New York Times
December 14, 2007
Pg. 1 This article is by Raymond Bonner, Jane Perlez and Eric Schmitt.
LONDON — Investigators examining the bungled terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow six months ago believe the plotters had a link to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, which would make the attacks the first that the group has been involved in outside of the Middle East, according to senior officials from three countries who have been briefed on the inquiry.
The evidence pointing to the involvement of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia includes phone numbers of members of the Iraqi group found on the plotters’ cellphones recovered in Britain, a senior American intelligence official said.
British authorities have said that the plotters, Bilal Abdulla, a British-born doctor of Iraqi descent, and Kafeel Ahmed, an Indian aeronautical engineer, parked two vehicles laden with gas canisters and explosives near a popular nightclub in central London at the end of June. The cars, apparently positioned to strike people leaving the nightclub, failed to ignite.
The next day, the two men rammed a Jeep Cherokee loaded with gas canisters into the Glasgow airport. It erupted in flames, and the driver, Mr. Ahmed, was severely burned and died several weeks later.
British intelligence agencies have feared a blowback from Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, and after the events in London and Glasgow officials and terrorism experts speculated that Iraq-based groups could have been involved. More recently, as the investigation progressed, British intelligence officials told foreign diplomats that they believed the attacks were the first sign of such a reaction, said a senior diplomat of a country allied with Britain.
Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia is a homegrown Sunni extremist group that American intelligence officials say is led by foreigners.
The American intelligence official noted several similarities between the events in Britain and attacks in Iraq attributed to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, including the use of vehicle-borne explosives aimed at multiple targets. The officials agreed to talk about the attack only on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing secret intelligence information.
While officials stopped short of saying that the plot originated with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, or was directed by the group, they did say it was the closest collaboration they knew of between the Iraq group and plotters outside the Middle East. The American official who noted the evidence found on the recovered cellphones was unable to provide details about how often the accused plotters called Iraq or how soon before the bungled attacks calls were made.
Two other American counterterrorism officials generally concurred with this assessment of the link to the Iraqi group, but one of them cautioned against overstating the role of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, also known as Al Qaeda in Iraq, or A.Q.I., saying, “The event is best viewed as A.Q.I.-related, rather than A.Q.I.-directed.”
However, none of the officials would divulge the exact nature of the group’s involvement in the operation.
Recent terrorist attacks in Britain, including the July 2005 bombing of London’s transit system that killed 52 commuters, and several foiled plots appeared to have some connection to Pakistan. They have been conducted mostly by Britons of Pakistani origin, and some of the suspects trained in Pakistan.
Yet before the failed attacks in London and Glasgow, the British intelligence services suggested in a quarterly review on the terrorist threat that an attack against Britain was possible from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
“While networks linked to A.Q. (Al Qaeda) Core pose the greatest threat to the U.K., the intelligence during this quarter has highlighted the potential threat from other areas, particularly A.Q.-I (Al Qaeda in Iraq),” said the report by the Joint Terrorism Analysis Center based at the headquarters of MI5, the domestic intelligence service. Parts of the report were published in The Sunday Times in April. According to the newspaper’s account of the intelligence report, British intelligence officers wrote that “we are aware that A.Q.-I networks are active in the U.K.”
According to officials who have been briefed on the inquiry, investigators suspect that Dr. Abdulla, the British-born doctor reared in Baghdad, was the connection to the Iraq-based network, although it is not clear what they see as the nature of the link.
Dr. Abdulla was working at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, Scotland, after qualifying for a limited registration in the diabetes department at the time of the attacks. After his arrest, colleagues told Scottish newspapers that Dr. Abdulla was hard to motivate to do medical rounds because he seemed preoccupied by following Islamic affairs on his computer.
Dr. Abdulla has been charged with conspiracy to use explosives, and the trial is expected to begin next year. Six people were initially detained in Britain in connection with the attack. Three have been released; two others in addition to Dr. Abdulla have been charged.
Martin Rackstraw, a lawyer for Dr. Abdulla, said he was unable to comment on the case under British law.
The son of a prominent doctor, Dr. Abdulla returned to Britain in 2004 with his new Iraqi medical degree, said Shiraz Maher, a British Muslim who knew him when they both lived in Cambridge. Before joining the hospital, Dr. Abdulla worked part time at a Staples store in Cambridge, while studying for the exams he needed to pass to practice medicine here, Mr. Maher said in an interview.
Mr. Maher, who at the time was a member of the radical Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, said he remembered Dr. Abdulla from that period as being obsessed by the war in Iraq, and as someone who practiced an intense and “austere” form of Wahhabism, a conservative strain of Islam. He was outraged, Mr. Maher said, by the American attack on Falluja, Iraq, in November 2004. Dr. Abdulla was not a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir, Mr. Maher said.
He was with Dr. Abdulla on almost a daily basis for prayers, he said. Mr. Maher, who left Hizb ut-Tahrir in mid-2005, said he did not see Dr. Abdulla again after that.
Mr. Maher described Dr. Abdulla as “defiant” and said that Mr. Ahmed, the man who died of burns suffered in the Glasgow attack, was more passive. “They had a close relationship,” Mr. Maher said.
Whatever the extent of assistance or inspiration the plotters may have gotten from Iraq, counterterrorism officials and experts said they were struck by the amateurish nature of the attacks. The cars parked at the London nightclub were packed with propane gas tanks, but they failed to explode because the plotters did not leave the windows open enough to allow air in to ignite the fuel in the gas tanks, said two terrorism experts with knowledge of the case.
Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert and professor of international relations at Georgetown University, said the plotters appeared to be relatively efficient at organizational planning but had failed to pay enough attention to making the bombs. “Technical expertise is different from operational sophistication,” Mr. Hoffman said. Raymond Bonner and Jane Perlez reported from London, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.