When people think of violent Islamist groups, the image they have may be of disaffected young people who are the outcasts of society, poor and poorly educated. But a new book titled Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education based on research done by two academics Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog finds a surprisingly large number of engineers among the people labeled as Islamic radicals.
More than twice as many members of violent Islamist organizations have engineering degrees as have degrees in Islamic studies. Nearly half of those terrorists who had degrees had degrees in engineering. Even if you make extremely generous assumptions, nine times as many terrorists were engineers as you would expect by chance. They find a similar pattern among Islamist terrorists who grew up in the West – fewer of these terrorists had college degrees, but even more of those who had degrees were engineers.
Why engineers? The plausible explanation that they possess valuable technical skills does not seem to hold up since not that many engineers are needed and many of them actually play administrative rather than technical roles. The reasons why engineers are drawn to, and recruited by, these groups seem to be for other reasons.
Survey data indicates that engineering faculty at universities are far more likely to be conservative than people with other degrees, and far more likely to be religious. They are seven times as likely to be both religious and conservative as social scientists.
Gambetta and Hertog speculate that engineers combine these political predilections with a marked preference towards finding clearcut answers. This preference has affinities with the clear answer that radical Islamist groups propose for dealing with the complexities of modernity: Get rid of it. They quote the famous right-wing economist Friedrich von Hayek, who argues that people with engineering training “react violently against the deficiencies of their education and develop a passion for imposing on society the order which they are unable to detect by the means with which they are familiar.”
However there are subtleties. The authors of the book have a paper that was the basis of the book that provides more details of the membership and proportion of engineers in violent Islamic groups, non-violent Islamic groups, non-Islamic extremist groups.
The puzzle from which we started appears confirmed: the number of militant engineers relative to the total population of engineers is miniscule – yet engineers, relative to other graduates, are overrepresented among violent Islamic radicals by three to four times the size we would expect.
While the overrepresentation of university-educated individuals among Islamic extremists varies by country, group and sample, the engineering overrepresentation seems insensitive to all three variations – with the one exception of Saudi Arabia (Table VI).
Among non-Islamic extremists, we find virtually no engineers in the violent left-wing – in Europe, US, Japan and Latin America – even in those groups in which highly educated individuals are predominant. Only in some Middle Eastern countries has there been a significant presence of engineers among left-wing radicals. On the extreme right of the political spectrum, by contrast, while not overrepresented, engineers are present in groups of various kinds all over the world.
One of the problems with this study is that the sample sizes are not that large. By combing various sources, they found a total of 404 people of 30 nationalities.
We searched wherever we could for information on each of the 404 individuals in our sample, and found some biographical information for 326 cases and educational information for 284. Out of these, 196 had higher education, whether finished or unfinished, and at least 37 studied in Western countries; the median date of birth is 1968.
We were able to find the subject of study for 178 of the 196 cases engaged in higher education at some point (Figure 1). Unsurprisingly, we found that the second most numerous group was composed of 34 individuals who pursued Islamic studies. Yet, the group that comes first by far are indeed the engineers: 78 out of 178 individuals had studied this subject. This means that 44 % of those whose type of degree we know were engineers. On the whole, the individuals who studied for what we may call ‘‘elite degrees’’ – engineering, medicine, and science, generally the most selective programs in the Islamic world – represent 56.7 %.
They find that when you look at political and religious views by academic discipline using data from the US, engineers tend to be the most conservative.
We searched for evidence to test the latter by trying to discover whether there is anything unusual in engineers’ political-ideological orientations. The best data we could find in this regard comes from a survey of faculty members in undergraduate colleges and universities throughout the United States carried out in 1984 (Carnegie Foundation 1984 ). Of the 9 ,968 faculty sampled 5 ,057 (50 .7 %) returned completed mail questionnaires. We selected the males and looked at their self-reported political and religious views according to their highest degree.
The results are startling (Table VII). The proportion of engineers who declare themselves to be on the right of the political spectrum is greater than in any other disciplinary group: 57.6 % of them are either conservative or strongly conservative, as compared to 51.1% of economists, 42.5% of doctors and 33.5% of scientists, 21.4% of those in the humanities, and 18 .6 % of the social scientists, the least right-wing of all disciplinary groups. Only 1.4% of engineers are on the left, as opposed to 12 .9 % in the social sciences and 16.7 % in law. Perhaps this is an uncanny coincidence, but the four fields at the top of the conservatism scale – engineering, economics, medicine, and science – are the same four secular fields we found at the top of our main jihadist sample.
What they conclude is that it is not just engineers, but engineers who come from countries that do not have good employment prospects for engineers that were over-represented. So the suggestion is that a generally conservative attitude that is either inculcated by engineering schools or attracts people to engineering coupled with low expectations of gainful employment seems to be a dangerous mix.
But as I said, the total sample size they started with is small and when you start slicing and dicing it into smaller subpopulations, your conclusions become prone to significant statistical fluctuations, so these conclusions, while interesting and suggestive, are by no means definitive.