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Doctors as terrorists? Probe takes a chilling twist

The alleged crucial involvement of doctors and medical workers in Britain's car bomb plots alarm the public and surprised investigators.

world Updated: Jul 06, 2007 15:52 IST

The alleged crucial involvement of doctors and medical workers in Britain's car bomb plots has alarmed the public and surprised investigators.

The extraordinary focus of the British investigations has raised the question of how members of a caring profession - who have sworn to help and not harm - could become potential mass murderers.

"It is hard to imagine that we should have people in our midst who would be prepared to kill," said a British doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, near Glasgow, which has become the focal point of the police investigations.

Staff at the hospital broke down in tears when they heard that Balil Abdulla, a 27-year-old Iraqi-trained doctor, was in the passenger seat of the flaming Jeep Cherokee that rammed the main terminal of Glasgow airport on Saturday.

His alleged accomplice, who suffered 90 per cent burns after dousing himself in petrol in the attempted attack, is critically ill in the same hospital.

Suspect devices have since been discovered in the doctor's living quarters at the hospital, and a number of controlled explosions have been carried out on cars parked nearby.

One of his colleagues, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Evening Standard newspaper, "Bilal spent a lot of time on Islamic or Arabic websites. I would question him about it because I thought it was a bit odd."

But Abdulla's answer had been that he was single, with no wife or children to spend time with.

It is now believed that at least five of the eight people held in connection with the plot are doctors or medical workers. All in their 20s, they include nationals from Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

Abdulla, who arrived in Britain in August 2006, is also being questioned in connection with the Mercedes car bomb parked outside a London nightclub a day before the airport attack, according to reports.

Another Mercedes, also stacked with petrol, gas containers and nails, was discovered nearby. In both cases, the devices were meant to be triggered by mobile phone, but failed to go off owing a to a technical error.

Investigations have shown that the would-be bombers tried to detonate the first Mercedes car bomb in London with four phone calls, and the second with two.

The phones' SIM cards, which they hoped would be destroyed, were found in the vehicles, providing Scotland Yard with an "amazing treasure trove" of evidence that led to swift arrests.

Within hours of the Glasgow attack, Mohammed Asha, a 26-year-old neurologist from Jordan, who was born in Saudi Arabia but is of Palestinian origin, was arrested in a dramatic motorway swoop in Cheshire, northwest England.

His wife, 27-year-old Marwah, who was also arrested, worked as a medical assistant for Britain's National Health Service (NHS).

Asha, sporting round, metal-rimmed glasses and a black beard, was described as "smart" by a neighbour.

"It's fairly disturbing but at the same time I find it hard to believe, having met the gentleman, that he's in any way involved in terrorism," Daniel Robinson said.

The mobile phone trail led investigators as far as Australia, where Indian doctor Mohamed Haneef, who had earlier worked in Britain, was arrested at Brisbane airport.

Almost 40 per cent of the 240,000 doctors approved to work in Britain have trained abroad - outside the European Union. Nearly 2,000 qualified in Iraq, 500 in Iran and 200 in Jordan.

Doctors currently registered to work on Britain are drawn from 150 countries. They include almost 30,000 who qualified in India, 8,200 in South Africa, 5,500 in Ireland and 2,300 in Sri Lanka, according to official figures.

The involvement of medical staff in the terror plots has led British investigators to suspect that a secret cell of foreign terrorists, probably linked to Al-Qaeda, could be using British hospitals as a cover, intelligence sources said.

Attention is being focused on a group of nationals from the Middle East, who had not previously attracted the attention of the security services.

The arrival of teams from abroad to carry out attacks, their identities unknown to Britain's intelligence agencies, added a new "grisly dimension" to the terror threat, said one analyst.