We're learning more about last week's failed bombing plot in the U.K., and the Muslims who tried to execute it.
ABC News is reporting that the bombs apparently failed because a medical syringe--used as part of the firing device--caused some sort of malfunction. Security officials say that the would-be bombers placed numerous calls to the cell phones inside the rigged Mercedes sedans, designed to initiate the blast sequence. But the syringes apparently prevented the bombs from detonating. The car bombs were discovered by an alert ambulance crew, responding to treat a patron at a London nightclub where the cars were parked. British bomb disposal teams disabled the devices.
Apparently, the vehicles were carrying an improvised fuel air explosive (FAE), a bomb that's built around a high concentration of explosive vapors and a triggering device, designed to produce a highly explosive fireball. According to British experts, the bombs would have inflicted significant casualties among revelers inside and outside the nearby Tiger Tiger nightclub. The also postulate that the second Mercedes FAE may have been aimed at first responders, who would have rushed to the area after the initial blast.
FAEs do produce a much bigger bang than conventional explosives of comparable size, but the technology is a bit trickier, and they're less predictable in their effects. The attempted employment of an FAE device may be a reflection of tight British controls on explosives, or the terrorists' desire to generate a massive explosion--and a mass casualty event. However, given the relative complexity of the device (and apparently, the relative inexperience of the conspirators), prospects for success were decidedly low. Unfortunately, the terrorists won't make the same mistake again, if they're able to "perfect" their FAE design, or simply obtain required materials for a more reliable device, using conventional explosives.
As for the plot itself, some sort of cryptic warning was issued last April, in a conversation between a Sunni cleric and an Anglican minister who works in Iraq. Canon Andrew White, who leads Baghdad's only Anglican parish, told the AP on Wednesday that he met with an al-Qaida leader and Sunni Muslim tribal and religious leaders in the Jordanian capital of Amman on April 18.
He said the alleged al-Qaida chief who traveled from Syria warned of several British attacks during the meeting.
"It was so awful that in my update for the day I wrote that I have met with the devil today," White told British Broadcasting Corp. radio. "At one moment in the meeting he said, 'Those who cure you are going to kill you."
Reverend White told the wire service that he relayed the general threat to the British Home Office, but did not mention the possible involvement of doctors. White made similar comments in an interview with David McDougall of Fox News Channel, and even hinted that the information might have been passed to MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service. MI6 has not commented on the report, and it's unclear if the agency actually received (or acted) on the report.
Additionally, Britain's Daily Mail has reported that four of the eight suspects were in the database of MI5 (the domestic intelligence service), and a story in the Telegraph indicates that at least one conspirator was on a Home Office watch list, meaning that immigration officers were monitoring their travels in and out of Britian (H/T: Counterterrorismblog). That information may explain why authorities were able to quickly round-up key suspects, but it doesn't explain why the plot continued to the moment of execution. The new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown may face some tough questions from Parliament in the days ahead.
Some observers expressed surprise at the revelation that physicians were behind the failed bombing attempt. However, such reactions reflect a surprising degree of ignorance regarding terrorist tactics and recruiting practices. Truth is, Al Qaida has long sought recruits who can blend in easily among westerners. The ring-leader of the 9-11 hijackers, Mohammed Atta, earned a master's degree in Germany, and lived in that country for years; former Al Qaida operations chief Khalid Sheikh Mohammed completed his engineering degree at North Carolina A&T, and spent at least three years in the U.S. Enlisting foreign-born doctors for jihad in Britain is merely the continuation of a deliberate, selective recruiting process that has existed for more than a decade.
Moreover, the British plot makes it abundantly clear that Al Qaida--and its global affiliates--are acutely aware of existing loopholes in western immigration laws. Before the latest terror plot was exposed, doctors who wished to join U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS) were placed on a fast-track program for obtaining visas and entering the country. Tougher background checks are now being imposed, but British authorities can only wonder if their previous, lax policies allowed other "terrorist physicians" to enter the country.
Information at the AMA website suggests that its tougher for international medical graduates to begin practicing in the United States, largely a reflection of training and licensing requirements. However, those criteria have not deterred a large number of foreign-born physicians who have established practices in our country. According to AMA data, at least one-third of the doctors in New York, New Jersey and Florida were born overseas.
Clearly, the vast majority of those practitioners pose no security threat. But the discovery of the British plot--coupled with our own, non-enforcement of immigration laws, should be enough to give us pause. Today's U.K. Telegraph reports that 45 Muslim doctors reportedly threatened similar attacks in the United States, based on information presented during the trial of a "cyber-terrorist gang." The claim was made in a chat-room run by the terrorist cell; three members of that group are facing long prison sentences for using the internet to spread Al Qaida propaganda.
As we understand it, the British fast-track program for health care providers was aimed at alleviating shortages of doctors in the NHS. In the United States, a significant number of foreign-born physicians work for government-run medical services, including the military and the Veterans Administration. The advent of "universal" health care in the U.S.--advocated by all Democratic presidential candidates--would, inevitably, produce similar shortages of physicians in the U.S., and exacerbate the same type of screening and security concerns that the U.K. is now facing.