonate two explosives-packed Mercedeses left late Thursday near Piccadilly Circus in a bustling tourist and nightlife district of London, the official said.

No one has yet been charged in the attempted bombings in either city, though a judge Monday granted investigators' request to keep the eight in jail longer. Abdullah and the driver of the Jeep that was filled with propane tanks and gasoline are suspected of executing the frenzied, seemingly improvised assault on the Glasgow Airport as anti-terrorism police were hot on their trail.

The police had quickly pinpointed the suspects' location using evidence recovered from the Mercedeses, including at least one cellphone intended as a detonator, the car registration and surveillance footage from cameras in London and on highways beyond, authorities said.

"The [closed-circuit surveillance] network incorporates license and registration information automatically, so you can reconstruct the trip a car has taken," the security official said. "It didn't take the police long to track down the cars. The whole of London is surrounded by cameras."

Investigators continue to believe that the attacks were directed or inspired by Al Qaeda.

"At the moment that is the way it looks," the security official said. "They are definitely looking for more people."

But the emerging picture of the suspected cell differs from that of previous plots in Britain, and questions persist about the nature of possible foreign links.

The Iraqi and Jordanian doctors' background breaks with a pattern in recent terrorism cases here, including last year's plot to bomb U.S.-bound jets and the London transport bombings of 2005.

In those plots and others, most suspects were working-class or middle-class young men of Pakistani or African origin, born or raised in Britain.

The plots were directed by planners and trainers who were based in Pakistan and belonged to the core of Al Qaeda operating in the region near the Afghan border, according to evidence presented in trials and interviews with anti-terrorism officials.

By contrast, the Middle Eastern angle could point to the Iraq war, where a constellation of extremist networks operate, among them an Al Qaeda affiliate that is believed to include a large number of foreign fighters.

Outside the Middle East, Iraqis, Jordanians and others have been active in militant networks in continental Europe. In 2005, a group of Iraqis was arrested in Germany in an alleged plot to assassinate Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister of Iraq at the time.

Moreover, the suspected plan to use consecutive car-bomb explosions last week in London, targeting police and rescue personnel as they arrive at the scene of the first explosion, evokes the tactics of insurgents in Iraq.

But scenarios involving links to Pakistan and Iraq are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

U.S. authorities this year announced the arrest of an Al Qaeda leader named Abdul Hadi, an Iraqi explosives expert who traveled from his base in Pakistan to Iraq as a liaison between Al Qaeda factions.

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