Why do engineers go bad?
Washington - The fact that a large number of jihadist terrorists had been educated as engineers is a phenomenon that has been widely noted but rarely studied. Until now. Diego Gambetta, professor of social theory at Italy’s European University Institute, and Steffen Hertog, a Middle East specialist at the London School of Economics, have published a controversial new book, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education.
Gambetta and Hertog studied the personal biographies of more than 200 known jihadists who had pursued higher education. They discovered that nearly 45% of them either attained degrees in or studied engineering. The 200 jihadists were from 19 countries where on average only 12% of university students study engineering. The over-representation of engineers held true whether the jihadists were educated in the Middle East or were born and educated in the West.
Gambetta and Hertog have moved the argument beyond the anecdotal. Clearly, something is going on here.
What exactly that is, however, is harder to determine and has stoked controversy. Some professional engineers have accused the authors of giving engineering a black eye. Others have suggested that terror groups actively recruit engineers, assuming they would be better able to make and handle advanced explosives.
Gambetta and Hertog, however, found that the vast majority of the jihadist engineers they studied were not recruited but had volunteered. Moreover, they most often were not the bomb-makers within the group but rather leaders and commanders.
Clearly, there is some causal factor between studying engineering — or having an engineer’s “mindset” — and being attracted to jihadism.
Gambetta and Hertog offered two explanations for their findings.
The first is based on the well-known sociological phenomenon of relative deprivation: When people feel they are not getting what is due them or that their hard work and educational attainment are not being rewarded, they may become frustrated and angry. In other words, a young man (and it is overwhelmingly men we are talking about) who studies engineering only to find that there are no jobs available, or at least none of the status he expected to achieve, will feel deprived. He will feel angry, and angry people often look for someone to blame for their distress.
Gambetta and Hertog suggested another possible factor as well, one that is based on the engineer’s mindset. They polled students across various disciplines and found that engineers ranked very high in three psychological categories: the need for certainty, a preference for order and a dislike of ambiguity. Clearly, these are excellent qualities for an engineer — who would want to cross a bridge built by an engineer who was less than certain of what he was doing?
These same traits are also the hallmarks of extremists — religious or otherwise. They think in black and white, holy and evil, us and them. There are no grey areas or room for debate with jihadists.
Michael Hogg, a social psychologist at Claremont Graduate University in California, suggested that one of the emotional factors that may make extremism attractive to an individual is “existential uncertainty”, which can be defined as confusion about one’s future and even one’s basic identity. If indeed the engineer’s “mindset” stresses the need for certainty, one can see how a feeling of existential uncertainty might drive a frustrated and angry engineer into the arms of a group that claims to have all the answers to life’s equations.
It is important to note that engineers or would-be engineers are not the only people who share the traits that seem to make extremism attractive. Gambetta and Hertog make a point of saying that engineering schools do not create these psychological traits in their students.
What you apparently have is a “perfect storm”: Young men who tend to share certain psychological traits pursue a discipline that rewards these traits (think of the successful bridge builder), only to find upon graduation that their expectations of life are not being met. At that point, a small number — an extremely small number — will respond to the siren call of jihad’s glory and certainty.
There are two possible responses to the authors’ findings that should definitely not be pursued: First, security forces should not start profiling engineers or engineering students; and second, countries in the Arab world that desperately need modernisation and economic development should not discourage students from pursuing engineering or other technical degrees.
While the overlap between engineers and jihadists is apparently real, it represents an infinitesimal portion of the overall engineering population.
Ultimately, the answer is to create civil discourses that focus on tolerance and dialogue — as Tunisia is doing — and to undertake policies that create the kind of economic growth in which engineering graduates will find satisfying and productive employment. Both solutions will take time, even a generation, to achieve. In the meantime, we should not be surprised or overly alarmed when we learn that a jihadist terrorist also happens to be an engineer.