A Higher Degree of Terror
In Britain, the threat of educated extremists
LONDONIf you can't trust a doctor, whom can you trust? The idea of physicians as healers was badly shaken last week when it was revealed that six of the eight suspects in three abortive terrorist attacks here were medical doctors. The failed attackstwo car bombs in London and a suicidal raid on Glasgow International Airporthave also raised questions about possible links to the Islamic terrorist group al Qaeda.
The United Kingdom's National Health Service employs almost 90,500 doctors who received their medical degrees in foreign countries, nearly 14,100 from predominantly Muslim nations. Gordon Brown, the new prime minister in the Labor government, promptly ordered a review of recruitment practices at the health service, known as the NHS.
Hidden cells. But security experts say those efforts could come too late. They are convinced that other terrorist cells lurk within the state-funded health system. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," says Beverli Rhodes, a terrorism expert who advises survivors of the July 7, 2005, terrorist attack on the city's transport system that killed 52. Moreover, analysts say, setting up a workable screening process is difficult, if not impossible. Combine that with the prospect of a public refusing treatment by Muslim doctors, Rhodes says, and the result could be "pandemonium" within the NHS.
The chain of events began in the early hours of June 29. An ambulance crew noticed "smoke" inside a Mercedes-Benz near a busy nightclub. The car was packed with canisters of gasoline, propane, and nails. A cellphonemeant to act as a detonatorwas also found (the smoke was most likely gas vapors). A second, similarly rigged Mercedes had been illegally parked nearby, but it had been towed and wasn't found until hours later. The next day, two men in a fire-engulfed Jeep Cherokee crashed it into the entrance to Glasgow's airport. The men were identified as Drs. Bilal Abdullah, an Iraqi, and Kafeel Ahmed, an Indian. Police believe the pair planted the London bombs, then raced 400 miles to Glasgow. Ahmed remains hospitalized with burns covering 90 percent of his body.
The perpetrators were clearly amateurs. Although potentially deadly, the bombs were poorly devised, and the cellphones were loaded with phone numbersuseful evidence for investigators. "Incompetence, public vigilance, and good luck kept people from being killed," says Charles Shoebridge, a former counterterrorism officer.
Nevertheless, Stephen Swain, an analyst with consultants Control Risks, says the ripple effect of even failed attacksthe costs to the U.K. economy and the growing "atmosphere of constant threat"meant some of the terrorists' goals were met. "I'm sure their organizers see it as a success," he said.
Security levels remained high in London as the weekend approached. Not only was Saturday the anniversary of the "7/7" attacks but London was hosting several major events over the weekend, including one of the Live Earth concerts, the first leg of the Tour de France bike race, and the Wimbledon tennis championships.
Doctors with bombs. The possible use of doctors as bomb-planting foot soldiers adds a scary new dimension to Islamic terrorism, and Swain says their employment is a savvy move. The societal respect usually accorded physicians means "it's a good cover for them," he says. But doctors are hardly new to the Islamist movement, at least at the top ranks. Osama bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, is a doctor, for example. Says Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp: "There's nothing about being a doctor or highly educated that's inconsistent with being an extremist."