Terror Watch: Al Qaeda's New Recruits

A failed restaurant bombing in England last week has raised concerns among U.S. and European counterterrorism officials that Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups are recruiting mentally disabled people to carry out suicide attacks.

Authorities in Britain have mounted an intensive investigation into how and why a 22-year-old mentally handicapped man, Nicky Reilly, built a nail bomb and then attempted to set it off last Thursday. The bomb, which was intended to detonate at lunchtime in a crowded restaurant in Exeter, a county seat in southwest England, apparently misfired, and Reilly was the only one injured in the partial explosion. According to British news reports, he suffered minor eye injuries and burns to his face. Earlier this week, he was released from the hospital and transferred to the custody of local police, who are now expected to question him with the help of Scotland Yard's antiterrorist division.

According to British news reports, shortly before leaving his home in Plymouth, England, on his bombing mission, Reilly allegedly received a text message on his cell phone that encouraged him to proceed with the attack. Following the failed bombing, at least two men were picked up by police in connection with the investigation, but their status is unclear.

British media quoted police officials saying they believed that Reilly had been targeted for recruitment as a suicide bomber by unidentified radical elements because of his mental handicap. According to a story in London's Observer, Reilly, a large, bearlike man who allegedly has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, converted to Islam several years ago. The story reported that he recently changed his name and began to express extremist views, condemning his family as "infidels." According to the Observer and other U.K. press reports, due to his Muslim contacts, Reilly was at least vaguely known to Britain's domestic counterintelligence and antiterrorism agency, M.I.5. But before last week's incident, he was not regarded as dangerous and therefore had not been subjected to close monitoring by police or intelligence officers.

British and U.S. officials told NEWSWEEK that authorities are now investigating whether there are any connections between Reilly and any of his known associates and Al Qaeda or other radical Islamic groups. These inquiries are examining any possible links between the U.K. incident and people in tribal areas along the Afghan-Pakistan border where Osama bin Laden and other fugitive members of Al Qaeda's leadership are believed to be hiding.

Investigators have established that participants in several major U.K.-based terror plots, including the 2005 bombings of London underground trains and a 2006 plot to blow up transatlantic airliners, either traveled to Pakistan for indoctrination and training by suspected Al Qaeda personnel or had contacts with such operatives. U.K. and U.S. officials said that no evidence has surfaced suggesting that Reilly's recruitment and activities were orchestrated by Al Qaeda operatives or directed from overseas. Nevertheless, U.S. officials acknowledged that the Reilly case points up a general concern they have about efforts by extremists to prey on the mentally handicapped. Richard Kolko, an FBI spokesman, told NEWSWEEK: "There are now a few documented cases of this happening, and the FBI, with our intelligence-community partners, will continue to analyze this and search for any trends."

American and British officials both noted that earlier this year, two markets in Baghdad were attacked by women suicide bombers who allegedly had been targeted for recruitment by Al Qaeda because they were mentally handicapped. According to initial news reports, the bombers, who killed themselves and dozens of bystanders, had Down syndrome. According to U.S. and British officials, these initial reports about the bombers' disability later were proven to be inaccurate, but authorities still believe they were both suffering from some kind of mental handicap. A British counterterrorism expert, who asked for anonymity when discussing sensitive matters, said that the Palestinian militant group Hamas also had a history of recruiting mentally handicapped or emotionally vulnerable people to carry out suicide missions.

U.S officials insisted there is no hard evidence that Al Qaeda or any other extremist group has tried to recruit mentally handicapped people to attack targets inside the United States. Yet authorities remain concerned that if such vulnerable people are recruited in friendly Western countries like Britain, France or Germany, current U.S. immigration laws would allow them easy entry to this country on tourist visas. Due to antiterrorist concerns, U.S. authorities are currently trying to tighten visa controls for visitors from friendly countries, but acknowledge that the United States will remain vulnerable, particularly as Al Qaeda and other extremist groups place greater emphasis on attracting operatives who look and talk like Americans or Western Europeans.