Juan Cole On Doctors Turned Terrorist

Inside the minds of killer doctors
By Juan Cole

Some of the accused behind the recent terror plots in Britain were professional healers. What on earth prompts someone to snap from caregiver to killer?

Counterterrorism officials have expressed astonishment that physicians and medical personnel appear to have been behind the recent terror plots involving car bombs in Britain. Physicians swear the Hippocratic oath to do no harm, and are in a caring profession aimed at healing, not killing. This puzzlement, however, betrays a lack of understanding of how members of small terrorist cells think and what motivates them. How, indeed, could a physician plan to inflict mayhem and lethal violence on club-goers or airline passengers?

Last Tuesday, a former Muslim militant, Shiraz Maher, dropped a bombshell in an interview on the BBC’s “Newsnight,” saying he had known one of the alleged perpetrators, Dr. Bilal Abdullah, a Sunni Iraqi, when Abdullah was at Cambridge. Dr. Abdullah, he said, “actively cheered the deaths of British and American troops in Iraq.” From an elite Sunni medical family, born in the U.K. but raised in Baghdad, Abdullah attended the upscale al-Mansour high school and Baghdad College. Abdullah’s family and friends have been targeted by Shiites in the past, according to recent news reports, although Abdullah reportedly had converted to the radical Salafi Jihadi form of Sunnism even before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. He is alleged to have hated Shiites, whom he considered apostates. He is also said to have come under the influence, while in Iraq, of the Sunni fundamentalist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Kubaisi, of the Association of Muslim Scholars.

Although not all the suspects so far detained in the attacks may be presumed guilty, Dr. Abdullah was arrested at the scene, on fire. He likely believed that Britain and the U.S. were responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths in Iraq — though this is a gross simplification of a complex war — and that the imperial powers had fatally marginalized Iraq’s formerly dominant Sunni Arabs in favor of Iran-linked Shiites and separatist Kurds.

Abdullah’s actions are consistent with the research findings of University of Chicago political scientist Robert Pape, who found that most suicide bombers are protesting what they see as the humiliating occupation of their country by a foreign military. He theorized that the bombings are intended to affect public opinion, and so to bring about changes in political attitudes in the occupying country toward the occupiers. Although the other alleged cell members are not Iraqis, they would have agreed that a key region of the Muslim world is occupied by Western troops, and felt similar outrage. At least one of the other plotters is thought to be from a Palestinian family displaced to Jordan by the rise of Israel, another source of anger in the Muslim world over occupation of Arab land.

Yet, the actions of the group in Britain were too erratic and error-prone to be the result of careful political planning. And the self-immolation by some of them raises questions as to their deeper mind-set. Terrorists imagine the world in black and white, as full of demons and angels, and place themselves on the side of the angels. Sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer has called this way of thinking “cosmic war.” Small terrorist cells arise in part because their members develop a specific way of looking at the world, which they reinforce for one another in everyday interactions. As the group becomes more and more distinct in its views from the society around it — and more isolated — its members can cross boundaries of reason and human sentiment, becoming monstrous.

For caring professions to produce terrorists is hardly unprecedented. Israeli-American Dr. Baruch Goldstein carried out the 1994 massacre of Palestinians in the West Bank city of Hebron, killing 29 persons at the Ibrahimi Mosque and wounding another 150. The No. 2 man in al-Qaida, Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri from the elite Azzam family, trained as a physician in Cairo in the 1970s.

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