London, July 7: Suicide bombers should be uneducated social outcasts, twisted by fanatics.
But of the two men who drove a flaming jeep into the Glasgow airport terminal, one is a doctor and the other a “pleasant, calm and sociable” aeronautical engineer.
Another four doctors and two trainee doctors are under arrest in Britain and Australia on suspicion of involvement in the botched car bomb attacks in London and Glasgow.
There’s a sense of disbelief among many, including these suspects’ patients some of whom may owe their lives to them. It stems not merely from the knowledge that there can be no more fundamental way of breaking the Hippocratic Oath, in which a doctor vows not to act “with direct intent deliberately to end a human life”.
Doctors — dedicated, intelligent, well-educated, relatively affluent — do not fit the profile of the maniacal terrorist. If someone hates the society they live in so much that they are prepared to sacrifice their own life to commit mass murder, then we want a rational explanation in his personality or background to separate him from the rest of us.
He would ideally have grown up in deprivation, with a dysfunctional family, few friends, minimal education and a world view that can be easily moulded by zealots who offer a simple, deadly solution to all of life’s problems.
The reality is very different. A study of 172 al Qaida terrorists done four years ago by Marc Sageman, a forensic psychiatrist and former CIA case officer in Pakistan, found that 90 per cent came from a relatively stable, secure background.
Most were from middle-class or upper-class families, and were college educated professionals.
Sageman’s findings, published in 2004 in Understanding Terrorist Networks, led him to conclude that “most of these men were upwardly and geographically mobile”.
He wrote: “Because they were the best and brightest, they were sent abroad to study. They came from moderately religious, caring, middle-class families. They spoke three, four, five, six languages.”
Unlike the lone serial killer, these men functioned well in groups. Indeed, isolated in a foreign country, they depended on a close circle of friends who reinforced their beliefs.
“You could almost say that those least likely to cause harm individually are most likely to do so collectively,” Sageman wrote.
He said yesterday the existence of a terror plot involving doctors should surprise no one. “When you look at global jihad, you have three waves. The first were the companions of (Osama) bin Laden in the 1980s. The second were the best and brightest from West Asia, who became radicalised in the West. Many of them are engineers and physicians.
“The third are ‘home-grown’, who are second or third generation in the West, and they are less well-educated. Their average age is about 19 or 20, and there are more criminal elements there,” Sageman said.
Ask Sageman to name two likely professions for a second-wave terrorist and he selects “engineers and physicians”.
“What makes people like engineers or physicians try to work for the good of society is the same impulse that makes people sacrifice their lives for the sake of a community, (in this instance) the ummah (the global community of Muslims),” he said.
“Engineers and physicians are far more active in their everyday lives, trying to do things. They’re far more action-oriented than, say, lawyers. You don’t find many lawyers, but you find a lot of engineers and physicians.”
Step forward Osama bin Laden, civil engineering graduate, or his number two Ayman al Zawahiri, a brilliant Egyptian surgeon, or 9/11 team leader Mohamed Atta, an architectural engineering graduate.
The second wave -- for instance, the 9/11 hijackers -- and the third wave as represented by the boys from Beeston may seem to have little in common. Both, however, typically experience a sense of dislocation from the society in which they live and work.
Clive Walker, a terrorism specialist and professor of criminal justice at Leeds University, said 7/7 bomber Mohammad Sidique Khan and his three companions shared a form of “social anomie”.
“They feel rejected, but equally they reject the available cultures, both of their fathers and of the society they find themselves in,” he said.
“So they’re looking for some kind of cultural philosophy that makes them feel important and valued in ways which they don’t find from the other two, obvious sources of cultural expression.”
A similar absence of connection, he says, is often felt by West Asian professionals working in the West, “receptive young men who’ve left the rather more conservative background and culture of their parents, have been exposed to something else and find that equally strange and unpalatable”.
Those searching for an alternative identity are presented with a seductive call to duty, and a ready-made sense of belonging, by those espousing the black-and-white worldview of radical Islam.
And so a few dislocated individuals meet, bond and grow to share a belief system in which they are the chosen for whom a place has been reserved in paradise.
Martyrdom is heady stuff.