Whiling away his days in a CIA prison in Romania, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had a simple request for his captors: Would they allow the mechanical engineer to design a vacuum cleaner?
According to a fascinating Associated Press account of Mohammed’s detainment published on Thursday, the CIA allowed him to do just that, granting the terrorist access to vacuum schematics available online, which he used to re-engineer the appliance.
Mohammed, who faced brutal interrogation practices, was granted the request because the CIA wanted to prevent him from going insane. But Mohammed’s desire to put his engineering acumen to use also raises a question that has long enticed scholars of terrorism: Why is it that so many terrorists have engineering backgrounds?
It’s a question that’s particularly relevant when it comes to Islamic terrorism. Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker, was an architectural engineer. Two of the three founders of Lashkar e-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group, were professors at the University of Engineering and Technology at Lahore. Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group, is chock full of engineers. Jihad al-Binaa, one of its branches, had more than 2,000 engineers working on reconstruction in Lebanon following the 2006 war with Israel.
But the link isn’t just anecdotal. In a 2009 paper, Diego Gambetta, an Oxford sociologist, and Steffen Hertog, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, found that "among violent Islamists with a degree, individuals with an engineering education are three to four times more frequent than we would expect given the share of engineers among university students in Islamic countries." Of a group of 404 members of violent Islamist groups in the Muslim world, Gambetta and Hertog tracked down the course of study for 178 individuals. Of those 178 violent Islamists, 78 (44 percent) were engineers. Broadening the course of study to engineering, medicine, and science, 56.7 percent of their sample had studied these fields.
According to Gambetta and Hertog’s findings, this is a problem unique to violent Islamist groups in the Muslim world. Among nonviolent Islamist groups, for example, engineers are present — but to a far lesser degree than in violent groups. And among violent Islamist groups in the West, education levels tend to be much lower on the whole. Meanwhile, non-Muslim left-wing groups — Germany’s Red Army Faction, Italy’s Red Brigades, and Latin American guerrilla groups — include almost no engineers. Among anarchist groups, engineers are equally absent. Right-wing groups include some engineers, but they are far from overrepresented.
To account for this disparity in occupation among Islamic terrorists in the Muslim world, Gambetta and Hertog sketch out a particular engineering "mindset" in which the profession is "more attractive to individuals seeking cognitive ‘closure’ and clear-cut answers as opposed to more open-ended sciences — a disposition which has been empirically linked to conservative political attitudes." Engineers, the authors find, are far more conservative on the whole than members of other professions. Islamic extremism "rejects Western pluralism and argues for a unified ordered society" — a political worldview that lines up nicely with a profession averse to chaos.
There’s also a societal component. In countries like Egypt, the period after the 1970s was one of massively thwarted expectations, with engineers emerging on the job market only to struggle to find employment. Per the classic explanation of the onset of rebellion — thwarted expectations coupled with relative deprivation — a generation of highly trained students had been made promises (and made subsequent investments in their education) that their societies could not deliver on. Angry, they turned to violence to restore order in society.
Still, a few objections to this theory immediately emerge. First, certain aspects of work as a terrorist — placing wires here, installing fuses there — seem naturally suited to an engineer, raising the possibility that the profession is sought as a preparatory pathway for a career in murder and mayhem. But this criticism, the authors point out, misses the fact that bomb-making is typically handled by a small cadre of specialists and that individuals trained as engineers have frequently ascended to management positions within terrorist organizations, where they have little contact with technical, day-to-day operations. Moreover, engineers simply don’t turn up with the same frequency in terrorist groups in other parts of the world.
More importantly, there may be problems with the causal mechanism the authors lay out. In other words, how is it that one goes from being an earnest engineering student to being a terrorist? Here, the authors are quick to emphasize that the argument they posit is a feedback loop between the conservatism of an engineer and the disappointment of thwarted expectations. Somewhere in that swirl, they argue, a terrorist can be born.
Of course, after being waterboarded hundreds of times and held in isolation, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was probably also trying to engineer some semblance of order in his chaotic world as he sat tinkering with his vacuum cleaner in Romania.