Page last updated at 13:27 GMT, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Shock, suspicion and Braveheart

By Steven McKenzie
BBC Scotland News website reporter

Glasgow Airport
The attack sent shockwaves through the Iraqi medical profession

An Iraqi doctor has described his shock at discovering a former school friend was a suspect in the Glasgow Airport terror attack.

He was among three Iraqi doctors who told the BBC Scotland News website how the foiled attack affected them.

Another, Dr Ameir Al-Mukhtar, who now works in Orkney, said Iraqi medical professionals in the UK found themselves under suspicion in its wake.

And Dr Mohammed Nemat said he was deeply affected by the incident despite it happening far away from his Baghdad home.

THE FORMER FRIEND

An Iraqi doctor, who the BBC has not named to protect his identity, attended the prestigious Baghdad College with Bilal Talal Samad Abdulla from the age of 12.

They later went on to study at the city's medical university.

I remember an event when he saw a boy in school with a pornographic magazine and there were clashes in the playground

From the outside, Baghdad College seems an unlikely nursery for a would-be suicide bomber.

Established by American Jesuits in the 1930s, the school is in Shamasia, a suburb of Adhamiya, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of the Iraqi capital.

The former pupil contacted by the BBC Scotland News website said most of those who attend come from secular, modern and well-off families.

The education provided is considered the best in the country with all classes, barring history and geography of the world, taught in English.

Scientific subjects such as maths, physics, chemistry and biology are at the forefront of the teaching.

According to the former pupil, about 85% of pupils go on to become doctors, dentists, or engineers - two of those three professions being dedicated to the care and well being of others.

Arriving from different primary schools, Abdulla and his former friend met at Baghdad College.

The former friend said: "I've known him since high school.

"We were students together at Baghdad College, which is one of the most famous schools in the city and usually takes students from high-ranking families.

"The level of English language in that school was divided in three levels.

"A, those born to British mothers - they were many - or who spent long periods of time in the UK. They were fluent and had an excellent accent.

"B, those who spent a short period in the UK, or learned from movies and Western songs. They were very good.

"And C, those who took their English from lessons, like me, and were average. Bilal Talal was in rank B."

Arrest of Bilal Talal Samad Abdullah. Pic: Peter Adams/BBC UGC
Police arrest Bilal Abdullah at Glasgow Airport

He added: "At the time, he told me his father was a physician at Baghdad Medical City and that he was born in the UK while his father was staying there.

"Later on, during our stay at high school, he became more radical and he refused to speak to boys who were seeing girls, or had sexual movies, or magazines.

"He became very angry with anyone who had this material.

"I remember an event when he saw a boy in school with a pornographic magazine and there were clashes in the playground."

The doctor said Abdulla became more radicalised and extreme when they moved on to university.

He said: "In 1991, he told me he was going to a mosque that his grandfather had established and this gave me the impression he was from a religious family.

"In 2001 or 2002 he left our college. This was during the period of Saddam and it was thought that because he held a British passport - which he had done since his college days - he had gone to the UK.

"I later found out that he had gone to Lebanon or Pakistan, which I found amazing. Iraq has no relationship with Pakistan and people only went there if they were an extremist."

He added: "Everyone in Iraq knows of a friend or member of their family who has died in attacks, but have not used that as a reason to do the same as Bilal Talal.

"We have lost specialist surgeons in my hospital by assassination and bombing and we have lost many friends in this way.

"There is no excuse to this but hate."

THE CONSULTANT SURGEON

For some Iraqi medical professionals - many of whom have lived and worked in the UK for 30 years - the airport attack cast a shadow of suspicion over their lives.

Dr Ameir Al-Mukhtar, a consultant surgeon at Balfour Hospital in Orkney, said he knew of colleagues who were scrutinised by the authorities.

Dr Ameir Al-Mukhtar
Consultant surgeon Dr Ameir Al-Mukhtar works in Scotland

He said: "After the attack against a civilian airport and innocent people in Glasgow there was a bit of a phobic reaction against overseas doctors, including some European but mainly Iraqi doctors.

"A few doctors were questioned about their background and asked about some of their connections and relationships with people like Bilal.

"To that effect some authorities did ask for information about all doctors of foreign background, including those who had been in the UK for 20-30 years, within the NHS.

"Profiles and information was sought by authorities both administrative and also the Special Branch.

"I have not heard of major harassment, but there was an atmosphere which did create difficulties for some of those doctors and that did last a while until people understood the situation better."

He said the change from a climate of unquestioning trust was hard for those who had lived and worked in the UK for decades.

But he added: "I think most people treated by these doctors really appreciate them.

"A number of patients I see in the street or in hospital express their support and that is very touching. Those who are negative are in the minority."

There are several thousand Iraqi doctors in the UK and many are Muslim and many are religious, but they care for their patients to the best of their abilities

Asked whether the fact Abdulla worked in the medical profession shocked people, Dr Al-Mukhtar said: "It definitely shocked us all.

"Bilal was an anomaly rather than the norm.

"There are several thousand Iraqi doctors in the UK and many are Muslim and many are religious, but they care for their patients to the best of their abilities.

"After the attack there was a delay of six weeks or so of a group of Iraqi doctors coming to the UK for training. Since then there have been regular groups of Iraqi doctors coming to the UK for a few weeks' training at a time.

"Several hundred come here for training in places like Glasgow, Newcastle and Sheffield and all appreciate how they are treated and the trainers speak highly of the Iraqi doctors' attitudes.

"Iraqi people need such training visits to continue and indeed to expand."

THE HEART SPECIALIST

"We have a saying in Arabic - a wet man is not afraid of rain," said Dr Mohammed Nemat, a specialist cardiovascular surgeon in Baghdad.

This was how the 36-year-old started his answer to a question on the impact the Glasgow Airport attack had on him living and working in Iraq, where car bombings have become an ever-present threat.

Sometimes it reaches six cars and some days we don't have any apart from mortars and ground mines and boobytraps

It was during a break on a busy day in Baghdad Medical City that the surgeon got news of the Glasgow attack.

He said: "I can't remember really the details of that day, but it was another busy day of casualties, not necessarily victims of suicidal bombings, maybe of falling mortars or bullet injuries and victims of assassinations.

"Every day at the end of the bulk of the work we sit to have our meal. We watch TV and we open the internet to see what is going outside Iraq, and we heard about the terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport."

Dr Nemat said: "It is not a strange event in Middle East countries to have these chaotic conditions, not forgetting that my country was never in peace since 1958, which was the end of royal era and the beginning of the so-called republican era.

"I was born in 1971 and I have witnessed three big wars in my land and I have lost many relatives and friends, so it was not strange to end up with a society like the one we have."

Car bombing in Baghdad
The scene of a double car bombing in Baghdad in September

He added: "The frequency of suicidal bombings in Baghdad is variable.

"Sometimes it reaches six cars and some days we don't have any, apart from mortars and ground mines and boobytraps.

"But the image I have in my mind of countries like Scotland is just the reverse - a country where principles and high social standards and patriotism is the rule.

"So it will not be easy for terrorists to find a place in such a clean land."

Dr Nemat, who is fond of the Mel Gibson film Braveheart, added: "It was painful because I felt that those criminals reached the places where innocent and lovely people like the Scottish are living."

Since the attack he has been able to visit the UK for training at a hospital in England.

He said he holds an ambition to return to the country to work.

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