IT WAS to be an atrocity planned by text messages adorned with smiley faces, an attack whose lethal components were collected from the everyday; second-hand cars bought through Autotrader, satnavs from Currys and Calor Gas canisters picked up at B&Q.
In the hands of the public, they were the ingredients for days out and picnics. Yet Dr Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed were no ordinary members of the public, but a secret cell of Islamist terrorists intent on bringing the blood and fire of jihad to the clubbers of London and the holiday-makers of Glasgow.
In the small, upstairs rooms of the Islamic Academy in Cambridge, a friendship based on devotion to a bloody perversion of a noble faith was forged between Abdulla, a registrar, born in Britain but raised in Iraq, and Ahmed, an Indian who had a masters in aeronautical engineering.
Over the next two years, Abdulla's bitterness over the plight of Muslims in Iraq and his growing hatred towards the British authorities, were pooled, then poured into an audacious plan to detonate car bombs in London's West End. Wearing a mask of compassion, he tended the sick in Scottish hospitals, while planning, with Ahmed, bloody slaughter.
Their profiles went against the grain of what police expected from terrorists. As Deputy Assistant Commissioner John McDowall, the head of Scotland Yard's Counter-Terrorism Command, said yesterday: "There was nothing available to police in respect of these suspects – they simply weren't on our radar."
The genesis of the attacks is thought to have been a trip to Iraq by Abdulla in the summer of 2006, when he witnessed the invasion's bloody fiasco, mourned a friend lost to anti-Sunni sectarian violence and may have met with groups affiliated to al-Qaeda. What is known is that by the time he returned to take up a post at the Inverclyde Royal Hospital in Greenock on 7 August, he was intent on importing the scourge of Iraq – the car bomb – to Britain.
Abdulla had long boiled with hatred. In Cambridge, when he first took a room above a Bangladeshi kebab shop, his vehemence attracted the attention of Hizb ut-Tahrir ("the party of liberation"), an extreme fundamentalist group that advocates the creation of a single Islamic state and was founded, in Britain, by the radical preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed.
Shiraz Maher, who would later leave the organisation and condemn its practices, was sent to recruit him. He was impressed by his spiritual stamina – Abdulla spent all night on his knees in a London mosque when US forces launched an attack on Falluja. Yet even Maher was startled when Abdulla told him of threatening his flatmate with a beheading if he did not abandon playing the guitar for praying. He also played the flatmate a video of a hostage being beheaded in Iraq, shouting: "This is what our people do – slaughter."
Despite the 2005 vow by the then prime minister, Tony Blair, to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir, it is not on the Home Office's list of proscribed organisations. A spokesman said its status was kept under continuous review.
AHMED was not startled but attracted by Abdulla's words. An Indian Muslim raised in Saudi Arabia, he and his younger brother fell under Abdulla's spell while at Cambridge and adopted his stern and unyielding ways.
Ahmed listened, in an upstairs room of the Islamic Academy on Gilbert Road, and talked about the validity of jihad, which he described as the highest pinnacle of Islam.
When exactly the switch was flicked and violent talk was transformed into cool preparation is not known. But when Ahmed returned to India in the late autumn of 2006, he began to transfer his mechanical and mathematical skills to the manufacture of bombs.
Like teenagers planning a night out, Abdulla and Ahmed planned their own terrorist atrocity, using instant messaging. In Bangalore, Ahmed wore a thick, traditional Muslim beard, and mocked worshippers at the Jamia Hazrat Tippu Masjid mosque, opposite his parents' home, for allowing coloured lights to be hung up outside. While Ahmed told friends not to watch television and to save electricity, he used the internet to plan his martyrdom and a massacre.
"Bro, inshallah (God willing ] I think we are gonna start experiments sometime soon," he typed. "Oh cool :)" replied Abdulla, adding a smiley face, rendered sinister by association.
As the "experiments" were to be car bombs, packed with nails, the pair decided that a quiet base of operations was required. Abdulla was by then living in a small room at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, so, on 8 March, 2007, he typed: "Flat or house?"
"House … with a garage if possible," replied Ahmed. A few days later, Abdulla had arranged various appointments, with Ahmed insisting: "Make sure its got a nice garage…"
The location of their "bomb factory" had to be just right. A three-bedroom property in Spallander Road, Troon, was viewed by Abdulla, who texted: "The road was kinda posh," but Ahmed was swift to say: "Forget it." Instead, Abdulla settled upon a pebble-dashed, semi-detached house in the small, commuter town of Houston, nine miles from Paisley.
Abdulla viewed the property in Neuk Crescent, which was handled by Let It, an agency based in Paisley, on 17 April, at 3pm. The next day, he agreed to take the house, which was owned by Myra Mills, who lives in the nearby village of Kilmacolm. The lease was signed on 28 April and Abdulla moved in straight away. Upon arrival, just as dusk settled on the little cul-de-sac, its newest resident went around the house closing every curtain, except the upstairs bathroom. The property had a large garage attached and on the windows Abdulla began to tape up black bin-bags.
IT WAS twilight over London and a 747 banked over the city heading for Heathrow. On board the flight from Mumbai, Ahmed was stiff and slightly sore after eight hours in the cramp of economy class. Clean shaven and dressed in modern, western clothes, it is no stretch to picture him gazing down at the city streets, pondering what havoc his "mission" would soon reap. Prior to his departure, he had told his family that he was involved in a "large-scale confidential project" which involved "various people from various countries". He added: "I will not be available by any means, phone or internet… so please don't worry."
As a "clean skin", a terrorist unknown to the intelligence services, Ahmed passed swiftly through customs and there, shortly after 6pm on 5 May, was embraced in the airport's arrival lobby by Abdulla, who had flown down from Glasgow airport the previous day.
Over the next few weeks, neighbours in Neuk Crescent saw the pair come and go at odd hours. As Abdulla returned to work in Paisley, Ahmed was also busy: his friend had translated an Arabic file, downloaded from the internet, called: "The Military Use of Electronics".
The pair had agreed that London was the target: but where to park the car bombs? To answer this question, Ahmed and Abdulla embarked on a reconnaissance trip. Before setting off, they bought a satnav and video camera at Currys in Glasgow, carefully buying each item five days apart. They then drove to the capital in a car they had hired at Manchester airport, and at 2am on 19 May, the pair checked into the Newham Hotel at Forest Gate in east London.
Credit card records and CCTV footage would later detail their unconventional tour of the capital: apart from a quick stop at Starbucks in Leicester Square and dinner at The Souk near Charing Cross, the pair prowled around St John's Wood, Aldgate and Ludgate Circus, off which is the Central Criminal Court, or Old Bailey. They returned to the Newham Hotel at 2:19am.
OVER the next few weeks, Abdulla and Ahmed paid in cash for five second-hand cars, some advertised in Autotrader magazine, each time giving a false name, such as "Dr Gupta". The "car pool" eventually included a green Mercedes (2 June), white BMW (3 June), silver Mercedes (5 June), blue Mercedes (6 June) and, finally, a green Jeep Cherokee (16 June). The Jeep Cherokee was bought for 600 from Albert Harrison of Hartlepool.
At the same time as they were buying second-hand "delivery systems", they were also purchasing the innocuous components which, combined, made a bomb. Circuit boards and wiring were bought at Maplin in Glasgow, with secondary circuits ordered online from R S Components. Calor Gas canisters were bought, one at a time, to avoid arousing suspicion, at B&Q stores in Glasgow and northern England.
By the time they were finished in the garage in Houston, one table-top was covered with wires, circuit boards, bulbs, batteries, plastic gloves, syringes and super glue.
The final preparations on the two bomb vehicles, the blue and green Mercedes, were made on the afternoon of Thursday, 28 June. The previous night, the pair had booked rooms at the Newham Hotel in London, to which they planned to retire and rest as their victims burned and died. They were nervous and could not sleep. At 2:57am, Abdulla was still up, checking the mobile phone detonators
In the early afternoon of 28 June, the two Mercedes left Neuk Crescent in convoy and headed south, stopping at Annandale Water service station where, at 4:19pm, they bought a pair of umbrellas. Just under three hours later, they stopped to eat at Knutsford Services on the M6, where they used a payphone to call directory inquiries to check the number of the Newham Hotel.
SHORTLY after midnight, they arrived at London Gateway services at Junction 3 of the M1. Both cars were drained of fuel, and, although close to their final destination, Abdulla and Ahmed were anxious that they were as combustible as possible, and so filled them back up.
On a hot summer's night, central London was still busy with traffic, tourists and young people flitting from pubs and restaurants to clubs. Staring through the windshield, Abdulla was, no doubt, filled with hate at their decadence, and delight that he was about to bring the bombs of Baghdad to London's door. While Ahmed drove down Haymarket, turned left and parked, at 1:18am, at a bus stop on Cockspur Street, Abdulla drove once around the block then returned to the top of Haymarket where, at 1:24am, he parked the green Mercedes outside the Tiger Tiger club. The plan was simple. The blast of the first car bomb would drive survivors down Haymarket, where they would then be caught in the blast from the second vehicle.
Filled with a potent mix of nerves and excitement, Abdulla spent three minutes checking the car's contents. Two patio gas cylinders were wedged into the rear footwells; the regulator on one cylinder adapted with tape and white putty. Under a duvet was a collection of bags containing more than 900 nails, which, in explosive conditions, would be transformed into razor shrapnel. In the boot were four 25-litre plastic containers filled with petrol. There were also a few eclectic items among this lethal mix, including a lampshade and a hi-fi. The remnants of a snack, a Bounty chocolate bar wrapper and a plastic Coca-Cola bottle lay on the floor, containing crucial DNA evidence that Abdulla never bothered to clear up, assuming all of it would be incinerated.
The detonator for this parked bomb was a pair of unregistered pay-as-you-go Nokia mobile phones, which had been dismantled. The ringing circuit was wired to ignite a cluster of match-heads, which would, in turn, ignite the gas. Before opening the door, Abdulla opened the gas valves and a thin hiss and pungent stench began to fill the car.
He then climbed out and walked away, opening the umbrella he was carrying. It wasn't raining, but it would hide his face from any security cameras. Round the corner, Ahmed performed the same actions. They then retreated and prepared for detonation. The cars' headlights were left on in order to make the cars look like waiting taxis, a common sight in that area.
THE noise inside Tiger Tiger was a deafening mix of house music and disco. Yet it was a quiet night; although the four floors could hold more than 1,700 people there were just over 500 at 1:30 am. A few minutes after Abdulla had pulled up, a customer had taken a tumble, and staff, concerned for their safety, called an ambulance.
As the revellers danced on, death, in the form of a radio-wave, was knocking at the door. Abdulla had retreated to nearby Jermyn Street, home of the most exclusive men's shirtmakers, tailors and barbers in St James. He pulled out the mobile phone and, at 1:31 am, dialled the "detonator" and waited for the explosive bang.
He tried again. And again. And again.
Inside the car, the match had flared, but a lack of oxygen in the device meant the flame had quickly gone out.
Back at Tiger Tiger, the ambulance had arrived, parking directly in front of the Mercedes. At 1:40am, after speaking to the paramedics, the club's manager and doorman approached the car. Peering through the front nearside window, they could see gas vapour venting out. The stench of petroleum gas was unmistakable. Suddenly, aware of the imminent danger, the manager rushed to the ambulance and asked staff to contact the police. Over the next ten minutes, the club was cleared, with customers leaving by the rear emergency exits.
By 1:43, both police and the fire brigade were on the scene, neither yet aware of the full danger. A fire officer opened the car's rear doors and pulled out one of the green gas cylinders, placing it on the pavement. Only then did he spot the mobile telephones and attached wiring. Swearing, he rushed to contact the bomb squad.
Ahmed's attempt to detonate his device was, although he would never live to know it, slightly more successful, with a partial ignition, also extinguished by lack of oxygen.
Both men, furious at their failure, sought to escape to their pre-arranged rendezvous point at Edgware Road. As neither man was able to flag down a taxi, Britain's most wanted men fled the scene on two rickshaws. After a restless night at the Newham Hotel, they rose to the news on every TV screen that London had survived a failed terrorist attack.
Everything had changed. They knew that Special Branch, MI5 and Counter-Terrorism Command were crawling over the cars, analysing the mobiles and, even now, picking up their trail. They had one last chance to punish the "infidel". They would launch a suicide attack.
That day, they travelled back to Scotland by train. Shortly after midnight, they hailed a taxi at Central Station in Glasgow and headed back to Neuk Crescent.
Their last night on earth, or so both Abdulla and Ahmed believed, was not spent in sleep. First, Ahmed uploaded a letter to his brother, Sabeel, explaining his forthcoming actions, but asking that he remain silent. Then, a few hours later, he called his mother, Dr Zakia Ahmed, at the family home in Bangalore. She agreed to pray, as he requested, for the success of his important new project on "global warming," the ingredients for which – Calor Gas canisters and plastic containers filled with petrol – were already packed into the Cherokee Jeep in the garage.
WHY the pair chose to target Glasgow airport is not known, but the most likely reason was its low security, high profile and proximity, only nine miles from the "bomb factory". The terrorists were also aware that, by mid- afternoon, the airport would be packed with thousands of people, a tempting proposition for a pair wishing to send as many of the "infidel" to Hell as they could, while they ascended to Heaven to be rewarded by the arms of virgins. Correspondence was also on Abdulla's mind. The doctor was due back at work on Monday and so, to explain his absence and perhaps hide the identity of his burnt corpse a little longer, he wrote to the hospital, pretending to be his sister and claiming that "Abdulla" was the paralysed victim of a foreign road accident.
He also made final literary flourishes to his will. In total, Abdulla had spent almost nine hours in recent weeks finessing a verbose statement he addressed to, among others, "Osama" and "our soldiers of Islam in the country of the two rivers" – a reference to fighters in Iraq. In the document, he showed his hatred of what he described as "the Kingdom of Evil" which, he wrote, "destroyed our caliphate, tore apart our unity, defamed and distorted our religion and stabbed us in the heart…" He wrote of how he wished, posthumously, to announce his murderous and suicidal act as "the news of victory and glorious conquests at the heart of the state of unbelievers and tyranny".
Both men were drawn to restful waters in what they thought were their last hours. At 8:04am, the pair were spotted at the Milarrochy Bay car park by Loch Lomond, their car laden with improvised bombs, covered with a quilt. The Jeep was seen at various points in the vicinity over the next few hours, with police, frustratingly close, missing the pair at the house by less than an hour.
Ahmed contacted his brother, sending him a text at 1:47pm with instructions to check a specific e-mail account, where a message would be waiting. The message, written in clear expectation of martyrdom, described his "opportunity to hit the devil's place".
Fear or anxiety was not absent from the mind of either man, and so, to cope better with the strain, they consumed capsules of morphine that Abdulla had stolen from the hospital and then headed towards Glasgow airport.
At 3:12pm, the green Jeep turned left off Caledonia Way and headed at speed towards the terminal doors.
THE air was filled with heat from a blazing car, the stench of petrol and the crazed cry of "Allahu Akbar" – Allah is Great. At 3:13pm, on Saturday, 30 June, Glasgow airport, previously enjoying its busiest day of the year as families embarked for the warmth of summer holidays, had, in an instant, become the new front line in the "war on terror".
As civilians screamed and fled, police and bystanders wrestled with two men, as yet unaware that the scourge of Baghdad, Kabul and London, the suicide bomber, had come to Scotland.
When the Cherokee Jeep first swerved off the road reserved for buses and taxis and smashed into the airport's entrance door, the first response of passers-by was to rush to help at what resembled an accident. Yet the furious face of Ahmed, who was behind the wheel, frantically grinding the gears into reverse for a second try, revealed a different story.
A few further attempts to breach the door left the vehicle trapped in the door-frame, so Ahmed, and his passenger, Abdulla, lit petrol bombs, which had been positioned at their feet, and threw them out in an attempt to detonate the car. Ahmed then poured petrol out of the window, hurled a petrol bomb into the mix and climbed out where he was immediately engulfed in the flames.
Kicking, swinging punches and fighting off any attempt by police to douse the flames, Ahmed, anaesthetised by the recent illicit morphine, was eventually tackled to the ground and handcuffed. Burns covered more than 90 per cent of his body, the heat fusing his mobile phone to his flesh. When it was discovered by staff at the A&E department of the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, a full-scale evacuation took place amid fears that he was wearing an unexploded suicide vest.
Meanwhile, Abdulla, who fought so violently that he broke the leg of one man who assisted the police, was handcuffed. Later, in a grey, breeze-block holding cell at Helen Street police station in Glasgow, the doctor shouted at the officer guarding him, demanding to know if he watched the news
"Are you aware of the damage Britain does to other countries?" he asked him, before adding: "Yes, we're terrorists."
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