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Doctors caught in terror hunt

Security tight as threat level kept at critical

LONDON -- The suspected terrorist cell that allegedly attempted three car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow last weekend was dominated by foreign-born physicians working in British hospitals, according to British officials and news reports.

As many as five of the eight people in police custody in the fast-moving investigation are either doctors or doctors in training, according to the suspects' neighbors, colleagues, and police sources quoted in news reports. One of two men who rammed a burning Jeep Cherokee into Glasgow Airport's main terminal Saturday was identified as an Iraqi physician.

A police investigation stretching from London through central England to Scotland continued yesterday, with officers searching 19 properties and authorities announcing the arrest of three more suspects. Two men, ages 25 and 28, were seized near Glasgow, while a third was taken in Australia, where an official identified him as a foreign doctor working at a Queensland state hospital.

As security was tightened at airports and train stations and Britain's terror threat level remained at critical -- meaning an attack is considered imminent -- many Britons expressed surprise at the notion of highly skilled medical professionals allegedly plotting what one analyst called "white-collar terrorism."

"You expect a radical to be a disjointed youth, a person who doesn't have a job, not a doctor," said Anthony Connor, who lives in Staffordshire near the quiet cul-de-sac where one of the arrested doctors, Mohammed Asha, lives in a two-story brick house. But terrorism experts said the suspects' profession is not a surprise -- many top Al Qaeda operatives, they noted, have advanced education.

British officials have said the bomb plot appears to be connected to Al Qaeda, but they have not offered evidence to support that view.

In Parliament yesterday, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith praised the British public's response to recent reports of near catastrophe: "The fact that people have been prepared to go about their lives as normally as possible this weekend sends the strongest message to those who wish to destroy our way of life and our freedoms that we will not be intimidated by terror."

On Friday, two Mercedes sedans filled with propane cylinders and nails were left near a crowded London nightclub but failed to detonate. Police have said that attack and the next day's incident at Glasgow Airport were related.

Police said military bomb disposal experts conducted a controlled explosion yesterday of a suspicious car parked at Royal Alexandra Hospital. Located 2 miles from Glasgow Airport, the hospital is treating one of the airport attackers, who was badly burned. The hospital also was the workplace of one of the suspects.

Police have been aided by the large amount of evidence available, including cellphones found in the Mercedes sedans in London, according to a British security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The investigation's fast pace became clear with the disclosure that minutes before the airport attack, police contacted Daniel Gardiner, whose real estate company had arranged the rental of a home near Glasgow that police soon searched. Authorities reportedly had found cellphone records linking the house to the failed London car bombs.

Gardiner told reporters that he had rented the house to a "professional" man who passed a credit check and was "one of our better tenants."

One of the Glasgow Airport attackers was Bilal Abdulla, who worked as a doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital, according to news reports. According to Britain's General Medical Council, which maintains records of all registered medical practitioners in the country, Abdulla earned his medical degree in Baghdad in 2004 and began working in Britain in August 2006.

Mohammed Asha was arrested late Saturday with his wife after police cars forced their vehicle to a stop on a highway in central England. Records show that Asha earned his medical degree in Jordan in 2004 and began practicing in Britain in March 2005. His family in Jordan told reporters that Asha, 26, is training to be a neurosurgeon, liked Britain and had no ties with extremist groups.

A third doctor, reportedly from Bangalore, India, was reported to be in police custody after being arrested in Liverpool late Saturday. The Muslim News, a British newspaper, reported on its website that the doctor's detention might have been a case of mistaken identity. A colleague told the Muslim News that the doctor might have been detained because he was using the cellphone and Internet account of a colleague who moved to Australia a year ago.

Mohammed Shafiq, 28, spokesman for the Ramadhan Foundation, a leading Muslim youth organization, said it was "absolutely baffling" that doctors -- professionals with good jobs and income -- would be involved in violent extremism. He said Muslim leaders have been most concerned about the radicalization of disaffected and unemployed youth, and they have been urging the government to help them find jobs.

Despite that widespread perception in Britain, one British security official said that although a physician would be the highest-educated bombing suspect arrested in recent plots in Britain, suspects in previous cases have ranged from university students to "social misfits and troublemakers."

"We've learned not to pigeonhole people socially at all," the security official said. "You can't really pigeonhole extremists into social or educational classes."