In Box

Engineering Jihad

Osama bin Laden studied engineering. So did lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Exceptions to the rule? Hardly. Most high-profile Islamist terrorists are, in fact, highly educated. And according to new research at Oxford University by sociologists Diego Gambetta ...

Osama bin Laden studied engineering. So did lead 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and Ramzi Yousef, the architect of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Exceptions to the rule? Hardly. Most high-profile Islamist terrorists are, in fact, highly educated. And according to new research at Oxford University by sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, most of them may be engineers.

After compiling educational biographies for nearly 300 known members of violent Islamist groups from 30 countries, Gambetta and Hertog found that the vast majority — 69 percent — had attended college. Of those with clear areas of study, nearly half had gone into engineering. Across the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the share of engineers in violent Islamist groups was found to be at least nine times greater than what one might expect, given their proportion of the working male population.

It may be tempting to assume that people with engineering backgrounds are more likely to be recruited for their technical (read: bomb-making) skills. Gambetta and Hertog dismiss this claim. Instead, they argue radicalized engineers are vastly overrepresented in terrorist ranks thanks to thwarted professional ambitions and, most controversially, a unique mind-set ripe for extremism.

These highly trained individuals, who consider themselves problem solvers — social engineers, if you will — tend to be attracted by the "intellectually clean, unambiguous, and all-encompassing" solutions that both the laws of engineering and radical Islam provide, according to Gambetta and Hertog. Their research also cites surveys in Canada, Egypt, and the United States as evidence that engineers tend to be more religious and politically conservative than professionals in other disciplines.

Engineering students in many Islamic countries also graduate into societies that can’t provide them with sufficient job opportunities, creating a volatile mix of ambition and frustration. "One of the recipes for terrorism is you educate people and you don’t give them jobs," says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer whose 2004 book Understanding Terror Networks was one of the first to make the terrorism-engineering link. The challenge? Stopping them before they become engineers of terror.

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