LONDON -- The profile of a suspected extremist cell behind attempted bombings in London and Glasgow, Scotland, took shape yesterday as authorities identified two suspects as physicians from Iraq and Jordan, and made three more arrests.
With the number of people in custody at eight, police pressed an international manhunt for other suspects believed to be at large. But officials said two key suspects in custody are physicians from the Middle East in their mid-20s who arrived in Britain within the past three years and worked at hospitals in the Glasgow and Birmingham areas.
Police believe a lead figure in the cell was Bilal Abdullah, 27, an Iraqi doctor, according to a British security official who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the case.
Abdullah was allegedly the passenger in a flaming Jeep Cherokee that rammed into a terminal of Glasgow Airport on Saturday afternoon in a bid to cause a huge explosion, the official said.
After a struggle with police and bystanders, Abdullah was captured along with the driver, who is hospitalized in critical condition with severe burns, the official said. Investigators suspect Abdullah also played a central role in the attempt to blow up two explosives-packed Mercedeses left late Thursday in London, the official said.
No one has been charged in the case, although yesterday a judge granted investigators additional time to keep the eight in jail. Authorities did not announce the suspects' names because of confidentiality laws and because, officials said privately, investigators have gathered a wealth of information and do not feel they need much help from the public.
Investigators continue to believe that the attacks were directed or inspired by al-Qaida.
"I would say we still think they are associated with al-Qaida," the British security official said. "At the moment that is the way it looks. They are definitely looking for more people."
Although Islamic terror cells are often ethnically and sociologically diverse, the doctors' background breaks with a pattern in a string of recent terrorist cases in Britain, including last year's plot to bomb U.S.-bound jets and the London transport bombings of 2005. In those plots and others, most suspects were working-class or middle-class young men of Pakistani or African origin, born or raised in Britain. The plots were directed by planners and trainers who were based in Pakistan and belonged to the core of al-Qaida that survives in the region near the Afghan border, according to evidence presented in trials and interviews with anti-terrorism officials.
In contrast, the Middle Eastern angle could point at the Iraqi war theater, where a constellation of extremist networks operate.
Outside the Middle East, Iraqis, Kurds, Jordanians and other Arabs have been active chiefly in militant networks in mainland European countries.
The cell under investigation is thought to be ethnically "diverse," according to Sajjan Gohel of the Asia-Pacific Foundation, a British-based security think tank.
Abdullah and the driver of the Jeep filled with propane tanks and gasoline are suspected of executing their frenzied, seemingly improvised assault on Glasgow Airport as anti-terrorism police were hot on their trail. The police had quickly pinpointed their location using evidence recovered from the Mercedes, including at least one cell phone intended as a detonator, the car registration, and surveillance footage from city and highway cameras.
Abdullah lived with another man at a house in the Glasgow suburb of Houston, according to officials and his landlord. Police apparently were closing in on him shortly before the fiery airport attack at 3:15 p.m. Saturday, said Daniel Gardiner, Abdullah's landlord.
Abdullah qualified as a physician in Baghdad in 2004 and was granted registration by British authorities in August to practice in Glasgow until next month, according to a spokesman for the General Medical Council, a British regulatory agency.
The other doctor in custody was identified by the security official as Mohammed Asha, a Jordanian of Palestinian origin. He has been working as a junior neurologist at the North Staffordshire hospital near Birmingham, according to the BBC and other news reports.
Asha and his wife, who have a young son, were arrested Saturday as they drove through northwest England on a highway that connects Birmingham to Glasgow. Police in forensic suits have searched the Ashas' home in a modest residential area of two-story houses outside Newcastle-under-Lyme.
Police believe Asha was "part of the overall operation" targeting London and Glasgow but "not at all the key guy," the security official said. Asha was first granted registration as a doctor in Britain in March 2005 and had applied for registration until May 2008, according to the spokesman.
Some counterterrorism experts watching the case questioned whether the suspects received much training from hardened militants. "It seems to me, for now, that it looks like a do-it-yourself thing," said Stefano Dambruoso, a veteran Italian anti-terrorism prosecutor.
Meanwhile, two new arrests took place yesterday morning in the Glasgow area, where police rounded up men ages 28 and 25.
Police in Australia arrested another suspect, a 27-year-old doctor, officials said today. State and federal police seized the man, whose name was not immediately released, at the Brisbane International Airport in eastern Australia where he was trying to board a flight last night with a one-way ticket, Australian Attorney General Philip Ruddock said.
Janet Stobart and Sebastian Rotella write for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.