Why do so many jihadis have engineering degrees?

Two researchers comb through the records and discover that religious faith doesn’t drive Islamist terrorism

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (left) and Anwar al-Awlaki.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (left) and Anwar al-Awlaki.

Wealthy Nigerian underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab; Hamas’s West Bank-born chief bombmaker Yahya Ayyash; Abdul Subhan Qureshi, working-class Mumbai train bomber and India’s most wanted terrorist; Pakistani-American and failed Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad, the son of a high-ranking Pakistani airforce officer; Kuwaiti 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed; New Mexico-born Anwar al-Awlaki, senior al-Qaeda recruiter and the first American citizen to be targeted and killed by a U.S. drone strike: all among the most notorious terrorist figures of the 21st century, with widely divergent geographical, social and economic origins, and seemingly linked only by religion and political extremism.

Oh, and one other thing, as it turns out: engineering degrees.

Nor are they outliers. According to two European social scientists working in Britain, Italian Diego Gambetta and German Steffen Hertog, who present their case in Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education, the presence of engineers among known Islamist extremists is 14 times greater than can be explained by random distribution. It was a finding the authors reached with caution and even a certain resistance. “We are social scientists,” Hertog explains in an interview, “so we are always seeking socio-economic explanations. We accepted this idea that there might be personality traits, expressed first in choice of profession and then in political ideology, very reluctantly.”

But Hertog and Gambetta were professionally frustrated by the fact that nothing seemed to illuminate what drove seemingly random individuals to political violence. “There was this free-floating idea,” continues Hertog, “along the lines of: ‘Doesn’t it seem a lot of Islamist terrorists are engineers or scientists?’ Diego runs these puzzle groups among his students at Oxford—which could be anything, like ‘Why do men prefer blonds?’—so he gave it to one group.” When it turned out to be true—“for engineers, although not for scientists, who are underrepresented in terror groups,” says Hertog—the academics began compiling databases of known jihadis with a focus on their education.

They ended up with two lists of Islamist extremists. One, nearly 500 strong, consisted of men (they are all men) active in Muslim nations, the other of 338 men and six women born or raised in 12 Western countries, who aimed their activities at Western targets. Hertog and Gambetta were as parsimonious with their lists as possible. Figures associated with the Afghanistan Taliban, Boko Haram or ISIS were not counted, “because we were considering individuals who are or were members of cells, who were concentrating on particular attacks, and such organizations [as ISIS] rule territory and interact in different ways with outsiders, so they may attract different sorts of members. It’s reasonable to assume there will be similarities—some preliminary data about British recruits to ISIS show engineer participation twice as high as could be expected—but we did not want to muddy the waters.”

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (left) and Faisal Shahzad.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (left) and Faisal Shahzad.

Similarly, those close to the engineering profession but not fully part of it were excluded: Hertog and Gambetta do not discuss Osama bin Laden (who came from an engineering family and who ran, for a time in Sudan, an engineering company, but held a degree in business), Toronto 18 plotter Zakaria Amara (a college-level engineering student) or Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev (who once aimed to study engineering). In the first list they ended up with credible education information for more than 200 men, and found that a startling 45 per cent of them were engineers.

The individuals in the Western group, younger than those in the first group and active only after 9/11, had a different profile. They were less educated, with only a quarter rather than half having university degrees—predictably, for Gambetta and Hertog, who were aware that a quarter of those jihadis, including 41 Westerners who had been converted while in prison, had criminal records unrelated to terrorism. Amedy Coulibaly, for instance, who killed a policewoman and four hostages at a kosher supermarket in Paris in support of the Kouachi brothers’ murderous attack on the Charlie Hebdo staff in 2015, had been convicted five times of armed robbery. Moreover, the authors were working on a theory that it was relative deprivation—the difficulty of finding meaningful work in the corrupt and sclerotic states of the Arab world—that drove professionals from those countries to political violence, a factor that did not apply to highly educated Westerners.

So the academics were even more surprised to discover—“startled,” says Hertog—that among the 83 Western jihadis with university degrees or significant studies, the prevalence of engineers was the same as in the Muslim-nation group, 45 per cent.

In this July 11, 2006 file photo, fire officers stand near a train coach destroyed by a bomb blast at Matunga railway station in Mumbai, India. An Indian court on Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2015 sentenced five suspected Islamic militants to death and gave seven others life in prison for bombing attacks nine years ago on seven Mumbai commuter trains that killed 188 people and wounded more than 800.  (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

Fire officers stand near a train coach destroyed by a bomb blast at Matunga railway station in Mumbai, India. (Aijaz Rahi/AP)

Next Hertog and Gambetta turned their attention to the explanation most often provided by engineers whose opinions they sought. Perhaps, they were told with a kind of rueful pride, it was technical expertise, particularly in bomb-making, that sent jihadi cells out to seduce and recruit engineers. No, the academics concluded, the demand-side theory didn’t add up. There were far more engineers than bomb-makers in the cells; they primarily held leadership rather than technical positions; most explosive devices were constructed by less-educated members; and when engineers did turn their hand to explosives, they were often inept. (Consider underwear bomber Abdulmutallab, or Shahzad, whose Times Square bomb was a dud.)

Besides, if terror groups required engineers to function, then engineers would also be heavily represented in non-jihadi organizations. Hertog and Gambetta found that was not true on the left—Marxist terrorists were historically dominated by social science and humanities graduates—but in the process discovered it was true on the secular Western right.

For the social scientists, the engineer factor casts a sharp, clarifying light on the deep similarities between all varieties of right-wing terrorism. Engineers have been disproportionately prominent on the Western right-wing fringe from the earliest days of the Nazi party, “when being a member wasn’t a career move,” as Hertog dryly remarks, through the Italian fascists of the later 20th century. “Strip the religion out of Islamist ideology—this can’t actually be done in Middle Eastern Muslim countries, but as a concept—and what’s left is basic extremist right-wing ideology: obsession with purity [religious, racial, cultural], xenophobia, fascination with a mythical past, belief in brute force,” Hertog says.

The relative deprivation theory, which has been applied as a causal factor to explain political extremism from the French Revolution on, works—at least to a degree—to explain the turn to violence among Arab professionals, Hertog asserts. That’s not least because of what he and Gambetta call the Saudi exception. In Saudi Arabia, where “engineers are the most prized university graduates, even for non-engineering jobs like banking,” says Hertog, their career paths are wide open, and their prevalence within Saudi extremist groups very small.

But the theory is much weaker as a possible factor outside the Middle East, in Muslim Southeast Asia as much as in the West. And if thwarted aspirations and the demand for expertise, like all the other proposed socio-economic factors, from poverty to revenge, matter sometimes and sometimes not—that is, to say, have no predictive power—even social scientists are forced to conclude that there is something about engineers, albeit a tiny fringe of them.

That takes Hertog and Gambetta to the thorny question of “mindsets for extremists.” Different types of people are attracted to different kinds of extremism—engineers mostly on one side, social scientists and humanities grads on the other—and the authors went in search of traits found in both secular and jihadi extremists as well as among engineers. Three stand out among conservatives in general in recent psychological research: disgust (or the felt need to keep one’s environment pure, which can underpin everything from homophobia to xenophobia); the “need for cognitive closure” (a preference for order and certainty that can support authoritarianism); a very high in-group/out-group distinction.

These are present in particularly high concentration among Nazis and Salafists alike, while European surveys show engineers to be consistently more conservative than other students: moderately right-wing, anti-immigration and tough on crime. Whether the discipline makes the man—it’s worth noting engineering, like the virtually women-free world of right-wing extremists, is male-dominated—or the man seeks the discipline, Hertog is not prepared to say, but the correlation is undeniable. And so is what it points to: contrary to what seems obvious, religious faith does not so much drive Islamist terror as provide its cover.


Why do so many jihadis have engineering degrees?

  1. A lot of non-engineering types seem to think that engineers are regular people that went to a weird school and learned stuff. This article alludes to that… does being an engineer make people predisposed to terrorism, or do people predisposed to terrorism gravitate to engineering? The answer is neither. People are born engineers. There is, in fact, a strong correlation between being a successful engineer and being on the Autism spectrum. It’s genetic. Yes, we tend to be a strange lot, we don’t think like “regular” people, and that way of thinking happens to make us good engineers. It does not make us terrorists. There is, however, another possibility.

    While I’m not particularly interested in doing the math, there is one element not considered in this article: failure. Engineering is not particularly welcoming of failures, even those failures that manage to muddle through the schooling. It’s pretty easy to tell a good engineer from a pretender, and the good ones, more often than not, don’t have the social skills to comfort the pretenders.

    A great many people muddle through life with a sub-optimal career choice, ending up in jobs that they aren’t particularly good at and don’t particularly like. Engineering types that wind up in care-giver careers may be lousy at it, but at least they’re surrounded by people with empathy. The care-givers that end up in engineering… not so lucky. Further, true engineers, faced with the reality that they did make a lousy career choice, are more likely the type that will, well, re-engineer things and start over. The pretend engineers are more often the type that will blame others for their misery and then go off to change the world instead of themselves.

    When I look at what terrorists do… I think those people are failures, first in engineering but also in life. I mean, they’re idiots. If real engineers got into terrorism there would be a lot more dead people. Or, looking at it another way, the REAL terrorists are the engineers working for the military industrial complex. They’re the ones that make stuff that actually works. They make the stuff that actually kills a lot of people, that actually does overthrow governments and change the world. The pretenders are trying to sew bombs into their underwear, and even failing at that.

    Yes, many of those idiot terrorists had engineering degrees, but I suspect few of them could have held their own working with real engineers. Further, I suspect that if they had tried, they would have blamed the engineers for making them look bad, their schools for not preparing them properly, and everyone else for not being sympathetic to their situation. The correlation is that terrorists are losers, and it’s easier to lose when you try to play engineer. Real engineers take the blame when things they do go wrong; real losers blame other people for their failings.

    Bringing this home, the École Polytechnique Massacre is a perfect example. Marc Lépine may have been in engineering school, but he was no engineer. For this study, he probably wasn’t classified as a terrorists but only because he was too stupid to wrap himself in some kind of ideological flag. He just blamed women for making him look bad. If he had gone to acting school instead, or maybe studied political science, he might have had a reasonable life, probably flipping burgers and surrounded by people that offer shoulders to cry on. But no, he tried to be an engineer. Surrounded by people that think differently, that think like real engineers, and that don’t even realize that failure in the corner might actually need a bit of human compassion, not that they’d know how to give it if they did notice.

    There seems to be a correlation between engineering degrees and terrorism. I say it’s because losers predisposed to terrorism are more likely to have their failures become obvious when they try to be engineers. People that fail at a non-engineering careers will have an easier time and are thus less likely to blame the world and radicalize, even if predisposed to it. I suspect the difference is enough to skew the statistic to this correlation.

    • Fascinating study and very interesting comment. I believe what you are talking about is a lack of emotional IQ that is found in certain people which makes them present as very socially awkward. They do have problems with relating to others and in all likelihood are on the autism spectrum but not to the degree that their function is otherwise impaired. In fact they do tend to tend to excel in mathematics and physics and do well in the school. They don’t all go into engineering. In past days, some would chose surgical medicine where they could avoid contact with awake patients. There have been some studies about the difficulties people with low emotional IQ have with advancing in jobs and having successful relationships. It must be difficult and bewildering if one cannot relate easily to others to build lasting friendships or loving partnerships. Perhaps you are right. Perhaps they do have a very low tolerance for frustration and failure and for what they perceive as being unappreciated. If they have a propensity to blame others for their failures, in my experience that is quite common in the human condition. Few of us take responsibility for our short comings and easily accept blame when things go poorly. However, very few of us become violent. Those who do often lack empathy and those who do violent acts with no empathy are sociopaths or psychopaths.

      • No, I actually said the opposite.

        I said that:

        A) good engineers, the ones that excel at engineering, often lack social skills.

        B) terrorists are pathetic losers prone to failure. No matter what profession they chose, they are likely to fail at it.

        C) that, even if we assume an even distribution of would-be terrorists in all professions, those that choose to be engineers will have a harder time hiding their failures and be surrounded by other unsympathetic engineers.

        D) pathetic failures, predisposed to terrorism, that find themselves surrounded by real engineers are more likely to feel the world is against them and resort to terrorism.

        Thus, there are a higher than expected number of terrorists with engineering degrees. NOT because there’s something that makes engineers become terrorists but RATHER that, unlike many other professions, there’s nothing to stop failures that try to be engineers from becoming terrorists.

        Flipping this around by using your example, we have people that lack social skills. Some pick engineering while others pick other professions, like surgeon. Are surgeons over-represented in confirmed terrorists? No. Why? Because they are surrounded by teams of people that DO have social skills and make failure easier to take.

        Engineering, for reasons which should be obvious, exposes failure rigorously. If it didn’t then buildings would collapse, planes would fall out of the sky, and your computer wouldn’t upload cat videos to facebook. Yes, if a surgeon fails then someone may die, but that surgeon is not surrounded by other like-minded surgeons, that person is surrounded by care-giving nurse types and the like that can offer a support network. Engineers are surrounded by other engineers.

        And, to put it rather bluntly, good engineers do not have issues with frustration and failure. In fact, they excel at dealing with frustration and failure. That’s why they’re good engineers. Good engineers don’t end up as terrorists. If they did, the death toll would be thousands of times higher. Terrorists are, thankfully, a bunch of idiots that completely lack engineering aptitude.

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