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.”
Instead, the links were tangential. Members of the predominantly North African cell that killed 191 people aboard commuter trains in Madrid in 2004 were involved in recruitment networks for Iraq. And two suspected Madrid bombers fled to Iraq and died in suicide bombings there, one leaving behind his passport at a Syrian safe house, Spanish and Italian police said.
But over the next two years, insurgents in Iraq and Syria began turning back aspiring fighters from Europe, sometimes with instructions to go home and attempt attacks or to train at camps in North Africa run by networks that target Europe.
The amateurish aspects of the failed British car bomb plots give the impression that the attackers had limited training, but that does not preclude links to dangerous networks, experts say. In the botched follow-up London bombings of July 21, 2005, the accused ringleader allegedly trained in Pakistan, but made a mistake in the building of the backpack bombs, which failed to explode, investigators say.
Al Qaeda figures in Iraq or Pakistan might not deploy a complete team with a concrete plan, officials said. Instead, their pattern has been to prepare one or two operatives outside the target country, and then give them autonomy to enlist accomplices and develop plots. A foreign doctor would be likely to recruit fellow foreign doctors.
“Dispatching teams sounds melodramatic,” Omand said. “The more likely explanation, given the composition of the British medical service, is that one of them recruited people he met professionally. They have to meet somewhere. In the past, radicals have met at health and fitness clubs.”
U.S. investigators also are looking into potential links to Iraq and elsewhere, especially after the revelation that two of the doctors jailed here had looked into working in the United States. But it’s premature to conclude that Al Qaeda in Iraq orchestrated the latest plot in Britain, a U.S. counter-terrorism official said, and sometimes it takes years to unearth such details.
“It’s entirely possible that we might discover links between those in the UK plot and some members of [Al Qaeda in Iraq],” said the U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But it is still early. This is the perennial problem with terrorist attacks; defining external links sometimes takes a long time.”
Times staff writers Josh Meyer in Washington, Janet Stobart in London and Shankhadeep Choudhury in New Delhi contributed to this report.