BAGHDAD, Iraq – Armed with off-the-charts intelligence, Bilal Abdullah entered this world with the kind of family pedigree and privilege few Iraqis enjoy.
But he may have intended to leave this world a martyr in the name of radical Islam.
As one of the suspects in the attempted late June car bombings in the United Kingdom, the case against him and other suspects may further dispel a still widely held Western perception that Islamic radicalism is the province of the disenfranchised and uneducated.
On Saturday, Abdullah became the first suspect British authorities have charged with planting two car bombs in London and riding shotgun in the botched suicide car-bomb attack on Glasgow International Airport during the final days of June.
Investigators in Britain and Australia are questioning seven other suspects in custody.
Abdullah was born in Britain and raised in Iraq. His father, Talal Abdullah, was one of Iraq’s top orthopedic surgeons and had a private clinic in Baghdad until two years ago, when he fled to Irbil in northern Iraq after being threatened by the Shiite Mahdi Army, according to an account in London’s Daily Mail newspaper.
Bilal Abdullah earned his medical degree in Baghdad in 2004.
Abdullah was a reluctant doctor, however. He only pursued medicine because his father wanted him to, those who know him said this week. Despite his disinterest in medicine, Abdullah was top of his class in med school.
Abdullah, 27, worked as a diabetes specialist at the Royal Alexandria Hospital in Paisley, just outside Glasgow. Recent published reports characterize Abdullah as a radical Islamist who used to tell some female doctors to wear a hijab, the headscarf worn by devout Muslim women.
But Abdullah’s embrace of violent religious fundamentalism may predate his arrival to the United Kingdom.
He attended the Baghdad College for boys for grades seven through 12. It’s in capital’s Atibaa neighborhood, west of the fortified Green Zone not far from Baghdad International Airport. During the Saddam regime, it was a wealthy enclave of physicians.
A former British school during colonial days, the college remains the most exclusive in Iraq. It requires prospective students to pass a rigorous entrance exam. As with elite educational institutions in the United States, family and political connections help.
Abdullah was known for his superlative academic achievement. He graduated No. 1 in his class in 1996 or 1997.
Yet he also was an angry loner, according to a classmate who wished to remain anonymous.
Abdullah would trundle his books between classes, always with a furrowed brow and never bothering with small talk. When classmates approached him for help with homework, he would brush them away, saying, “It’s obvious, it’s all right there in the book.”
Schoolmates picked on him because he wore trousers well above the ankle in the fashion of many ultra-conservative Muslims.
Published reports from the United Kingdom have noted he supported Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the former leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, who died in a U.S. bombing raid north of Baghdad last year. And he rejoiced at news of killings of Shiite civilians as well as American and British troops in Iraq, according to the reports.
British authorities, however, have not produced proof that Abdullah had ties to al-Qaida.
Regardless of Abdullah’s affiliation with an established terrorist network, the Islamic radicalization of professionals and the educated is not new.
Muhammad Atta, the Egyptian-born al Qaida operations commander who flew the first plane into the north tower of New York’s World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, was an electrical engineering student at the Technical University in Hamburg, Germany.
Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s designated successor, is a qualified surgeon.
And Kafeel Ahmed, the alleged driver of the Jeep Cherokee car bomb in Glasgow, earned a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 2003 from Queen’s University of Belfast.
Six of either suspects linked to the failed bombings in London are foreign doctors or medical workers.
On Saturday, Abdullah was charged under Britain’s 1883 explosive substances act. Prosecutors allege he “unlawfully and maliciously conspired with others to cause explosions of a nature likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property in the United Kingdom.”
The charge against Abdullah refers to a plot taking place between Jan. 1 and July 1, suggesting prosecutors believe the attacks were planned well in advance.
He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In Australia, police seized computers from two hospitals Friday as they investigated connections between the British plotters and Muhammad Haneef, an Indian doctor arrested there.
Others in custody include Mohammed Asha, 26, a doctor arrested in central England; his wife, Marwa Asha; Sabeel Ahmed, an Indian doctor arrested in Liverpool; and two men ages 25 and 28 arrested at the hospital where Abdullah worked.
On June 28, police believe, Abdullah and Indian national Sabeel Ahmed tried to blow up a pair of explosives-packed Mercedes cars left in the crowded nightlife district near London’s Trafalgar Square.
One car bomb was found near the crowded Tiger Tiger nightclub by emergency medical workers who had arrived to treat a man who had hurt his head. The second had been placed inside an illegally parked car that was taken by police to a tow lot, where they discovered the car contained canisters of propane, gasoline, boxes of nails and a cell phone-activated detonator.
The bombs could have killed or injured scores of people in the crowded area, police said.
Abdullah and Ahmed allegedly hurried back to Glasgow as police closed in, loaded the Jeep Cherokee with propane canisters and gasoline and, with Ahmed at the wheel, attacked the airport.
The Jeep failed to penetrate the departure terminal doors. Ahmed exited the burning vehicle and doused himself with gasoline. He suffered burns over 90 percent of his body. He was transferred Friday to a special burn unit.
Abdullah didn’t speak during Saturday’s court proceedings, other than to confirm his name and birth date. He is scheduled to return to court July 27.
(McClatchy Newspapers reporter Matt Schofield in London contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.