“Doctor’s Plot” Trial Examines Unexpected Source for UK Terrorist Attacks

Publication: Terrorism Focus Volume: 5 Issue: 36

Londoners were awakened once again to the very real terrorist threat they faced late on the evening of June 29, 2007. In a callous move aimed at targeting revellers in a central London nightclub, terrorists left two improvised explosive devices in old Mercedes cars outside the Tiger Tiger bar just off London’s Trafalgar Square. Planted so that those fleeing the first bomb would run into the second, the devices were set to go off using mobile phones as remote detonators. However, the bombs failed to explode and staff members of the club called emergency services after noticing white vapour coming out of one of the cars, a strong smell of gasoline, and blankets covering objects in the back seat of the closest car (Guardian, October 10).

The details of what happened next have only emerged now in the ongoing Woolwich Crown Court trial of two of the alleged plotters, Dr. Bilal Abdullah (a second-generation physician, born in the UK, but of Iraqi heritage) and Dr. Mohammed Asha (Saudi born, with Jordanian citizenship) (BBC, October 8). London fireman Andrew Shaw told the court he was surprised to find the car door unlocked when he approached it and noticed a strong smell of gasoline. Having identified the source of the smell as a gas cylinder in the vehicle, he pulled at it, only to notice that there were “shrapnel, nails and bits of metal alongside another cylinder… I saw two mobile phones and wires coming from the phones. At that point it didn’t take long for the penny to drop. I just thought it’s a bomb or improvised device” (BBC, October 16). As the bomb squad made its way to the device, the prosecution claims that two of the alleged bombers, Dr. Bilal Abdullah and Indian-born Dr. Kafeel Ahmed (now deceased), escaped from the scene on bicycle rickshaws common to central London. Travelling separately, it is alleged that Dr. Ahmed was using an umbrella to hide his identity from closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) located throughout the city (Guardian, October 10).

The second device was only discovered the next morning, when staff at a car pound nearby heard about the device found outside the nightclub and noticed a similar vehicle in their lot emitting a strong smell of petrol. The vehicle was left illegally parked in a bus lane near the first device and had been ticketed and towed by London traffic wardens (BBC, June 29, 2007). Both vehicles had been packed with 60 litres of petrol, nails, and gas cylinders, with mobile telephone triggers. It has now been revealed that the reason the devices failed to explode was insufficient oxygen in the vehicles prevented the petrol from igniting despite repeated attempts at detonation (Guardian, October 10).

The men are alleged to have brought the cars to London from a bomb factory they created in the Scottish village of Houston, near the Paisley hospital where Dr. Abdullah worked. The two men were seen repeatedly entering and exiting the property at odd hours by neighbours who recalled that the men always entered by the side entrance. The vehicles used were purchased through a British second-hand car magazine and were paid for in cash (Daily Record, October 10). The Scottish connection became apparent when a Jeep Cherokee packed with gas cylinders was driven into Glasgow International Airport’s departures lounge on June 30, a day after the unsuccessful Tiger Tiger bombing (The Scotsman, October 10).

Having entered a secure area by tailgating a Glasgow cab through security barriers, the two men were seen throwing a petrol bomb of some sort from the car as they shouted “Allahu Akbar” and tried to detonate their car bomb in a suicide attack that went awry when the vehicle became stuck on metal railings. Witnesses report that Dr. Ahmed then poured petrol from the window and became engulfed in flames when he threw a petrol bomb into the pool of gasoline. Once again, the main device failed to explode, and airport staff, police, and passersby were able to extinguish Dr Ahmed, who continued to struggle even as he burned. Dr. Abdullah attempted to flee, but was brought down by police with baton blows to his legs and shins (BBC, October 17; Guardian, October 17). CCTV footage of the incident has been presented in court.

Dr, Ahmed died almost a month later from injuries incurred during the fire. It was reported in court that while being driven from the airport to a local police station, Dr. Abdullah apparently admitted he was a terrorist, saying “Are you aware of the damage Britain does to other countries? Yes, we are terrorists, but…,” at which point the conversation was broken as he was led away by other officers (BBC, October 17).

The second man charged, Dr. Mohammed Asha, was detained by police with an unidentified female on the evening of Saturday June 30, while driving along the M6 motorway near Sandbach in Cheshire (BBC, July 2, 2007). Asha is believed to be the financier of the operation. The brother of Kafeel Ahmed, Dr. Sabeel Ahmed pled guilty earlier this year on charges of failing to disclose an email to the police in which his brother told him about his mission and directed him to his online testament and other documents. Sabeel was sentenced to 18 months in prison in April this year; however, with time served, he was immediately released and deported to India (The Times, April 12).

Both Dr. Asha and Dr. Abdullah (who has a wife and two children) pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiring to commit murder, claiming that they intended to merely carry out a campaign to scare the public and to alert them to ongoing British activities in Iraq and the oppression of Palestinians (Guardian, October 10). The prosecution labelled this defence as “ludicrous” and have provided video evidence of Dr. Abdullah purchasing gas canisters, as well as email and internet communications showing Abdullah and Ahmed calculating ways to fund the operation through bank loans (Guardian, October 10). Dr Asha is accused of providing money and advice from behind the scenes (BBC, October 15).

At this point, potential international connections to the plot remain unclear. Speculation has built around Dr. Abdullah’s Iraqi heritage and the similarity of the attempted attack to bombings in Iraq. Abdullah visited Iraq between May and July of 2006, a journey prosecutors claim provided him with the motivation for the attacks (The Scotsman, October 10). Despite early media claims of a connection with al-Qaeda in Iraq, the prosecution has not pursued this avenue, though prosecutor Jonathan Laidlaw did present what is alleged to be a will recovered from a burned laptop in the Jeep Cherokee used in the Glasgow attack, “addressed to, amongst others, the leaders of jihad in Iraq, to [Osama] Bin Laden and to the brothers or soldiers of jihad in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Palestine and other areas of the world…” (BBC, October 10).

What is of greatest concern to counter-terrorism officials about this plot is the fact that it happened at all. Reports after the event indicated the security services were aware of some of the individuals involved (Telegraph, July 7, 2007). For the British public and press, much has been made of the fact that the suspects were medical healers. The trial has yet to answer the important question of what motivated these doctors to stray so far from the ethics of their profession.