LONDON – “Those who cure you are going to kill you.”
That, a British priest said Wednesday, was the cryptic warning made to him in Jordan by a purported al-Qaida chief months before the failed car bombings in London and Glasgow that have been linked to a group of foreign Muslims working as doctors in Britain.
British authorities have said the attacks bore the hallmarks of an al-Qaida operation, but security officials say investigators are still trying to determine whether there was a link between the alleged plotters and an outside mastermind.
Canon Andrew White, a senior Anglican priest who works in Baghdad, said he met the man privately with a translator and sheik after holding talks with Sunni Muslim tribal and religious leaders April 18 in the Jordanian capital, Amman. He meets regularly with extremists in an attempt to calm Iraq’s sectarian violence.
He said religious leaders told him the man was an al-Qaida leader who traveled from Syria to the meeting. The man, an educated Iraqi in his 40s, warned of attacks on Britain and the United States, White said.
“It was like meeting the devil,” he said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. “He talked of destroying Britain and the United States and then said, ‘Those who cure you are going to kill you.”‘
White, who runs Baghdad’s only Anglican parish and has been involved in several hostage negotiations in Iraq, said he did not understand the threat’s significance at the time. He said he passed the general threat along to Britain’s Foreign Office, but did not mention the comment.
Then came the news that six physicians were among the eight suspects detained in the failed attacks in Britain. “As soon as I heard many of the suspects were doctors I remembered those words,” he said.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, meanwhile, announced that Britain will increase its scrutiny of foreigners recruited for their skills, including doctors coming to work for the National Health Service, which employed all eight suspects in the failed car bombings.
The government also lowered its terrorism threat level one step to “severe” from “critical” – the highest on a five-point scale.
Officials said Tuesday that investigators believe the main plotters had been rounded up, though others on the periphery were being hunted.
Several of the arrested men in the British plot were on a watch list compiled by the domestic intelligence agency MI5, a British government security official said, indicating their identities previously had been logged by agents.
“Some, but not all, have turned up in a check of the databases, but they are not linked to any previous incident,” the security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The eight suspects include one doctor from Iraq and two from India. Also in custody are a physician from Lebanon and a Jordanian doctor and his medical assistant wife. Another doctor and a medical student are thought to be from the Middle East, possibly Saudi Arabia.
No one has yet been charged in the plot.