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Britain probes for root of terror plot

6 suspects in medicine, but leader unclear

LONDON -- At least six of the suspects in the failed London and Glasgow car bombings were foreign doctors or medical personnel working for the National Health Service, but officials still have not determined whether a foreign terrorist group sent them to Britain or if they were recruited here.

The majority of those arrested or held for questioning were known "in some form" to the intelligence community, and were tracked down through the cellphones found in the London car bombs, a security specialist close to the government said. Nonetheless, investigators have not determined who led the ring.

"These people were not `clean skins,' " said Anthony Glees, director of Brunel University's Center for Intelligence and Security Studies in London. Yet, he added, "there is no sense of what the center of gravity of the plot was."

A British security official agreed, adding that some of the suspects had not been questioned.

"It is much too early for anyone to decide how they got together," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Police officials and sources have confirmed the arrests of foreign nationals from Iraq, Jordan, and India in connection with the car bombs discovered in London early Friday and the fiery automobile attack on the Glasgow international airport on Saturday. Two other detainees reportedly are medical students from Saudi Arabia.

The suspects, apparently all in their mid- to late 20s, include:

Bilal Abdullah, an Iraqi doctor who worked at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, Scotland. He has been identified as a passenger in the Jeep Cherokee that plowed into the main terminal of Glasgow Airport and burst into flames. He was detained at the airport at the time of the attack.

Khalid Ahmed, reported to be the driver of the SUV, who was critically burned in the fire. He is believed to be a doctor who worked and roomed with Abdullah in Paisley. His nationality is unknown, and he remains under police custody at the Royal Alexandra Hospital.

Mohammed Jameel Asha, a Palestinian-Jordanian neurosurgeon, who was arrested along with his wife Saturday night on a highway in northern England. He worked at the North Staffordshire Hospital in Stoke-on-Trent.

Mohammed Haneef, an Indian doctor who worked at Halton Hospital in Cheshire, south of Liverpool, in 2005. He was detained in Brisbane, Australia, as he was about to board a flight with a one-way ticket.

Another man identified as Sabeel Ahmed, a postgraduate medical trainee from India, reportedly worked with Haneef in Cheshire and was detained in Liverpool on Saturday night.

Two unidentified medical students who lived in a medical residence of the Royal Alexandra Hospital, are believed to be from Saudi Arabia.

Police traced the suspects through mobile telephones left in the London car bombs, apparently as detonators.

"The phones delivered the numbers, the numbers delivered the names, and the names tied in with information on security service databases," Glees said.

None of the suspects was under direct surveillance, however, and police had no specific warnings about a plot involving them.

Counterterrorism specialists caution that the suspects may not necessarily have been sent to Britain to infiltrate the medical system, but that the system may have provided a relatively easy way into the country. Most, if not all, of the suspects arrived in Britain before April 2006, when the Home Office introduced a work-permit requirement for doctors from countries outside the European Union.

There are currently 27,558 physicians from India, 1,985 from Iraq, and 184 from Jordan registered in Britain.

One or more of the detainees may have been radicalized and in touch with extremist networks before arriving, while others may have been radicalized only after establishing themselves in Britain, the security analysts said.

Asha's family in Jordan described him as a religious and political moderate and said he grew a full beard, a general symbol of religious devotion among Muslims, only after he moved to England in 2005.

Specialists note that the would-be bombers did not use their medical skills or access to medical supplies in either of the attacks, suggesting that the medical system may have served only as a means to network.

"They didn't use the access that doctors would have to radioactive materials," Glees said. British intelligence has "long been primed to worry about a radioactive bomb."

Two men were arrested yesterday in Blackburn on suspicion of terrorism, but police said it was "too early" to say whether the arrests were linked to the failed London plot and the Glasgow attack. They said, however, that a Volvo S40 sedan removed from the area might be connected to the investigation.

Police also carried out a controlled explosion of a car parked outside a mosque in Glasgow yesterday. The car was not found to contain explosives.

Security was tight at the country's airports, train stations, and commercial areas. A terminal at London's Heathrow Airport was closed for several hours after a suspicious package was reported; authorities ultimately determined it posed no danger.

At least 19 residences have been searched nationwide since the car bombs were discovered in London. Police and media have staked out the neighborhoods where Abdullah and Asha lived. The hospital in Paisley remained heavily guarded by police, with people subject to searches before entering the building. Several hospital staffers described Abdullah as having showed up for work erratically, and often reading Arab and Islamic websites on the job. BBC television quoted an acquaintance as saying he was angry about the US invasion of Iraq and cheered American deaths there.

Some British investigators believe the group behind the bombs had a link to extremist networks in the Iraq region, according to a European antiterrorism official in touch with British counterparts. The British investigators suspect that at least some of the doctors received direction and possibly training from a network such as the Al Qaeda groups operating in Iraq, Syria, and neighboring countries, the antiterrorism official said.

"Scotland Yard thinks they got orders from Iraq," said the European antiterrorism official, who asked to remain anonymous. "I personally think they were recruited and manipulated by people in the Iraq region. But it's too early to say."

Because police believe the suspects in Glasgow played central roles in the car-bomb plot in London as well as the airport attack, the hunt for foreign links may focus on Abdullah, who comes from Baghdad. The two Mercedes sedans rigged as car bombs had links to Glasgow, and phone and security-camera evidence has intensified the idea that the suspects in Glasgow played front-line roles.