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Unusual duo at center of British case

An Iraqi doctor and an Indian engineer may have connected bomb plot suspects. Two had sought work in U.S.

July 07, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Authorities charged an Iraqi doctor Friday in last week's attempted car bombings and identified the driver of a vehicle that rammed into Glasgow Airport as an engineer from India, placing the two at the hub of an unusual mix of suspects of Middle Eastern and South Asian origin.

Prosecutors filed charges of conspiracy to cause explosions against Bilal Abdullah, 27, who worked at a Glasgow-area hospital during the last year. Abdullah became the first of eight suspects in custody, at least six of them foreign doctors or medical workers, to be charged in a case that investigators regard as the latest in a string of Al Qaeda-connected plots against Britain.

The FBI confirmed that two of the doctors had also looked into working in the United States during the last year. Their efforts did not get far, but British officials say some of the suspects were already Islamic radicals by then, and they could have been exploring the idea of an attack on U.S. soil.

Questions persist about the identities of some of the suspects and whether they have ties to trainers or masterminds outside Britain. But it seems increasingly likely that the friendship between Abdullah and the engineer -- now identified as Kafeel Ahmed -- linked groups of suspects from the Middle East and India and was a central force driving the alleged plot.

Although Islamic extremist networks are often multi-ethnic, that particular mix is unusual in Britain. Extremist cells in previous cases were generally dominated by militants of North African, Pakistani or African origin, with ideologues more likely to be Middle Eastern, counter-terrorism officials said.

Cambridge ties

Abdullah and Ahmed, who allegedly crashed a Jeep Cherokee into the departures terminal at Glasgow International Airport a week ago, grew close at Cambridge. A man who knew them at the time remembers the stocky Indian engineer zooming around the university city on a big motorcycle, with the Iraqi doctor on the back.

"Kafeel was a bit of an adrenaline junkie," said Shiraz Maher, a former fundamentalist who was studying at Cambridge University at the time. "But Bilal was the stronger of the two, and had a lot of influence on Kafeel. I think Kafeel became more devout under Bilal's influence."

On June 29, police believe, the two tried to blow up a pair of explosives-packed cars left in a crowded nightclub district near London's iconic Trafalgar Square, but failed. They allegedly hurried back to Glasgow as police closed in, loaded a Jeep with propane canisters and gasoline and, with Ahmed at the wheel, attacked the airport.

Ahmed set himself on fire during a struggle with police, suffering severe burns that have left him near death, authorities said. Doctors transferred him Friday to a special burn unit in Glasgow.

Before the botched London attack, one of the two suspects left a suicide note, according to a British security official who asked to remain anonymous because of restrictions on talking to the media.

Police had not officially confirmed the names of any of the suspects before charging Abdullah on Friday. Ahmed had been initially described in media reports and by authorities as a Middle Eastern doctor whose first name was Khalid.

In recent days, though, officials said Ahmed is an engineer from India and is apparently related to two Indian doctors also in custody. He may also have Jordanian citizenship and is one of several suspects thought to have used multiple or fraudulent identities, officials said.

"One of the arts these people practice is to conceal their identities," said the British security official. "Some of them have not been interviewed because the investigators want to be sure exactly who they dealing with before they sit down with them."

A British man who had business dealings with Abdullah in Glasgow said the Iraqi provided a British passport issued by the consulate in Jordan. That reinforces reports that Abdullah was born in Britain while his father, also a doctor, was working here. Abdullah has an uncle and cousin in Cambridge.

Maher described Abdullah in an interview this week as an angry extremist influenced by the ideology of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who was killed by U.S. forces last year.

In a second interview Friday, Maher said he also knew Ahmed. They all frequented the Islamic Academy, a student residence and prayer hall in a red-brick house owned by a Muslim charity, during the 2004-2005 academic year, Maher said.

Ahmed is thought to be 27. He is from a well-off family of doctors from Bangalore, Maher said. Ahmed lived in a small bedroom in the house and had an office at Anglia Polytechnic University, where he was pursuing a doctorate in engineering, Maher said.

Ahmed was short and chunky, Maher recalled. He described his shock at the video images from the Glasgow airport of police subduing a shirtless Ahmed, who was covered with burns and soot.

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