Britain is confronting a new dimension to its critical terror threat, security experts say, after it emerged that several people arrested in connection with the failed car-bomb attacks over the weekend were foreigners recruited into Britain's National Health Service (NHS).
Over the last three years, the NHS recruited more than 22,000 foreign doctors, including 900 from Iraq. Hitherto, those recruited have only been vetted for professional competence but not political affiliation.
"We'll expand the background checks that are being done where there are highly skilled migrant workers coming into this country," said Prime Minister Gordon Brown Wednesday, a week after he took office.
Security services say they have evidence of links between the two car bombs that failed to detonate in central London and the burning jeep driven into Scotland's Glasgow airport on Saturday afternoon. Six people reported to be doctors recruited from abroad are being questioned in London and one in Brisbane, Australia, while an eighth is in a Glasgow hospital.
One, Jordanian Mohammed Asha, was a neurology specialist who had worked in Britain for two years. A second, Iraqi doctor Bilal Abdulla, who was arrested on suspicion of driving the jeep into Glasgow airport, worked in a Glasgow hospital. A third, an Indian doctor identified as Mohammed Haneef, used to work at a British hospital but moved to Australia last year. He was detained by Australian authorities at Brisbane's airport Wednesday.
Security experts say the development was a new wrinkle for the British authorities, which for the past two years have largely been focusing on people with a similar profile to the July 7, 2005, bombers, all of whom were British.
"It means that the challenges for the security services are multidimensional," says MJ Gohel, a London-based terrorism expert. "They face threats from hard-core Al Qaeda people ... from home-grown terrorists, and now, it seems, from professional people working in the [United Kingdom] in good jobs who have either been recruited or who came here with intentions to act."
Britain's security services have estimated that some 2,000 individuals are involved in terrorist activities in Britain, but Mr. Gohel says that number will now have to be revised upward.
"The profiling of terrorists will have to be looked at again," he says. "It's strange to have a specific terror medic cell. Are we going to see a cell composed of lawyers, accountants?"
Some suggest the hospitals and the medical fraternity may have provided a convenient network in which to form a terror cell.
"The profession might facilitate the connections and communications" between individuals, says Katherine Baskerville, a security analyst with the London-based intelligence company Exclusive Analysis. "But the fact that these are doctors has shocked wider society because they are perceived as upstanding members of society."
She adds that the involvement of at least one Iraqi – Bilal Abdulla, who several media outlets claimed was born in England – was a concern.
"If you are dealing with a country like Iraq, they don't have a handle on their own situation, [on] who is an insurgent and who is a refugee," she says. "Thousands are coming to Europe, and there is no way of telling who is innocent and who is going to carry out attacks."
The health industry was aghast at the development. "The news that members of a caring profession may be involved in these atrocities was even more appalling," said Dr. Hamish Meldrum, the new chairman of the British Medical Association in a statement.