One review of extremists' educational histories suggests they tend to study engineering, but critics caution about extrapolating too much from the data.
Could there be a link between violent Islamic extremism and a specific course of study—engineering? That’s the premise behind research conducted by two professors who examined the educational backgrounds of extremists.
They were prompted to look into the issue by the fact that prominent terrorists have seemed to follow a pattern: 9-11 hijacker Mohammad Atta trained as an architectural engineer; Ramzi Yousef, mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, has a degree in electrical engineering; and Osama bin Laden himself is said to have studied civil engineering.
Sociologist Steffen Hertog, one of the two researchers, speaking at a recent discussion sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., said the idea that there are many engineers among Islamic radicals has been a recurring anecdote among Middle East scholars and those studying political Islam for nearly three decades. “The story has been around, but it’s never been systematically confirmed that this is actually the case,” said Hertog, who is a professor at Sciences Po Paris, the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.
Hertog and Diego Gambetta, a professor at Nuffield College at Oxford University, set out to address these questions by examining the biographies of militant Islamists or those affiliated with or active in a group that uses political violence. The original sample consisted of 404 individuals, including international jihadists, domestic insurgents, and others following a variety of Islamist militant ideologies.
The researchers examined the biographies of individuals from such disparate groups as Hamas, Jamaa Islamiya in South East Asia, and international Salafi jihadis. The sample included militants from 30 nationalities who were involved in groups starting in the 1970s through present day. A book resulting from the research, Engineers of Jihad, to be published by Princeton University Press next year, includes a larger sample.
The researchers were able to determine the educational background for 284 of the 404 in the sample, and of those, they found a far higher likelihood of a college education than would have been typical among their peers—196 had attended college at some point; of those, 78 studied engineering.
Engineers are overrepresented consistently and at comparable rates across the different nationalities and extremist groups in the sample, Hertog noted. Engineers in the sample also exceed what would be expected in the general populations of the countries represented, Hertog said.
Hertog also noted that Islamist extremists who were born in, grew up in, or lived at some point in Western democracies were much less educated than extremists who grew up in a Muslim country, with only 33 out of a sample of 259 that could be confirmed to have gone to college. “They’re much more the kind of relatively socially marginal lumpen class [from which] you would expect Islamists to be recruited in the West,” he said. However, of 22 for whom the sociologists could determine a course of university study, 13 were engineers.
One exception to the trend is that engineers do not seem to be overrepresented among militants from Saudi Arabia. “A great deal of them have higher education but hardly any one of them is an engineer,” Hertog said. The 9-11 attacks, he added, encapsulate the story of the research. “You have 25 people who were directly involved, out of whom I think 15 were Saudis,” he said. “Eight of the 25 were engineers, but only one engineer was a Saudi.”
In contrast to the findings for extremist groups, among peaceful Islamic groups, engineers are less dominant and scientists are more strongly represented.
Hertog speculated that the reason for the overrepresentation of engineers among Islamists might be two-fold. The first factor might be a cognitive or psychological bias that could be more frequent among engineers than the general public, and that bias might attract them to certain types of activism or ideologies. He cited a U.S. study that said engineers in the United States show a distinct bias to be right-wing, conservative, and religious.
The second factor could be something specific about the social position of engineers in most Islamic countries that would make them more likely to radicalize than students studying other disciplines. “The hunch would be that they might have suffered from particularly harsh socioeconomic deprivation, particularly harsh forms of mobility closure or social frustration,” which would explain why few extremists from Saudi Arabia are engineers, Hertog said.
“Saudi Arabia is one of very few Islamic countries where, as an engineer, you actually have very, very good labor-market chances and would not experience the kind of frustrations that other degree holders or engineers in poorer countries like Egypt or Jordan would experience,” he noted.
He dismissed the idea that the movements began among engineers who recruited more engineers. “Networks do obviously play a role in the way those groups are set up and the way people are recruited into smaller cells, but it cannot explain the scale and the shape of the phenomenon as we have found it in our data,” Hertog said.
Hertog also eliminated selective recruitment as a factor, saying extremist groups use simple technology and don’t need an extensive roster of bomb-makers. He added that it is not clear that studying engineering confers the kind of technical knowledge necessary for making bombs.
Al Qaeda expert Marc Sageman, also speaking on the panel, cautioned that some of the data Hertog and Gambetta examined is biased, considering only the groups relevant to the West. He pointed out that the data do not consider Algerian or Moroccan groups in which engineers are not overrepresented. “The Algerians are probably the largest movement, [having] killed over 100,000 people over 10 years,” Sageman said. “It was by far the largest of all the jihadi movements.”
Sageman further suggested that the time period of much of the data used in the research could, in part, account for the findings. “The aggregate (data) kind of shows that those guys arrested after 2003 are very different from the guys arrested prior to 2003,” Sageman said.
Hertog acknowledged the point to Security Management but added that the extremists acting after 2003 are different in level—not type—of education. “While there are much fewer people with degrees [after 2003],” he says, “those who have them tend to still be engineers.” Most of the post-2003 militants in their sample were Western-based, and their socio-economic profiles tended to be lower than that of the older generation of global jihadists, he adds.
Robert Leiken, director of the Immigration and National Security Program at The Nixon Center, whose expertise is the study of terrorism in Europe, says that the sample of educated, violent Islamic extremists in Europe would be small. “I think we’re talking about a couple of dozen people maybe,” Leiken said.
Both Sageman and Leiken, however, commended the research. “It’s always been a curious fact or kind of anecdote that terrorists are engineers,” Leiken says, “and this is the first research I’ve seen that tries to document that.”
There is not a probable reverse corollary, however. Leiken and Hertog stress that if you look at the entire population of engineers, very few are terrorists.