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British suspect's beliefs drove him, friends say

The Iraq war hardened a doctor detained in the bomb plots. He rejoiced at attacks on the troops.

July 05, 2007|Marjorie Miller and Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writers

LONDON — Bilal Abdullah was an angry militant Islamist long before he became a doctor in Britain or a chief suspect in last week's attempted car bombings in London and Glasgow, according to acquaintances.

The Iraqi doctor spoke fluent English, studied for his British medical exams in Cambridge and worked part time at a local Staples office supply store, according to a friend from those days in 2004 and 2005.

Abdullah also praised former Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, and kept his group's videos showing beheadings and assaults. He cheered the killing of U.S. and British troops, and wanted to see a strict Islamic government in Iraq, as well as Islamic dominance around the world.

He was warm with his fundamentalist Sunni friends, but quick to brand other Muslims and non-Muslims as infidels.

"He was known as a hard-core militant," Shiraz Maher, a former member of the international Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, said Wednesday in an interview.

British security officials now say that Abdullah, 27, and another suspect, Khalid Ahmed, were front-line operatives in the London and Glasgow, Scotland, plots.

They believe that Abdullah and Khalid, reportedly his roommate in Scotland, each drove a Mercedes sedan rigged with gasoline and nails from Glasgow down to London and tried to set them off Friday with cellphone detonators. When the bombs failed to go off, the two rushed back to Glasgow separately and launched a second attack, driving a gasoline-filled Jeep Cherokee into the main terminal of Glasgow Airport, a British security official said.

Their attempted attack on the airport Saturday "has all the hallmarks of an improvised Plan B" that they came up with as police closed in, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"They couldn't have done much reconnaissance on the airport," he said. "It seems very much like a botched attempt they organized on the fly."

Abdullah was held at the scene of the Glasgow attack and is in custody in London. Ahmed, who was badly burned in the crash, is in the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, Scotland, where he is believed to have worked with Abdullah. His nationality has been reported in the British media as either Lebanese or Iraqi.

At least six other people have been detained in connection with the plots: a Jordanian neurosurgeon, Mohammed Jameel Asha, who worked at the North Staffordshire Hospital in Stoke on Trent, and his lab technician wife, Marwa; an Indian doctor, Mohammed Haneef, who worked at Halton Hospital in Cheshire, south of Liverpool, and was held in Brisbane, Australia; Sabeel Ahmed, a postgraduate medical trainee from India who reportedly worked in Cheshire with Haneef, his second cousin; and two unidentified Saudi medical students who worked at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

So far, none of the eight has been charged.

How all of these people are connected has not been fully established, but several may have first encountered each other in Cambridge. In 2005, Asha worked in neurosurgery at Addenbrooke's Hospital, a teaching facility affiliated with Cambridge University, Channel Four news in Britain reported. A hospital spokesman would not comment, saying the "matter of national security is under police investigation."

At the same time, Sabeel Ahmed also was in Cambridge, where his brother was studying. Channel Four quoted a friend of the doctors as saying Abdullah and Ahmed were close friends.

Investigators are looking for possible links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, given Abdullah's background. A senior British cleric working in Baghdad said that he had met a suspected Al Qaeda leader in Jordan in April who warned that "those who cure you are going to kill you."

Canon Andrew White of Baghdad's only Anglican parish said he passed a general warning to the British government, but not the specific language because he didn't see its significance at the time. Since the attempted bombings, White said, he has come to believe the Sunni leader was sending a message about the doctors.

British security officials say no direct links to Al Qaeda have yet been found, and terrorism experts are skeptical that there is one. Abdel Bari Atwan, author of "The Secret History of Al Qaeda," noted in an interview Wednesday that Al Qaeda operations in London, Bali and Madrid all were deadly accurate, whereas last week's attacks were rudimentary and unsuccessful.

"Al Qaeda in Iraq is very experienced. They manufacture car bombs every day. They know how to detonate bombs, where to park them, how to select targets," said Atwan, who is editor of the London-based Al Quds al Arabi newspaper.

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