The doctor who bombed Britain

Iraqi guilty over attacks in London and Glasgow; Fellow defendant cleared of involvement in plot
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The Independent Online

One was a poetry-loving trainee brain surgeon tipped to go to the top of his profession. Another was a talented engineer devoting his time to developing 3D maps for the blind. The other was the son of an Iraqi eminent rheumatologist who had followed his father in taking the Hippocratic oath by declaring, "Above all, I must not play at God".

Shortly before 1am on Friday 29 June last year, that is precisely what Kafeel Ahmed and Bilal Abdulla did, when, in a series of frantic phone calls, they tried to remotely detonate two huge car bombs outside a nightclub in London's West End packed with midsummer revellers, including guests at an 18th birthday party.

Yesterday, a jury found Abdulla, a 29-year-old Iraqi doctor who came to Britain to dedicate his life to healing by working as an NHS hospital doctor, was found guilty of conspiracy to cause "wholesale and indiscriminate murder" with a nationwide bombing campaign that ended in a suicide assault on Glasgow airport in a flaming Jeep packed with gas canisters. He will be sentenced today.

After a three-month trial at Woolwich Crown Court, jurors cleared a second NHS doctor, trainee neurologist Mohammed Asha, 28, of any involvement in the plot executed by Abdulla and Ahmed, an Indian-born PhD student who suffered fatal burns in the attempt to kill hundreds of holidaymakers at Glasgow airport. Before succumbing to his injuries, the 28-year-old engineer was treated for five weeks in the hospital where Glasgow-based Abdulla had been working.

After the verdicts were delivered, Asha, a father-of-one from Jordan, shook hands and embraced Abdulla, the former friend he had accused in the witness box of betraying him and destroying his life. The neurologist from the University Hospital of North Staffordshire is now fighting a bid to deport him to Jordan over a claimed visa irregularity.

Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said she was "pleased" with the guilty verdict against Abdulla, whose defence that he had meant the cars to be merely flaming protests against the war in Iraq was dismissed by the jury. She said: "This conviction underlines again the serious and sustained threat we face in the UK from terrorism, which is a threat we must face and deal with together."

Scotland Yard underlined that it was only by good fortune and technical errors made by Ahmed, himself the son of doctors, that meant the attack on the Tiger Tiger nightclub near Piccadilly Circus in London's West End failed. Mobile phone detonators failed to ignite the lethal mixture of gas, petrol and nails placed in the two Mercedes cars used for the assault.

The two men made their getaway from Tiger Tiger on tourist rickshaws before making 15 calls to rigged mobile phones designed to detonate the car bombs which ultimately failed to explode. Abdulla and Ahmed returned to Glasgow, after a brief meeting with Asha outside his hospital in Stoke.

Some 24 hours later, with counter-terrorist police in hot pursuit using signals from the mobile phones used in the nightclub attack, the two conspirators launched their assault on Glasgow airport. Police sources revealed they came within 60 minutes of intercepting Abdulla and Ahmed before they left their bomb factory in the suburb of Houston early on 30 June.

There was a stark contrast between the terrorist campaign that began outside the Tiger Tiger nightspot and the previous assaults on London. The 7/7 bombers came from modest backgrounds characterised by social exclusion and the failed 21/7 attackers were child refugees who had struggled to find purpose in their adopted land, but this triumvirate were highly educated, middle-class graduates who had come to Britain to heal and further humanity. When the smoke cleared from the smouldering international departures terminal at Glasgow after Abdulla and Ahmed had driven a blazing Jeep into the building on its busiest day of the year, the landscape of terrorism in Britain had been dramatically changed.

No longer was it the preserve of disenfranchised, disadvantaged young men. One senior counter-terrorism source involved in the hunt for the cell after the abortive West End bombing told The Independent: "I suppose I am not shocked by much any more. But the whole idea of people who take the Hippocratic oath then setting out to wantonly destroy human life, I find that very shocking."

In many ways, it was the ultimate disguise for a terrorist cell. Abdulla, 29, and Ahmed, 28, who died from burns sustained in the airport attack on 30 June, were "clean skins" completely unknown to police and the security services.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner John McDowall, head of the Yard's counter-terrorism command, said: "These individuals were not on our radar. When you look at the profile of these individuals they are very different from the terrorists we have dealt with in this country before, being professional people.

"I personally find it bizarre that a person who has trained as a doctor can seek to take life in such a cruel way. There was nothing available to police in respect of these suspects. This was a group that was largely self-motivated, came up with the ideas themselves, tutored themselves through the internet." Indeed, the men were able to enter Britain as part of the international intelligentsia needed to keep running institutions such as the NHS, which Abdulla professed to love.

The events of 29 and 30 June 2007 had their roots in the august surroundings of Cambridge, where the plotters arrived in 2004 and 2005 in pursuit of academic excellence.

Abdulla, who was academically gifted and had achieved some of the highest exam scores in his native Iraq, was studying to convert his MD qualification from the University of Baghdad College of Medicine to practise in Britain while Ahmed was studying at Anglia Ruskin University for a PhD entitled "Computational Approach to Ink Jet Printing of Tactile Maps", a project to produce three-dimensional map guides for the blind or partially sighted. But beneath the men's run-of-the-mill student existence in the Gothic splendour of East Anglia – Abdulla worked at a Staples stationery store to make ends meet, played football with Ahmed and at one point offered a cash-strapped Asha a space to sleep on his floor – the seeds were also being sown of a terrorist plot.

The first inkling of radicalism came as the three trio debated the issues of the day, often with unguarded ferocity, in the presence of members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, the fundamentalist Muslim group at the Islamic Academy, a Muslim cultural centre in an anonymous semi-detached house where Ahmed had taken a room.

Abdulla, who was born in Britain, was in particular possessed of a seething anger directed at minority Shia Muslims in Iraq, America and Britain for their "support" of Shia violence in the wake of the 2003 invasion.

One student who attended some of the discussion groups at the Islamic Academy early in 2005 told The Independent: "A lot of the talk was very abstract and cerebral – what is the nature of faith, should we judge how devout someone is. But occasionally it would boil over into the real world.

"I remember one time in particular when Bilal talked about Shias in Iraq and how they were unbelievers and they should be attacked. Kafeel would sometimes nod his head to show he agreed. Looking back, I can see the zeal was already there for what happened. These were really clever guys who could do whatever they wanted and they knew it."

Asha, who married his school classmate Marwa after finishing medical school, was also in Cambridge at the same time when he came to the city's renowned Addenbrooke's Hospital for a two-month research placement early in 2005. In his evidence, Asha insisted he had spent his time trying to steer Abdulla away from radicalism and persuade him to settle down to his medical career.

His pleas fell on stony ground. Within two years, Abdulla and Ahmed's student debates had mutated into an attack on the UK designed to mark the end of Tony Blair's decade in Downing Street and the arrival of Gordon Brown with one of the worst atrocities committed on British soil.

The court heard that the intention and motivation of the bombings were disturbingly clear-cut. Jonathan Laidlaw QC, for the prosecution, said: "This was to be murder and nothing else. It was to be murder on a terrible scale for the British public, both in London and Glasgow. It was to be punishment more generally for all of us in this country because of events in Iraq."

During their few months of meeting and debate in Cambridge, a self-starting sleeper cell had been formed, sustained by jihadist literature and violent videos which Abdulla and Ahmed kept concealed on their laptops or accessed via illicit websites. By the summer of 2005, the two men had gone their separate ways from Cambridge. Ahmed cut short his PhD and returned to his native Bangalore after a family illness and continued his studies in India. After passing his medical conversion exams, Abdulla returned to Baghdad in 2006 to visit his family, who were struggling to cope in the aftermath of the American-led invasion.

According to British security sources, it was at this point that Abdulla, a member of Iraq's Sunni Muslim elite, began to convert his antipathy for Shia Iraqis into practical action. Claims that Abdulla was acting directly on the orders of members of al-Qa'ida in Iraq, the splinter group of Osama Bin Laden's organisation that was at the height of its destructive powers in 2006, have not been proven.

But The Independent understands that Abdulla joined Sunni gunmen fighting coalition troops and was singled out as the leader for a direct strike against Britain using his status as a doctor and his British passport. It was time for the cell to be activated. While working at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, near Glasgow, Abdulla began the preparations for the assembly of the car bombs in a blacked-out garage adjoining a rented house at 6 Neuk Crescent, an anonymous modern estate in nearby Houston.

In Bangalore, Ahmed was given the task of perfecting the mobile phone detonators to be used in the Tiger Tiger attack before arriving in Britain in May last year.

When police searched the £650-a-month semi-detached house at Neuk Crescent, they found it strewn with 1,000 items including mobile phone detonators fashioned from syringes and ground match heads, electrical circuits, duct tape, a soldering iron, glue and gas cannisters.

The court was told the two conspirators had made enough detonators for at least two more attacks after the West End bombings. Material found on a laptop computer used by Ahmed revealed he had researched a series of public events in June and July 2007 which detectives believe may have been a list of potential targets. The list included three music festivals, the Cambridge Folk Festival, the Leeds/Reading Festival and an event in Manchester.

In a script written on his laptop in apparent preparation for a martyrdom video to be released after the bombing campaign last year, Abdulla wrote: "Do not blame us, but blame the shameless people who comprehend nothing in life apart from what relates to sex and alcoholic drinks."

The Ringleader: Bilal Abdulla

Born in the Buckinghamshire town of Aylesbury, Bilal Talal Abdulla saw no contradiction between professing his love for his native country and seeking to blow up its citizens after experiencing the horrors of the war in Iraq.

Abdulla, 29, was driven by a burning resentment of the West and organised the practical details of the bombing campaign from 6 Neuk Crescent – the rented house used as a bomb factory – including ordering electronic components on his credit card.

But during his trial, the son of a moderate Sunni Muslim rheumatology specialist who trained in Britain, and his pharmacist wife, claimed he had tried to join the British Army while studying in Cambridge in 2004 and said he was proud to hold a British passport. He said: "I felt England is home and I loved that country, I loved England."

Abdulla spent his first five years in Britain before his family returned to Iraq where he excelled academically at an elite Baghdad school and came 18th in the country in national exams prior to embarking on a six-year medical degree.

Growing up during the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and experiencing the two Gulf wars left its mark on the young medical student. Abdulla criticised the "destruction and waste of resources" committed by Saddam during his oppression but the young doctor also spoke bitterly about the effects of the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, choking back tears as he described the inability of doctors to treat childhood leukaemia caused by depleted uranium shells. Asked how he felt when he heard Western politicians seeking to justify sanctions on Iraq, he said: "It made me hate the Government, it made me hate the administration of this country."

Abdulla said that after returning to Britain in 2005 to work in the NHS, he received regular updates from his family of friends and relatives killed in violence in Baghdad. Abdulla claimed that this simmering resentment of British involvement in Iraq manifested itself in an attempt to create a harmless "flaming demonstration" outside the London nightclub, Tiger Tiger. Prosecutors said Abdulla had every intention of committing mass murder.

The Bombmaker: Kafeel Ahmed

The son and brother of doctors in Bangalore, India, Ahmed spent long hours on the internet researching jihadi websites and material on fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine.

After completing a four-year mechanical engineering course in India, he came to Britain in October 2001 to study aeronautical engineering at Queen's University, Belfast. While there he became president of the Islamic Society but he is thought to have become radicalised when he met Abdulla after transferring to Cambridge in 2004 to start a PhD.

His relationship with Abdulla became close, with the Iraqi described by one friend as the "dominant" figure in their friendship. Sustained by videos of beheadings and successful insurgent attacks on coalition forces in Iraq, Ahmed became the technical expert and bomb maker for the terrorist cell.

He told his parents back in India that he was involved in a "large-scale, confidential project ... about global warming".

Ahmed would later rely on his brother Sabeel, a hospital doctor based in Liverpool, to disseminate a will and suicide note which he uploaded into his Google mail account on 28 June – the day before the attempted nightclub bombing. Sabeel Ahmed was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment in April for withholding information that could have prevented a terrorist act.

In his will, Ahmed wrote: "Me and some brothers were given the opportunity to hit the devil's place, the core, and this is what we have tried by the help of Allah, and this was a priority."

The Confidant: Mohammed Asha

To his colleagues at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, Asha was a dedicated and exceptionally talented doctor destined to become a brain surgeon. Shortly before the attacks on London and Glasgow he secured the only neurosurgery training place in the West Midlands and had made presentations to the Society of British Neurological Surgeons. Rupert Price, his managing consultant, said: "He was very impressive."

Asha, the poetry-loving son of Jordanian teachers who was selected to go to an elite school for the brightest students set up by the country's royal family, was to all intents and purposes a settled family man. He lived in Newcastle-under-Lyme with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Marwa, and their baby son, Anas.

Asha was dramatically arrested with his family on the M6 motorway on 30 June when Glasgow airport was attacked.

Prosecutors alleged that Asha was a committed extremist who was consulted by Abdulla during the conspiracy to build and set off car bombs. Asha was also claimed to have given Abdulla a £1,500 loan and a mobile phone.

When the London attacks failed the prosecutors claimed it was significant that Asha was the first person the two bombers called and then later met them. Asha was found to have jihadist material in his home and on his computer. But the doctor insisted that he had been betrayed by Abdulla, who gave him the materials to look after and surreptitiously installed the jihadist documents and videos on his laptop.

Miracle escapes: Why the bombs didn't work

Over four months, engineer Kafeel Ahmed honed his design for a mobile phone detonator and explosive charge for a car bomb campaign across Britain.

When he put his work into action, it took 15 missed calls over a period of three minutes from 12.53am on Friday 29 June to show the bomber that he had made a number of small but crucial errors which spared the lives of hundreds of people inside the Tiger Tiger nightclub in London's West End. In February 2007, Ahmed used told his conspirator Bilal Abdulla that he was starting "experim-ents" in Bangalore. Ahmed was to convert mobile phones into detonators by attaching their buzzer units to an ignition device made of ground match heads arranged around a naked filament of a car bulb in a syringe casing.

Trawling websites for advice, he drew up the design to put into action when he came to Britain in May 2007 and travelled to 6 Neuk Crescent in Houston, Glasgow. Wool-wich Crown Court heard that a call to the rigged phones should have lit the exposed filament, causing the match heads to ignite fuel vapour in cars packed with petrol cans and gas canisters. But due to loose connections, three of the four detonators did not work when they were called by Ahmed and Abdulla. The last detonator did ignite but the atmosphere in the cars was too short of oxygen to explode. Police said it was "only luck" that the engineer did not achieve mass murder.