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Iraq cell may be tied to British plots

The background of the apparent chief suspect suggests a connection with Al Qaeda-linked group, experts say.

July 08, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — If the past is any guide, the investigation of the attempted car bombings in Britain will lead overseas to an Islamic network affiliated with Al Qaeda.

The question, investigators and experts say, is whether the trail of the would-be bombers will confirm fears that the threat from the war-torn Iraq region is escalating.

Previous plots, including the London transit bombings that killed 52 people two years ago, have been traced back through British terrorist cells to Pakistan-based leaders of Osama bin Laden's network. The alleged mastermind of a bomb plot foiled here in 2004 was an Iraqi explosives expert, now in U.S. custody, who shuttled between the core leadership in Pakistan and Al Qaeda's offshoot in Iraq, officials say.

In continental Europe, the Madrid train bombings of 2004 and aborted plots elsewhere had suspected ties to the sprawl of networks that send militants to fight in Iraq. However, the main Sunni Muslim militant organizations fighting in Iraq, Al Qaeda in Iraq and its allies, seemed embroiled in the war and did not show much capacity for operations far from home.

But the background of the apparent chief suspect, Iraqi doctor Bilal Abdullah, suggests a more direct connection: networks in the Iraq region that are linked to Al Qaeda and that select and dispatch operatives on a mission to Britain, experts say. Abdullah's medical credentials, British passport and suspected ties to Sunni fundamentalists in Iraq could make him an ideal leader for a plan to hit London with a taste of Baghdad-style carnage, experts say.

"This is exactly what a number of us in the intelligence world had been predicting," said David Omand, who served as Britain's security and intelligence coordinator until April 2005. "The concern was that Al Qaeda in Iraq would turn their minds to attacks outside Iraq. It's not really a strategic surprise. It looks like there's that connection to Iraq."

The analysis remains incomplete. Investigators need time to pursue leads in the Middle East, India and Australia. Five suspects are Arab medical professionals, and three are Indians, including Kafeel Ahmed, the driver of a Jeep that crashed into the Glasgow Airport in flames, leaving him severely burned.

Ahmed and his brother Sabeel, a doctor arrested in Liverpool, England, apparently were members of Tablighi Jamaat, a proselytizing sect that is nonviolent but often serves as a gateway to terrorism, said a police official in Bangalore who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Indian connection could point to South Asian extremist networks.

It also is possible that the cell formed autonomously in Britain and acted with little outside influence.

"One or two of them could have had training somewhere," said a British security official who asked to remain anonymous. "But I think they developed the relationships here and developed the plot here."

Abdullah appeared in court Saturday to face charges of conspiracy to cause explosions. Prosecutors accused him of trying to blow up two Mercedes sedans June 29 in London, then joining Ahmed in the Jeep Cherokee for the fiery attempted bombing in Glasgow, Scotland, the next day. The two also are suspected of setting up a bomb factory in a house that Abdullah rented in April in a village outside Glasgow, the British security official said.

The paunchy 27-year-old Abdullah wore a white sweatshirt in court. He refused to rise when the judge entered, and spoke only to confirm his name and birth date. He will return for a hearing July 27.

Until now, the main threat from Iraq has been seen as indirect, anti-terrorism investigators say. They worried that militants from Europe and North Africa, many of them young working-class men already involved in street crime, would gain experience and militant connections in the combat zone and eventually return.

"We have always been sure that if the war stopped in Iraq, we would have a lot of guys ready to come back and cause problems for us," a European anti-terrorism investigator said.

Intelligence services have picked up periodic "chatter" about plans for European strikes among militants aligned with Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Al Qaeda chieftain in Iraq who was killed by U.S. forces last year. Zarqawi had a grand vision of federating networks in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. In the months before the 2005 transit bombings, there were reports that Zarqawi had dispatched teams to attack in Europe.

"There was a lot of talk of projects, but very little evidence," said Omand, the former British security and intelligence coordinator. "There was some activity related to support and funds, but I can't recall specific evidence of a plot here directed by Al Qaeda in Iraq."

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