December 6, 2008
The official verdict on the Haneef case is being kept under wraps until a London trial ends next week. David Marr reports on the British case and its repercussions in Australia. smh.
Tiger Tiger is a huge nightclub in London's West End that promises "something great for everyone. Style, comfort and a fantastic night out!" In the early hours of Friday, June 29, last year the place was packed with more than 500 young revellers when the club's head of security,
Tom Peek, noticed a puff of smoke "like a ball of candy floss" in a green Mercedes in the street.
He called the fire brigade. In the unlocked car that stank of petrol, fireman Andrew Shaw found gas cylinders, shrapnel, nails and two Nokia mobiles with trailling wires. "At that point it didn't take long for the penny to drop," said Shaw. "I just thought: it's a bomb."
Alerted by news of the Tiger Tiger bomb, staff of a London car pound took a closer look later that morning at a blue Mercedes towed away at dawn from a bus lane in the West End. It was also rigged as a bomb apparently positioned to slaughter patrons fleeing the nightclub blast. Both Mercedes had failed to explode because there wasn't enough oxygen in the cars to detonate the blasts.
The scare was not over. Next day, the first of the school holidays, Glasgow airport was crowded with families about to fly to sunnier parts of the world when a Jeep Cherokee rammed the entrance of the main terminal and burst into flames. Passengers fled but a few brave citizens helped police subdue two figures who leapt from the Jeep, their clothes blazing, punching, kicking and hurling petrol bombs which, again, failed to explode.
Rushed to hospital after the attack was an engineer from Bangalore, Kafeel Ahmed, 27, with third-degree burns to 90 per cent of his body. His companion Dr Bilal Abdullah, 29, a British-born Iraqi working at the nearby Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, was accused in the back of a police car of being a terrorist. "I am a terrorist, and you are not?" he replied. "That is my case in a nutshell. I am told I am a terrorist, but is your Government not a terrorist? Is your army not a terrorist?"
On a blackened laptop in the burnt-out Jeep, police found material linking the two men to the Tiger Tiger bombs. Further arrests followed swiftly, arrests that suggested a fresh horror in the recent history of political violence: a terrorist cell made up of doctors willing to kill on a huge scale. The accused "Doctors of Doom" made headlines around the world as the police took them into custody.
Dr Mohammed Asha, 28, a Jordanian neurologist working at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire, was stopped on the M6 motorway in Cheshire only hours after the Glasgow raid.
Later that night, Dr Sabeel Ahmed, 26, the brother of the incinerated engineer, was arrested in Liverpool. Two days later, the Australian Federal Police detained the Ahmeds' cousin, Dr Mohamed Haneef, 27, at Brisbane airport as he attempted to fly home to India.
The net had been thrown wide but when the trial of the plotters opened under tight security eight weeks ago in the London suburb of Woolwich, only two men were standing in the dock.
Kafeel Ahmed would be the ghost of the proceedings. He died of burns a month after setting himself alight in the airport raid. His brother Sabeel had been cleared of having any knowledge of the terrorist cell or its plans. Scotland Yard had accepted as genuine a message Kafeel sent his brother on the afternoon of the Glasgow raid, a message confessing his dedication to violent jihad: "This is the 'project' that I was working on for some time now … Every thing else was a lie! And I hope you can all forgive me for being such a good liar!! It was necessary."
Sabeel was already back in Bangalore, having served a brief sentence for failing to alert police to the jihad message. His cousin Dr Mohamed Haneef, late of the Queensland Gold Coast, was also back in India after prosecution authorities in Australia had decided - in the midst of a huge political uproar - that the trainee physician had not been assisting the terrorist cell when he gave an old SIM card to Sabeel in July 2006.
So the great doctors' plot had come down to this: Dr Bilal Abdullah of Paisley and Dr Mohammed Asha of Staffordshire charged with conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.
"These men," said the prosecutor, Jonathan Laidlaw, QC, "were intent on committing murder on an indiscriminate and a wholesale scale." Both denied the charges.
The men met at Cambridge in the early, most violent years of the American occupation of Iraq. Asha was a gifted young Jordanian who had come to train as a neurologist at Addenbrooke's Hospital in 2003. Sometime over the next year he became the friend and mentor of Abdullah, the son of wealthy, pro-Western Iraqis forced by the war to flee to safety in Jordan.
Abdullah would tell the court that 19 of his relatives and friends had been killed in the war. "I had a major sense of guilt, living in safety while all my people are massacred."
But his response to the war was complex. He and Asha are Sunni Muslims. Abdullah would tell the jury he welcomed the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein but not the invaders' backing of the Shiites and the violence against Sunnis that followed.
He introduced Asha to Kafeel Ahmed, an Indian studying engineering in Britain who would be the incompetent bombmaker of the plot. The son of Indian doctors, Ahmed had been brought up in Saudi Arabia. By mid-2004 he was living above a prayer hall in Cambridge that called itself the Islamic Academy. By all accounts Ahmed was bearded, devout and reserved. "A strange guy," said Asha. "He rarely speaks."
Mohamed Haneef visited his cousin Kafeel twice in these years. Was this, Australian police wondered, evidence of links with a terrorist cell?
Haneef remembered meeting an Iraqi trainee doctor called Bilal in Cambridge at this time. They exchanged mobile phone numbers. Haneef borrowed money from Ahmed. Later, they met up in India.
Though British police seemed to think these links amounted to nothing much, Australian police remained suspicious.
The plot was certainly under way by late February last year. "Bro, inshallah, I think we are gonna start experiments sometime soon," Ahmed messaged Abdullah who had returned from a trip to Iraq. The doctor replied: "Oh cool". Their headquarters were a rented house in the Glasgow suburb of Houston where all blinds were drawn and neighbours heard noises "as if work was being undertaken".
Asha would give evidence he knew nothing of these preparations. "My life has always been hard work, family and entertainment. Religion came as a complementary element. It wasn't a dominant ideal at all. I used to watch at least two movies a week." But the Crown regarded him as the mastermind of the conspiracy, providing funds to the plotters and giving "spiritual and ideological guidance" to Abdullah every step of the way.
The British authorities believed this was not a home-grown operation. Laidlaw told the court that Asha was answerable to his "masters" in Iraq and that the plot they were preparing was "al-Qaeda-inspired".
Abdullah and Ahmed, armed with a video camera and satnav device, carried out a recce of London by tourist bus in May. It was too difficult to leave cars outside 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace. "We decided to leave the car in central London."
They planned to strike on June 27, the day Tony Blair was stepping down in favour of Gordon Brown. But Abdullah was too busy at the hospital "to finish all the shopping" and it was not until the next day that he and Ahmed drove the two Mercedes from Scotland.
In a side street off Edgware Road, Abdullah sloshed petrol mixed with engine oil over the duvet that covered the deadly load in his car. It was a little after midnight when he parked outside the Tiger Tiger. He spent several minutes struggling to open the cylinders. "People were passing by," he told the court. "I was worried about my safety. You can get arrested easily."
Abdullah insisted he was merely planting "fire devices" to frighten but not kill. "I wanted the public to have a taste of what the decisions of their democratically elected murderers did to my people," he told the court. "We intended … a device that would give the taste of fear. It will look professional, it was dangerous but, in reality, it is not. It's a device that will not kill people."
But Laidlaw told the court the accused wanted "to kill and nothing else".
As he headed in a pedal rickshaw to a rendezvous with Ahmed back at Edgware Road, he rang one of the mobiles to ignite the gas. But when he rang 15 minutes later and heard a dial tone, he knew he'd failed.
Both men rang the phones in the cars without success. They had left several clues behind in the cars. Abdullah said: "We were scared."
After sleeping for a few hours in a hotel in East London, they headed back to Scotland visiting Asha at the Stoke Royal Infirmary on their way north. The Crown alleged the three men held a strategy meeting at that point. Asha claimed they called merely to collect some documents.
Minutes after they left, Asha used a hospital computer to peruse news coverage of the London events.
Back in Glasgow, the two men loaded the Jeep Cherokee with gas cylinders, nails and screws and headed for the local airport. At some point before the Jeep crashed through the control barrier, Ahmed sent his brother directions to find and open his jihad message.
The Crown alleged they were now on a suicide mission and the Jeep was stuffed with evidence against the men so potent that it appears they never intended coming back. As well as videos of extremist propaganda, Abdullah's singed laptop contained a draft will that condemned Westerners "busy with alcoholic drinking and their intimate friends" and the foreign powers occupying Iraq. "Their soldiers kill young and old. They don't discriminate between men and women so why should we?"
When the Jeep burst into flames, Henry Lambie, a former fireman, grabbed a fire extinguisher and confronted Abdullah. "An Asian-looking chap came towards me and he was pointing at me, saying: 'Don't do that.' I thought, why don't I do this? He came closer, he was quite determined, he was coming at me. I thought he was going to have a go at me, so I hit him in the face with the jet of water."
Asha heard what had happened at the airport and began getting rid of documents. This was tricky: he felt he had to treat them with a certain respect because they contained the word Allah.
After failing to burn them in his barbecue - it was raining - he dumped them in a bin behind a local supermarket. Nevertheless, after arresting him that evening, police allege they found about 40 extremist documents on a laptop at his home.
By this time - too late to prevent the Glasgow raid - Dr Sabeel Ahmed had opened the jihad message. When the police pulled him over in Liverpool hours later, he did as the message requested: lied about his brother and knowledge of his brother's mission.
When police found the message itself some days later, they accepted it proved the brothers were not in the plot together. But Laidlaw told the court Sabeel Ahmed was charged because his information would have been of "considerable assistance" to the police as they hunted down the culprits.
The connection to Australia was made the day after the airport raid when call charge records revealed the brothers were using a SIM card registered in the name of a Mohamed Haneef. Late that afternoon, Scotland Yard asked the Australian Federal Police to help them find this man. He was arrested 18 hours later as he tried to fly out of Brisbane.
But it's now clear the British police were not particularly worried about this doctor on the far side of the world. According to records of the Australian Government's Counter-Terrorism Committee now released under FOI, the British were offering "non-threat" information about Haneef and not alleging he was involved in the bomb plots.
From the first, the AFP appears to have treated Haneef more seriously than their British counterparts did. They do so even now. Ask senior AFP sources how a card that revealed a link between the Ahmeds and their cousin could be of any use to terrorists, and they reply: Haneef may well have wanted the link known so that he could boast his services to jihad. They hold this view despite Haneef denying under interrogation any role in the bomb plots.
Australian police were equally unimpressed when the text of the jihad message reached them six days after Haneef's arrest. It was shown to neither the courts, the lawyers, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions nor the attorney-general, Philip Ruddock. To this day the leadership of the AFP's anti-terrorism command believes the message was fake: a clever cover for Sabeel that exonerates neither him nor his cousin Haneef.
By the time the AFP closed the Haneef case last August - after spending some $8 million and employing hundreds of investigators - the British trial was about to start. If there had been substance to the AFP's suspicions, Haneef would be standing in the Woolwich dock with Asha and Abdullah. In fact he was practising medicine at a clinic in the United Arab Emirates when Jonathan Laidlaw, QC, began his devastating prosecution.
Almost the only mention of the trial in the Australian media has been the reiterated claim of various officials that the report by the former NSW Supreme Court judge John Clarke into the handling of the Haneef case could not be released until the London trial was over and done with.
Defence counsel for Abdullah and Asha have finished their addresses. The jury is expected to retire next week. Then a redacted version of the Clarke report will be tabled. More of the truth about one of the great botched cases of our time will then be known.