Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?

The state of the universe.
Dec. 29 2009 9:32 PM

Build-a-Bomber

Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Engineering is not a profession most people associate with religion. The concrete trade of buildings and bridges seems grounded in the secular principles of science. But the failed attack this Christmas by mechanical engineer Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a reminder that the combination has a long history of producing violent radicals.

The anecdotal evidence has always been strong. The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, was an architectural engineer. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed got his degree in mechanical engineering. Two of the three founders of Lashkar-e-Taibi, the group believed to be behind the Mumbai attacks, were professors at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore.

A paper (PDF) released this summer by two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, adds empirical evidence to this observation. The pair looked at more than 400 radical Islamic terrorists from more than 30 nations in the Middle East and Africa born mostly between the 1950s and 1970s. Earlier studies had shown that terrorists tend to be wealthier and better-educated than their countrymen, but Gambetta and Hertog found that engineers, in particular, were three to four times more likely to become violent terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences. The next most radicalizing graduate degree, in a distant second, was Islamic Studies.

So what's with all the terrorist-engineers? The simple explanation is that engineering happens to be an especially popular field of study in the countries that produce violent radicals. But Gambetta and Hertog corrected for national enrollment numbers in engineering programs and got similar results. Even among Islamic terrorists born or raised in the West, nearly 60 percent had engineering backgrounds.

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Another possible explanation would be that engineers possess technical skills and architectural know-how that makes them attractive recruits for terrorist organizations. But the recent study found that engineers are just as likely to hold leadership roles within these organizations as they are to be working hands-on with explosives. In any case, their technical expertise may not be that useful, since most of the methods employed in terrorist attacks are rudimentary. It's true that eight of the 25 hijackers on 9/11 were engineers, but it was their experience with box cutters and flight school, not fancy degrees, that counted in the end.

Gambetta and Hertog propose that a lack of appropriate jobs in their home countries may have radicalized some engineers in Arab countries. The graduates they studied came of age at a time when a degree from a competitive technical program was supposed to provide a guarantee of high-status employment. But the promises of modernization and development were often stymied by repression and corruption, and many young engineers in the 1980s were left jobless and frustrated. One exception was Saudi Arabia, where engineers had little trouble finding work in an ever-expanding economy. As it happens, Saudi Arabia is also the only Arab state where the study found that engineers are not disproportionately represented in the radical movement.

What else might account for the radical, violent politics of so many former engineering students? Is there some set of traits that makes engineers more likely to participate in acts of terrorism? To answer this question, Gambetta and Hertog updated a study that was first published in 1972, when a pair of researchers named Seymour Lipset and Carl Ladd surveyed the ideological bent of their fellow American academics. According to the original paper, engineers described themselves as "strongly conservative" and "deeply religious" more often than professors in any other field. Gambetta and Hertog repeated this analysis for data gathered in 1984, so it might better match up with their terrorist sample. They found similar results, with 46 percent of the (male American) engineers describing themselves as both conservative and religious, compared with 22 percent of scientists.

Gambetta and Hertog write about a particular mind-set among engineers that disdains ambiguity and compromise. They might be more passionate about bringing order to their society and see the rigid, religious law put forward in radical Islam as the best way of achieving those goals. In online postings, Abdulmutallab expressed concern over the conflict between his secular lifestyle and more extreme religious views. "How should one put the balance right?" he wrote.

Terrorist organizations seem to have recognized this proclivity—in Abdulmutallab, obviously, but also among engineers in general. A 2005 report from British intelligence noted that Islamic extremists were frequenting college campuses, looking for "inquisitive" students who might be susceptible to their message. In particular, the report noted, they targeted engineers.

Benjamin Popper is a freelance reporter. He lives at www.benpopper.com.

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