Engineers and Jihadists: The Curious Connection

Najim Laachraoui, one of the bombers who carried out the attack on Brussels airport on March 22, had studied electrical engineering. In fact, a remarkable number of prominent jihadists have been engineers: Abdul Subhan Qureshi, wanted in connection with the 2006 attack on trains in Mumbai; Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a young Nigerian man who in 2009 tried to detonate an explosive device hidden in his pants on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit; Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani man who left an SUV packed with explosives near Times Square in Manhattan in May of 2010. And many more.

In their new book Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Extremism and Education (Princeton University Press), Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog investigate what they call “the engineering puzzle”: Why are students of this secular, technical field so often to be found among Islamist extremists?

Gambetta and Hertog’s work is focused on a sample of 497 Islamic fighters spanning three continents and three decades. It focuses on small clandestine groups that operate secretly within larger societies to commit acts of political violence—rather than groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Shabab in Somalia, or ISIS, which control territory and may attract their recruits by different means and for quite different reasons.

The authors’ first finding is that university graduates are overrepresented among jihadist groups generally. Their study, the authors argue, proves that “the core of the Islamist movement emerged from would-be elites, not from the poor and the dispossessed.” Middle Eastern regimes should have realized by now that “promoting higher education does not promote social acquiescence,” they write.

But among these educated jihadists, one degree stands out: engineering. Engineers are 14 times more likely to be found among Islamist militants than in the general population, and four times more likely to be part of a militant group than graduates with other degrees.

What explains this preponderance of engineers? The authors put forward two overlapping theories: relative deprivation and ideological propensity.

Relative deprivation is the theory that frustrated ambitions fuel radicalization. Engineering was one of the most prestigious and competitive fields of study in postcolonial Arab countries—and continues to be a sought-after degree in the region today. But in the 1970s and 1980s, the economies of many Arab countries, such as Egypt, contracted. Unemployment soared and social mobility stalled. Engineers, who had expected to be part of their countries’ “technological vanguard,” were lucky to find themselves “underemployed appendices of bloated public administrations,” Gambetta and Hertog write. That’s when engineers suddenly began appearing in notable numbers in radical Islamist groups. (In the previous generation, it had been school teachers who were overrepresented.) A handful of talented, ambitious young men joined radical groups partly due to “the feeling of being unjustly deprived of a status for which they and their families worked hard and sacrificed, and to which they felt entitled to aspire, and, grander still, from the lack of opportunity to prove one’s worth in shaping the future one’s country—the nationalistic pride that autocratic Middle Eastern regimes had injected in massive doses in their elite graduates was soured by economic failure.”

A notable exception to this trend is Saudi Arabia, where because of steady oil revenues and a strong demand for technical degrees in the job market, engineers faced no loss of professional standing and were not more likely than other graduates to join radical groups.

The second argument advanced by the authors to explain the “strange correlation” between studying engineering and joining a jihadist group is based on a comparative study of the political affinities of the members of radical left- and right-wing groups in the West. It shows that engineers are overrepresented among right-wing radicals generally (while humanities and social science students are more abundant among left-wing militants).

The authors suggest that Islamist and right-wing militants share a number of personality traits that have been shown to be associated with political conservatism. These include a propensity to feel disgust; a strong identification with an “in-group” and hostility toward those who don’t belong to it; and a discomfort with ambiguity and open-ended discussions (known in the literature as a “need for closure”). In Islamist circles, the authors write, “proneness to disgust is related to the strong reaction to perceived corruption of customs and a desire for social and sexual purity. In-group bias is related to a marked aversion for those who are different, be they immigrants, ethnic others, or infidels. The most multifaceted of these traits, need for closure (NFC), is related to a strong preference for hierarchy and social order and an aversion to change, which can reach the extreme of longing for a mythical past.”

Because of these underlying affinities, the authors speculate, some individuals may be “attracted to engineering as a discipline that provides concrete, unambiguous answers, and recoil from the open-ended project of natural science and the ambiguities of the humanities and social sciences.” Engineering students, “like followers of text-based religions, rely more strongly on answers that have already been given.”

The authors don’t argue that studying engineering creates or deepens these tendencies, but rather that they are deep-seated preexisting personality traits. “The big conclusion is that personality does matter,” Hertog told Al Fanar Media. There is no evidence that simply introducing more humanities and liberal arts into the engineering curriculum (my first thought) would temper would-be jihadists’ tendencies toward intransigence. But it’s worth noting that the traits jihadists exhibit in an extreme form are widespread in the Islamist ideology that has swept the region and, I would argue, resides in much of the public discourse generally.

The book has ruffled some feathers among engineers, a reaction that Hertog said he did not find surprising.

“We did expect a bit of controversy, especially as [our work] gets misreported along the lines of: Engineers have a jihadi mindset,” he said. “It was very easy to have a go at us without having read the book. There were engineers who were upset because it was affecting them in their professional pride; they thought it was social scientists who were jealous of hard scientists and trying to slag them off. But we also got some responses from engineers saying they have noticed traits discussed in the book in themselves or among their colleagues.”

Of course, says Hertog, the book’s findings do not apply to the overwhelming majority of engineers: radical Islamists are a “tiny, tiny minority” of engineers. The research is based on averages across large numbers. “It doesn’t allow us to make any prediction of what any individual is like.”

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