Mohammed Asha: Doctor as Suspect

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Muhammad Hamed / Reuters

A general view of Jubilee High School where Mohammed Asha attended school in Amman July 3, 2007.

Coming from a talented family, Jordanian Mohammed Asha had to be special to stand out. Of the eight other siblings who grew up with Asha in Amman, two also became doctors. Another qualified as an engineer. But Mohammed, now 26, seemed particularly gifted. As a youngster in the mid-'90s, he tried out for a spot in a local school for gifted kids, and got in. Studying medicine at the University of Jordan, his grades were exceptional. With such a strong track record, Asha won a scholarship to study neurology at University of Birmingham in central England.

After a string of jobs at local hospitals — most recently at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire — Asha was making plans ahead of a visit to his family back home. Eager to pick up presents for his six brothers and two sisters before his July 12 British Airways flight, he telephoned his parents to check on the family's clothing sizes.

Those travel plans are now on hold. Driving on a highway in northern England this weekend, with his Jordanian wife Rawan and their young son in the car alongside him, Asha was picked up by police on suspicion of involvement in the attempted bombings of targets in London and Glasgow. His wife was also detained. Police are currently questioning Asha at a central London police station. Neither has been charged.

As Scotland Yard continues to probe the attempted car bombing of Glasgow airport last Saturday, and the failed attacks on central London a day earlier, the suspects' surprising links to Britain's health care system have slowly emerged.

Bilal Abdulla, an Iraqi doctor who picked up his qualifications in Baghdad in 2004 before working at the Royal Alexandra Hospital just outside Glasgow, is one of two men suspected of carrying out the attack on the city's airport building. The second suspect — who received severe burns after ramming the gas-packed Jeep into the terminal building and dousing himself in petrol before setting himself alight, according to witnesses — is being treated in the same hospital. That man is believed to be Lebanese, according to unnamed sources cited by Britain's Guardian newspaper.

Two other men nabbed late Sunday at the hospital's residences are also thought to be of Middle Eastern origin, according to British media reports.

On Tuesday, police in Australia detained Mohamed Haneef, a 27-year-old Indian doctor, as he prepared to board a plane to India at Brisbane airport, and a second Indian doctor was earlier arrested in Liverpool. Haneef left a hospital in the same city last September for a position at the Gold Coast Hospital in Queensland after answering a job ad in the British Medical Journal.

For Asha's family, news of his arrest brought disbelief. "The only problem my brother has is that he is a genius," eldest brother Ahmad told TIME at the family's four-story Amman home. Ahmad insists his little brother has never been an extremist. Friends say his devotion to his studies left no time for student politics. Dr. Imtinan Smadi, who taught a young Asha Arabic, remembers his pupil as "brilliant, tactful, full of joy and humor."

Asha had no criminal or security record in Jordan, official sources have said. To youngest brother Abdullah, there's hope he'll see his brother again soon. "He just had a son and married the woman he loves," Abdullah says. "There must be some mistake."

With reporting by Saad Hattar/Amman