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Victoria Clark: The scientific face behind terror

We shouldn't be surprised that Abdulla could have been a doctor

Why are we so surprised to find that the two men hell-bent on killing themselves and as many innocent bystanders as they could in London and Glasgow airport last summer – Bilal Abdulla, sentenced to life imprisonment yesterday, and Kafeel Ahmed, who died of wounds sustained during the attacks – were an NHS doctor and a PhD student of engineering who met in Cambridge?

We were kidding ourselves if we ever allowed ourselves to believe that Islamist fundamentalist activism was confined to the marginalised, unemployed members of our Muslim community. One look at the backgrounds of the al-Qa'ida leadership and the masterminds of 9/11 should have been enough to dispel any illusion that al-Qa'ida is just a toxic by-product of ignorance, irrationality and poverty.

Higher education, above all in science and technology, has proved an excellent incubator of violent Islamic fundamentalism. Osama bin Laden himself briefly and reluctantly studied for an economics degree, but his second in command, the Egyptian who is often billed as the real brains, boasts an MA in surgery.

As early as 1981 this Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri was blithely compromising his Hippocratic oath by using his clinic as a terrorists' arms depot. A Yemeni Islamist leader whom the US has labelled a "specially designated global terrorist" for his alleged involvement in fund-raising for al-Qa'ida, is a revered and altruistic scientist in his homeland; Sheikh Abdul Majeed al-Zindani claims to have found cures for Aids, diabetes and two types of hepatitis.

Mohammad Atta, one of the pilots who attacked the World Trade Centre, was studying urban planning at Hamburg Technical University, "a skilled but not creative draughtsman" by one account. The Kuwaiti who masterminded the 9/11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, had a degree in mechanical engineering from North Carolina.

A link can be made between an exclusively scientific education and religious fundamentalism of any kind, as I discovered recently while researching American Christian fundamentalism. Such Christians – "the Armageddon crowd", as they are popularly known – were reading their Bibles as they would computer manuals, in expectation of finding exactly the same quality of factual information. No allowances were being made for the political context in which the text was written, and nor was there any understanding of the uses of metaphor, symbolism, poetry or propaganda.

In her book The Battle for God (2000), the religious historian Karen Armstrong accounts for this phenomenon. She identifies a failure to differentiate between two modes, between the "mythos" and the "logos" – between the language and uses of poetry, and those of a medical student's text book, for example – as lying at the root of every religious fundamentalist's error.

It seems to me that behind this cardinal error lies not stupidity, material disadvantage or lack of education, but a deep yearning for control. If the American Christians I met expect their literal reading of Bible prophecy to make them feel securely in-the-know about the future, the likes of Bilal Abdulla and Kafeel Ahmed dream of wielding as much power to change the world as they do to heal a patient or design a machine.

The author's 'Allies for Armageddon: A History of Christian Zionism' is published by Yale