Terror Watch: An Iraq Tie to British Plot?

In the hours after last weekend's foiled car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown strongly suggested that Osama bin Laden's terror group was behind the incidents. "It is clear that we are dealing in general terms with people who are associated with Al Qaeda," Brown told the BBC. But is there really a connection to the network?

U.S. and British authorities are looking into the possibility that one or more of the medical workers arrested in the failed attacks may have had contact with Al Qaeda in Iraq, formed after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and loosely affiliated with Al Qaeda's high command. An official familiar with the investigation said that no firm connection had yet been established between any of the suspects and the Iraq group, and there certainly is no evidence yet that it might have orchestrated the U.K. plot. But, said the official, there may be reason to suspect that those detained have been in touch with known associates of the ultra-violent insurgent group set up by Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi.

However, because the Iraq connection is so tentative at this stage, officials on both sides of the Atlantic remain skeptical that the U.K. plot was orchestrated by Al Qaeda's top leaders. For a start, the bombings themselves were so thoroughly bungled that it's seen as unlikely that Osama bin Laden or his main associates had any direct role. U.S. and British officials said it was still a possibility that the attacks were largely planned on British soil, even though it appears that few, if any of the plotters, fit the profile of the native-born, alienated British Muslims who have been implicated in other recent U.K. terror plots.

All three known car bombs evidently failed to explode as intended. Two were seized by police without incident and the third car went up in flames after two suspects drove it headlong into a Glasgow Airport terminal building. A British counterterrorism official, who asked for anonymity when talking about the investigation, says the "amateurish" performance of the plotters is leading investigators to discount the notion that the attacks were orchestrated "from some cave in [Pakistan's] Northwestern Frontier"—the remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border region where bin Laden is believed to be hiding. Nor are investigators confident that a "mastermind" orchestrated the British plot from outside the U.K.

British and U.S. officials contacted by NEWSWEEK said investigators were still trying to figure out how the suspects in the plot—eight have now been arrested in the U.K. and Australia, and seven are believed to be doctors or medical students—got together to plan and carry out the failed bombings. A British official said it was possible all had somehow cooked up the plot before coming to Britain. But it is also possible they did not meet up until after all were in the country, where they appear to have had easy entrée to Britain's medical education and nationalized health-care systems.

British authorities have not officially released either the names or nationalities of any alleged plotters. Two British officials indicated this was because investigators are still looking for other possible suspects in the case and going public with that information could hamper the investigation. An official familiar with the investigation would not say which or how many of the suspects might have had contacts with Al Qaeda in Iraq, but one of the suspects in the Glasgow Airport attack, identified as Bilal Talal Samad Abdulla, is an Iraqi who graduated from medical school in Baghdad.

As is frequently the case in the early stages of a U.K. terror investigation, there are conflicting accounts of how much the police now know about the plans. A U.S. official said he did not believe the British were still conducting a huge manhunt for more suspected conspirators. But an official in London said that U.K. authorities were definitely "still looking for individuals"; another London official said the Scotland Yard investigation was so intense that detectives were canceling scheduled meetings with officials of other agencies.

U.S. and U.K. officials privately acknowledge the accuracy of news reports indicating that a majority, if not most of the suspects arrested in the case are doctors or medical students—all from the Middle East region, including Iraq. None, apparently, was born in Britain. Several counterterrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic said that so far as they could recall, there is no previously known case in which an apparent cell comprised of medical personnel has been implicated in an Islamic-inspired terror plot. "I've never heard of it before," said an official in London familiar with the views of U.K. intelligence agencies. "It's unique, baffling," said a Washington official familiar with U.S. intelligence reporting.

Several counterterrorism officials and experts noted that bin Laden's chief deputy and longtime sidekick, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was a practicing physician before he became consumed by radical jihadi politics. A U.S. counterterrorism official said that certainly upper-middle-class extremists had been implicated in past terrorist plots and networks, though he too acknowledged that the extensive involvement of doctors in the U.K. case is "strange."

Guido Steinberg, a terrorism expert who advised former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, said that years ago, Zawahiri and other doctors and professionals were among early recruits to violent factions, including Egyptian and Palestinian Islamic jihad movements. But, says Steinberg, these professionals tended to move up the ranks and become leaders of radical movements, rather than launch themselves into frontline plans.

Steinberg says information about the doctors' role in the failed London and Glasgow attacks runs counter to the historical profile investigators had assembled of likely U.K.-based Islamic terrorists. The fact that the latest case has confounded profilers and other experts has them concerned that it may be more difficult to spot and shut down future terror plots before they get off the ground.