Jihad Engineers

A disproportionate percentage of Islamist radical actors, including suicide bombers, come from an engineering background. Why?

Right wing and Islamist extremism seem to share this and other traits, while left wing extremism is more commonly associated with individuals from the humanities and social sciences.

This is what we learn from “Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education“, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog.

An obvious reason that engineers may be more often associated with groups that carry out bombings is that such groups recruit engineers because they would be the idea bomb makers. This, however, is not the case. Indeed, many of the famous goofed up bombing attempts of recent years were carried out by those with engineering backgrounds, while many of the more competent bombers were did not come from an engineering background.

Also note: We keep seeing the term “engineering background” because many of these individuals are not engineers. Many are students who studied, or even got degrees in, engineering, though they may not have ever worked as such. And many are civil engineers, or other kinds of engineers, or studied these professions, rather than some sort of bomb-oriented engineering (though civil engineering might be helpful in designing a bomb-based attack on something).

The basic explanation works something like this. In the Arab/Islamic/Middle Eastern world, there are two professions that men often aspire to for status. Medicine and engineering. Getting a BA or BS is a status symbol, but if one gets a BA or a BS in engineering, that is a better status symbol. Men get this degree, disproportionately, even if they are from a background, and embedded in a family or subculture, where they are not likely to ever work in that profession.

Meanwhile, there seems to be an association with something we might broadly describe as failure to meet one’s own expectations, and getting all cranky and jihadi. You think you are cool. You are cool. And smart. And going up in status. You get you degree. You try for an engineering degree, and maybe you barely get past the hurdles and achieve it. But, you are entering a world where more than just an engineering degree, or your own massive coolness, is enough to succeed. The global Bush-Cheney Recession is upon us, and everyone is suffering.

But the thing is, you are not supposed to be suffering. You are cool. You are from a good background. You have a degree. In engineering!

So, you experience what psychologists of yore called “Relative Deprivation.” It is kind of a first world problem. You should be father along, higher up, better situated, than you are. But the system, the economy, the government, the godless infidels of the west, have kept you down.

So you get all cranky and jihady and blow them up.

I don’t mean to make light of this idea or its consequences. Rather, my snark leads to another point. The people who set bombs and kill innocent bystanders in airports and such are not “cowards” as is often said by Secretaries of States and Presidents and such. Why are spoiled brats. Not that this matters a lot, but one needs to get these things right.

Anyway, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education is a very interesting academic treatment of the question of the link between engineering and jihad. Since it is rooted firmly in data, the book serves as well as an interesting historical account of much of the terrorism of the last several decades. More importantly, it is one of the rare full treatments of the nature and psychology of this sort of behavior.

I noted that “relative deprivation” is a concept of yore, and it is. The authors have, dangerously perhaps (because this sort of thing is dangerous in Academia) pulled out and dusted off an old concept that was found wanting in its earlier incarnations. But they have modified it and applied it well, so it is more of an homage to earlier workers to call it this. But the name is appropriate. Relative to your life long expectations, you are screwed. So you react, at out, victimize someone else. And you happen to be male and muslim (both traits of the patriarchal fundamentalist islamic world) and maybe you know somebody who knows somebody, and next thing you know you are in a training camp in war torn Syria.

The set of jihadists examined in this study is not everybody, but rather, a subset with common defining characteristics. So, for example, this study does not pertain to ISIL.

And, other extremists may have a similar pattern of association with certain areas of study and their radical decisions, but come from different backgrounds. There is a vague association between being a Nazi in the early days and being in law, history, or economics. Indeed, the pattern of extremist behavior, historical context, and educational or work background is very complicated, not very well understood, and there is no way I can give it justice here. Must read Chapter 5.

Education (of one type or another) does not cause extremism. This is not nearly so simple of a situation. But the link between academic orientation, educational effort, a few other things, and extremist views and action is not random, and does make sense, in the context of the revised and updated theory of relative deprivation. Have a look, I think you’ll be convinced.


  1. #1 Andrew Gillett
    August 26, 2016

    “Why are spoiled brats” -> “They are…”?

  2. #2 Bob Tucker
    August 26, 2016

    As a PhD student in Geology my major Prof was in the engineering Department (Civil) so I was able to see what Students were taking. I think this may be a failure of Engineering Departments to require their students to take enough of the “soft” classes. Even in my major there was a distinct lack of social sciences requirements. This makes students less able to address the consequences of their actions.

  3. #3 Brainstorms
    August 26, 2016

    …not to mention the purpose of their actions. As well as the purpose of their education.

    The purpose of their profession is to serve the greater good of society — not to serve oneself. (I.e., they’re not business majors.)

  4. #4 Paul Murray
    Canberra, Australia
    August 27, 2016

    People from engineering backgrounds, I suspect, are more likely to read their holy books literally. That is, more likely to read *what the book actually says* rather than through layers of gloss and interpretation.

    I, too, am “from an engineering background” – I’m a programmer. One of the final things that got me out of Christianity was reading what Romans 6-7 actually says: it’s lunacy.

    People from the humanities understand myth, the *get* that meaning is a function of the culture in which something was written. Engineers read “And fight with them until there is no more fitna (disorder, unbelief) and religion is all for Allah” and go “well, that’s what God wants me to do, then”.

    And then they do it.

    To put it another way: engineers don’t know that they are lacking a key part of a complete education: rhetoric. They think they are smart – and they are – but they are lacking an important part of the adult toolbox. The don’t understand how persuasion is done, they don’t know how to read and think critically. All they get is true and false – you either believe something or you don’t.

    To put it another way again: I read young adult fiction. That’s my level when it comes to literature, I’m afraid. I’m 50. Been making a living programming for 30 years. I know stuff and can do stuff, but in important ways I’m still mentally a teenager. If I’d grown up in different circumstances I, too, would say “My bible says to do this – you either believe it or you dont and its that simple”.

  5. #5 Harry Twinotter
    August 28, 2016

    Is it possible many engineers have the “authoritarian follower” personality trait? It is a puzzle to me that intelligent and educated people can be persuaded to martyr themselves for an ideology.

  6. #6 Thomas
    August 28, 2016

    I agree with Paul. Science teach people that there is an objective truth, and that everyone who doesn’t believe in it is wrong, a crackpot. That may be fine when deciding if a bridge will work or collapse, but apply it to religion and you have a problem.

  7. #7 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2016

    Paul and Harry’s ideas are good ones, but while clearly a factor, they don’t bubble, at least in isolation, to the surface of what seems to be going on here, according the the research.

  8. #8 BBD
    August 28, 2016

    So, would it be reasonable to characterise the hypothesis as identifying a narcissistic personality disorder as the (ahem) fundamental problem?

  9. #9 Brainstorms
    August 28, 2016

    It might have a lot to do with deep-seated insecurity. Insecurity is often dealt with by attempts to “be in control” one way or another.

    So it may be true that during youth, such types view engineering as attractive for what it is: Expertise at knowing how the (physical) world works, and training in how to master it and control it to any desired end. There’s power in being an engineer (although we tend to think “politics” or becoming a corporate titan for that).

    It wouldn’t be a huge leap of intellect to realize that this knowledge/control works VERY well in the physical sciences, works less so in politics & business, and diminishes in other areas.

    So the draw of “be an engineer and have control over the world” possibly leads them to getting these degrees, especially if rising to becoming a political leader or a business head is (or seems) out of reach — often the case in the third world.

    Then there’s the question of why they resort to rigid religious interpretations and mass murder/destruction…

    I suspect this stems from desperation and inner despair over finding out that their romantic ideal of what “being an engineer” would do to solve their core problem doesn’t work. All religions promise this (engineering does not), but from looking at their results, religion is one of those dismal areas that doesn’t work either.

    It could be that at that point, they give up hope/become angry. After all, if that’s what you’re seeking in life (relief from insecurity), and everything has failed you, what’s left? Religion had the audacity to promise it, but doesn’t — yet those who co-opt it and twist its message to justify savagery provide a perverted ‘out’: Authority, justification, and control, combined with a lovely savage outlet for their anger. Just sign up and start taking control over your fellow man and the world around you as you ‘vent’ on some poor slob whose head you’re cutting off with a hunting knife.

  10. #10 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2016

    BBD, actually, they don’t.

    Here’s something to keep in mind. Don’t think of these “engineers” (really, “people with engineering background” not engineers. People with engineering degrees, not jobs) as the same as Engineers in the US.

    As noted, in some societies, a status degree is a degree in engineering. These are individuals who seek status, attain it (because they get the degree) almost like getting admitted into a caste.

    Then the status, the caste value, evaporates.

    This then feeds the relative deprivation idea.

    So this is not so much about engineers, or about American conceptions of what “engineers are like”, but rather, how some men respond to their own position in a highly stratified society.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    August 28, 2016

    To put it another way, they are not drawn to engineering because of engineering. They are drawn to an engineering degree because it is a high status degree, one of two (the other medical).

  12. #12 BBD
    August 28, 2016

    Thanks Greg. This trots along with a hobby-horse of mine: if a society commodifies women it gets stratified and volatile men. Add a kick in the nuts of disappointment and a dash of Ignatius J. Reilly and away you go.

  13. #13 Omega Centauri
    August 28, 2016

    I think Greg’s points in #10,#11 are important to keep in mind. We are trying to use our won experiences in Western culture and in our own lives to imagine how this works, and it can lead us astray. There also seems to be an implicit assumption in the comments that recruits have a strongly fundamentalist tendency before being recruited. Yes (at least for Western recruits), as a group they lived highly rather secular lifestyle prior to recruitment. I think at least as far as the decision to be recruit-able goes, religion doesn’t seem to be a deciding factor ( although those more ignorant of “their” religion are less likely to be able to refute the notion of jihad as a religious duty, than those brought up in the Mosque. So the correlation with religiosity and propensity to join up runs counter to our intuition. I am under the strong impression that at least in the early phases of radicalization that religion mainly serves as an identity marker for a persecuted us who are embedded in a world of “other”.

  14. #14 Eric Lund
    August 29, 2016

    Science teach people that there is an objective truth, and that everyone who doesn’t believe in it is wrong, a crackpot.

    There is an important difference between science and engineering that is being overlooked here.

    Science tends to teach people to deal with the world as it is. For instance, you learn that this beautiful river valley is at high risk for earthquakes because a major fault line runs through it.

    Engineering tends to teach people to deal with the world as they’d like it to be. For instance, you want to build a bridge over this river, despite the earthquake risk. So you find out what you need to do to make sure the bridge will still be standing after an earthquake. Or not, because you aren’t given enough budget to build a bridge that will withstand an earthquake, and the people who are paying you really want that bridge to be there. And depending on the location, you may end up displacing some of the local residents so that the bridge can be built.

    The latter mindset–that you control the world, rather than vice versa–is more compatible with extremist views, because “death to the infidels” is a method for making the world conform better to your viewpoint, while viewing the fate of said infidels as an acceptable cost. It also explain why engineers are more likely to be right-wingers than scientists, and why, for example, a list of “scientists” who are opposed to the idea that humans are causing global warming will almost invariably consist mostly of engineers, and few if any scientists with any background in atmospheric science.

    But there is more to jihadi engineers than that. In the US until recently, being a white Christian male was usually enough to guarantee some status in society. That built-in advantage is disappearing in most of the US, and some white Christian males are sufficiently unhappy with this state of affairs to take up extremist rhetoric (and in some cases, more than just rhetoric). That’s not so different from the people in majority Muslim countries who earn engineering degrees only to find there are no engineering jobs for them–some of the latter group become jihadis.

  15. #15 Obstreperous Applesauce
    August 29, 2016

    “Engineering, where the noble semi-skilled laborers execute the vision of those who think and dream. Hello, Oompa Loompas of science!”
    ~Sheldon Cooper

    A lot of the engineers I’ve encountered appear to be Cylons.

  16. #16 G
    September 2, 2016

    I have a few testable hypotheses for this:

    Consider an axis of measurement of cognitive style, from high preference for concrete thinking, at one end, to high preference for abstract thinking, at the other end. This is measurable with various psychological instruments.

    Now consider another axis of measurement of religious style, from fundamentalist at one end, to mystical at the other end. An instrument could easily be devised to measure that, by asking subjects to what degree they agree with various statements that are expressions of fundamentalist thought and mystical thought respectively.

    Hypothesis 1: Concrete thinking will be highly correlated with fundamentalist religious thought, and abstract thinking will be highly correlated with mystical religious thought. This appears to be a fairly mainstream conclusion in comparative religion to date, but it would be interesting to test it specifically.

    Hypothesis 2: Engineering students will show a greater degree of concrete thinking than science students and humanities students. This is testable by administering the abstract/concrete instrument to students in various departments.

    If both of those hypotheses are supported firmly by data, then we have our connection between religious extremists and engineers.

    As for what motivates engineers in general:

    First of all there’s the delight in building stuff that works, which is very much similar to the mindset of people who are particularly good in the skilled trades.

    Second, consider an axis of measurement of a social trait, from “desire to dominate” at one end to “desire to serve” at the other end. A psychological instrument could easily be developed to measure this (if it doesn’t already exist).

    Hypothesis 3: Engineers are normally distributed on that axis. Some want to “conquer” one thing or another, some see themselves as serving humanity, most are in between.

    So, someone with a predilection for religious fundamentalism and a personality trait for desire to dominate others, is already brain-wired to be biased toward violence. Give them the training in concrete thinking that goes with engineering, and it reinforces the exclusivity of their fundamentalist worldview. Individuals of this sort who fail at conventional careers, could be wooed by violent extremist groups.

    Thankfully, the tendency to fail at engineering also carries over to a tendency to fail at bomb-making and suchlike. If you review some of these jihadi groups’ literature, you will discover that they are laughably bad at some of the things they would need to be “good at” in order for more of their attacks to succeed.

    “Some day there’ll be a cure.”