Brilliant student, doctor - and now a terror suspect

By Ian Herbert and Cahal Milmo

Published: 03 July 2007

When Mohammed Asha told his family in 2004 that he was leaving Jordan for Britain to further his career in medicine, they were understandably optimistic about his chances of success. The exceptionally gifted student had graduated with top marks from Jordan University's medical school and his prodigious academic talents had also earned him a meeting with the country's former Queen Noor.

But Dr Asha's father was yesterday coming to terms with the news of his son and daughter-in-law's extraordinary arrest by police, who forced them on to the hard shoulder as they drove north on the M6 near the Sandbach services in Cheshire on Saturday night, in connection with the terror plot to bomb a London nightclub.

Police were granted an extended warrant to detain the Ashas until Saturday, along with two other doctors ­ Iraqi Bilal Abdulla of Paisley's Royal Alexandra Hospital and a 26-year-old Indian doctor arrested in Liverpool and believed to be from Halton Hospital in Cheshire. Another two doctors from the Royal Alexandra Hospital, aged 25 and 28, were also in custody last night.

But at his home in the Jordanian capital, Amman, Mr Asha's father Jamil Abdul Qader Asha, 55, clutched a photograph of his son with Queen Noor and insisted his son had never shown any interest in political Islam. "He was a devout Muslim but not strict," said Mr Asha, a retired teacher. " He prayed like any Muslim but was not a fanatic." Alongside the familial anguish came a picture yesterday of the immigrant doctor's academic brilliance.

Dr Asha, 26, was born in Saudi Arabia on 17 September 1980 into a family with origins in Hebron, in the West Bank. He is one of six brothers and two sisters, three of whom have also qualified as doctors.

His father taught Arabic in Saudia Arabia until the family returned to Amman in 1991, where a young Dr Asha won a place at the Jubilee School, set up for gifted children in Amman by Queen Noor, which resulted in him meeting her. He was at the top of his class and comfortably won a place at the medical school between 1998 and 2003, graduating with a degree in medicine.

"He would know his subject so well that his questioning often sounded like an interrogation," said Azmi Mufazhal, who taught him immunology during his third year." Dr Asha could have chosen to work anywhere but he decided to move to Britain in the hope of eventually returning home with a certificate confirming his neurological skill.

He married Marwa, whom he had known since childhood, at the age of 23, and took her with him as he undertook postgraduate studies in neurosurgery at the University of Birmingham and secured a 12-month post at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals NHS Trust in Shropshire as a junior doctor in the neurology department. The couple also have a two-year old son, Mr Asha's postgraduate training place qualified him in October 2005 for "limited registration" by the General Medical Council - a form of probationary registration which put him under the supervision of a fully registered doctor.

Dr Asha spent 12 months in Shropshire, working mainly at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and also at the Princess Royal in Telford, 15 miles away, before leaving last August to take up a position at the Royal Staffordshire Hospital in Stoke-on-Trent. His father said he had recently been offered a job as a specialist neurosurgeon in Birmingham and was " excited about the new job".

Another man with a medical background who left the Middle East to work in the UK was Bilal Abdulla, the Iraqi-born doctor who has been arrested for Saturday's attempted suicide bombing at Glasgow airport. The 27-year-old, who has lived in Britain for less than a year, was working as a locum at a hospital in the city.

Dr Abdulla obtained his medical qualification from Baghdad University in 2004. He was granted a licence to practice in the UK on 5 August last year and had been living unnobtrusively ever since in the nearby village of Houston. He is thought to have been renting 1970s house with another man, thought to be the second airport suspect.

Neighbours said the men had slipped quietly into life among families occupying the parade of houses on Neuk Crescent. One witness described having seen a man thought to be Dr Abdulla emerging from the property wearing surgical scrubs and a stethoscope. Their only activity of note was to wash a car, possibly the Cherokee Jeep used in the attack, early on a Saturday morning last month. It was one of a succession of cars seen outside the house, including a light blue Mercedes. It is not known if the Mercedes is linked to the failed bombing in London.

Dr Abdulla was working as a locum house officer at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley, near Glasgow airport. He is one of 1,985 doctors working in Britain who obtained their initial medical qualification in Iraq.

Dr Asha and his Jordanian wife gave every appearance of having settled in well in Britain, though they rented an unprepossessing £500-a-month home near a brickworks at Sunningdale Grove in Newcastle-under-Lyme ­ a predominantly "white" area ­ and racism was a concern. " He asked me if this was a racist place. It was clearly weighing on his mind," Simon Plant, Dr Asha's landlady's son, told one journalist.

The surprise felt in Newcastle-under-Lyme was accentuated when house said locally to be rented by an Asian doctor and his wife at Priam Close, Bradwell, two miles from the Ashas, was also raided three hours later. Dr Asha's family is also bewildered and the medic's father called last night on Jordan's King Abdullah II to intervene with the British authorities. " Not all Arabs are terrorists," he said.

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