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This new book explains why so many Islamist extremists have studied engineering

- April 21, 2016
Courtesy, Princeton University Press.

Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog’s new book, “Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education,” examines why a disproportionate number of Islamist terrorists and other right wing extremists appear to have studied engineering. I interviewed them over email about their new book.

HF – The book’s major finding is that Islamist terrorists are much more likely to have a background in engineering than the conventional wisdom might predict. Why are you sure that this isn’t just because terrorist organizations want to recruit people with technical skills, or because recruitment is shaped by personal networks (so that e.g. initially recruiting an engineer may lead to recruiting his or her friends and so on)?

DG & SH – We find that engineers are no more likely than other graduates to cover technical roles, such as bomb making or communications: 15 percent of the ones whose role in radical groups we could identify were bomb-makers. What engineers learn at university is unlikely to make them more practically proficient at bomb making than former military or car mechanics. Let’s not forget that many non-Islamist extremist groups have been skillful at bomb making without engineers in their ranks.

As for personal networks, we find that the over-representation of engineers occurs in virtually all countries of origins of the jihadists and all extremist groups. This is just too way many independent networks – most of which emerged with no direct connection with each other in a pre-Internet era – to be an accident due to the random appearance of a ‘mutant’ engineer followed by the selective recruitment of his trusted friends and colleagues. Often anomalies are a fluke, but sometimes, as in this case, they can be small windows into a difficult phenomenon to explain that reveal hitherto unexplored landscapes.

HF – You find an interesting pattern in the Islamic world, where engineers in countries like Egypt are more likely than people with other professions to turn to terrorism. However, Saudi Arabia is the big exception. Why are engineers more likely to turn to violence in most countries, and why not in Saudi Arabia?

DG & SH – We find that in the Islamic world, engineers and – to a lesser extent – doctors show up in disproportionate numbers among radical groups at times when the economy turns sour. Engineering and medicine are universally the most demanding degrees in Islamic countries and attract the brightest and most ambitious students. When these don’t find the individual and collective opportunities they have been hoping for, they experience particularly severe frustration and are at higher risk of radicalization.

This “relative deprivation” story is confirmed by case literature on Egypt, Jordan and Syria, and also by the fact that engineers are not over-represented among extremists in Saudi Arabia – the one Arab country in our sample where engineers have consistently enjoyed good labor market opportunities. In that country, Islamic studies graduates constitute the main contingent of radical graduates, and these indeed have very dim labor market prospects in the kingdom. We hence show that it’s not poverty but the frustration of would-be elites that leads to extremism, particularly in countries that have rapidly expanded their university systems without commensurate economic development.

HF – You argue that there’s some evidence that engineers are more likely to be associated with other violent right-wing movements — such as white supremacists in the U.S. and Nazism in Germany during the Weimar period. What do these different movements share in common with al-Qaeda and ISIS?

DG & SH – Pursuing the question of whether the overrepresentation of engineers is limited to Islamist groups or whether it extends to totally different non-Islamist extreme groups, we gathered data on the educational profile of many far-left and far-right groups, some also before WWII (they are publicly available on our website www.engineersofjihad.com). We find that while near absent in the far-left groups, engineers have a significant presence in the far-right, in Germany, Russia and the U.S.

This finding becomes less surprising once we break down the ideology of the Islamists into its components and compare them with the ideological components of both the far-left and the far-right: with the former the points in common are few, but there are many with the latter – a hierarchical and authoritarian view of the social order, indifference towards social inequality, a view of society as in need of moral purification, nostalgia for a mythical past, inferiority of women and supremacism, racial in one case and religious in the other. The supremacism involves subjugation of the “inferiors,” as in some U.S. far-right groups, and in the case of ISIS, goes as far as supporting slavery. Stripped of its religious wrapping, the Islamist movement looks uncannily similar to the far-right.

HF – Why is it that (a small minority of) engineers appear to be more likely to be attracted to right-wing extremist movements, but not to left-wing extremist movements?

DG & SH – Drawing on existing research in political psychology, we identify three core personality traits that have been experimentally linked to conservative and right-wing attitudes: a propensity to be easily disgusted, a strong preference for one’s “in-group” over “out-groups” and a high “need for closure,” i.e., a need for structure, certainty and unambiguous answers. We argue that these needs are served well by Islamist and radical right-wing ideologies, both of which promise purification of society, virulent defense of the in-group against out-groups (foreigners, non-Muslims etc.) and the establishment of social order and hierarchy.

Using multinational survey data, we find that the three personality traits are indeed on average more pronounced among engineering graduates – and systematically weaker among humanities and social science graduates as well as women, all of whom are strongly under-represented among Islamists and radical right-wingers, and over-represented among radical leftists. All of these biases are so systematic, and so independent of country and historical context, that we are confident that psychological traits are indeed an important part of the story.