Is there a link between terrorism and engineering?

Silhouette of soldier with rifle

Firstly, to be historically accurate, terrorism is not an issue simply confined to the modern times. The first recorded act by the Romans occured in the First Century AD, where the Zealots of Judea, also known as sicarii, or dagger-men, waged an underground campaign of murder and assassination of Roman occupation forces, as well as any Jews they felt had collaborated with the Romans. Their motive was an uncompromising belief that they could not remain faithful to the dictates of Judaism while living under Roman rule.

Fast forward to late 19th Century Russian Anarchists, and then to modern-day statist-nationalists of various hues and persuasions which has seen terrorism utilised as a form of political discourse and a belief in the “propaganda of the deed”, with the most ‘successful’ (if that’s the right word) example being the 1914 assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke by a Bosnian Serb nationalist – an event that eventually led to World War 1.

However, methods and results aside, there is one other thing about terrorism that stands out – that is, the preponderance of engineers among their ranks, especially when we look at the relatively recent scourge of Islamist terror the world is currently grappling with.
For example, 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, those that have earned an engineering education are three to four times more frequent than we would expect…”

Citing their study of a group of 404 members of violent Islamist groups across the Muslim world, Gambetta and Hertog tracked down 178 violent Islamists, and found that 78 of them or 44 per cent were engineers. Broadening the course of study to also include medicine and science, 56.7 per cent of their sample had studied these fields.
According to Gambetta and Hertog’s findings, this is a problem that has become unique to violent Islamist groups in the Muslim world. Among nonviolent Islamist groups, for example, engineers have been present, but to a far lesser degree than in the violent groups.

Among violent Islamist groups based in the West, education levels tend to be much lower on the whole. Meanwhile, non-Muslim and left-wing terror groups like Germany’s Red Army Faction, Italy’s Red Brigades, the Basque ETA organisation and the cacophony of Latin American guerrilla groups such as Columbia’s FARC rebels include almost no engineers at all.

Among most anarchist groups, engineers are equally absent. Right-wing groups such as Turkey’s Grey Wolves or US-based militia groups might include some engineers, but they are very much in the minority.

For those on the frontlines of our seemingly never-ending ‘War on Terror’, this may seem like a quirky anomaly, however from a sociological aspect, it does beg some researchers to ponder a number of rather tantalising questions.

How does one go from being an engineering student to being a terrorist? Here, the likes of Gambetta and Hertog emphasise that there is a connection between the inherent conservatism of an engineer and the “disappointment of thwarted expectations.” Somewhere in all that disillusionment, they claim, a terrorist is born.

Other questions that need answering include: Do engineering degrees select a certain kind of person that is predisposed toward acts of terror? Does something in these programs worsen some students’ tendency toward extremism? Or is the relationship between terrorism and engineering simply an intriguing correlation with no deeper meaning?

Getting back to Gambetta and Hertog, who have written a book on the subject, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education, they found that most of the engineers in Islamic jihadist terror groups weren’t recruited into the movement; they joined by their own volition.

In fact, they argue in their book, the vast majority of engineers involved in 228 plots across the globe acted as group founders or leaders, with just 15 per cent being the actual bomb makers.

Delving deeper into the statistics, Gambetta and Hertog looked at nearly 500 Islamist extremists whose used violence to achieve their political aims dating back to the early 1970s. They then narrowed this list down to 207 people who pursued higher education and whose university majors could be determined. A pattern began to emerge whereby 93 of them or roughly 45 per cent had in fact studied engineering.

As if to underline these findings, one of the most infamous bomb makers for the Palestinian Hamas terror group during the 1990s went by the nom de guerre of “The Engineer”.

What’s more, the frequency of engineers-cum-terrorists was found to far exceed what would be expected statistically since from the 19 countries represented in the sample, fewer than 12 per cent of all students in those countries actually had or currently were studying engineering.

Delving even further afield, the researchers found that of the 40 jihadists who studied at universities abroad, 27 happened to have studied engineering. In another study, comprising 71 extremists who were born or grew up in Western countries, 32 were engineers.

As an example, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Mohamed Atta, 9/11 mastermind and ringleader respectively studied mechanical engineering, electrical engineering graduate Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on two military facilities in Tennessee in the US, killing five soldiers. Bali bomber Imam Samudra was an engineer, while Kafeel Ahmed, who tried to bomb Glasgow Airport in 2007 received a degree in aeronautical engineering from Queens University in Belfast.

A 2014 paper by Sarah Brockhoff from the University of Freiburg – College of Economics and Behavioural Sciences argued that education often helps reduce terrorism in nations with sound institutions and dynamic economies, but that when the opposite conditions apply, education may fuel violent extremism. In other words, education can either halt or hasten the descent into terrorism, depending on the context or, for that matter, the time.
So are engineers more likely to join the ranks of terror groups? The answer depends on who you talk to.

The chief reason so many violent extremists are engineers, Gambetta and Hertog think, is that these engineering studies appeal to a certain kind of mind. “It seems they’re selected rather than being shaped,” Hertog said. A college education can’t completely reframe how people think, he duly pointed out.

However, he also noted that, “What you can do is influence the social environment that allows some problematic tendencies to emerge.”

Pushing these notions one step further, Erin A. Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University, who earned undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and sociology pointed out that, “Engineering education fosters a culture of disengagement that defines public welfare concerns as tangential to what it means to practice engineering.”

At the same time, many prominent researchers as well as engineering educators find this argument at best, dubious, at worst odious, and any attempt of ‘vocational profiling’ to be quite tenuous.

According to Norman L. Fortenberry, the executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education, engineering degrees emphasise human needs, contexts, and interactions. Far from fostering rigid thinking, he notes, they are designed to “build tolerance for ambiguity.”

Engineering, he says, is not a march to a single correct answer but a quest to find a satisfactory solution amid competing priorities and constraints, including social ones. Understanding the social forces that shape these priorities is crucial, he notes, to becoming a successful engineer. The task is essentially sociological, he argues, but acknowledging at the same, “To be fair, we don’t teach sociology.”

While that may well be part of the overall problem, it is worth pointing out that on a global basis, only a very, very tiny – let’s call it a micro minority of engineers are ever likely to become radicalised and/or violent terrorists, whether of the Islamist variety or of the neo-Nazi / statist-nationalist bent.

Then again, this could also all be part of an interesting socio-demographic cycle: the leftist terrorist groups of the 1960s and 1980s such as the Red Brigades, Direct Action or even the IRA involved a disproportionate number of operatives with humanities, arts or social sciences as an educational background.

Going back to the late 1900s, the violently-disposed Russian Anarchists also shared this interest in liberal arts and humanities for their educational foundation.

Whatever the answer is, one thing is certain: across the ages, education has been a path to enlightenment and social mobility. Any links between one vocational group or another with violence is both purely coincidental and statistically insignificant.

As Eli Wiesel, the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize laureate argued after the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2001: “What is it that seduces some young people to terrorism? It simplifies things. The fanatic has no questions, only answers. Education is the way to eliminate terrorism.”

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