Why do engineers go bad?

One of emotional factors that may make extremism attractive to an individual is 'existential uncertainty.'


2016/04/08 Issue: 51 Page: 14


The Arab Weekly
Mark Habeeb



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.


Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.


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