Tag Archives: Psychology

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.

Are Engineers More Likely To Be Terrorists, And If So, Why?

I met a student, I was on his examining committee, who had been a civil engineer for years (he was getting his undergraduate degree late in life). He was politically conservative and cynical about academia. He needed the degree in order to get a major promotion, hated the idea of going back to college, but he held his nose and did it anyway.

Part of the examination process involved asking the student how the completed degree program had changed is life. In this student’s case, one might expect the answer to have focused on the simple fact of getting a doubling in salary and promotion to the head of a major department because he now qualified, having the sheepskin in hand. But that was not his answer. I paraphrase:

“I hated the idea of taking all these politically correct courses this program requires. Then I took the courses, and realized that I’d been a narrow minded asshole most of my life. I’m still probably a narrow minded asshole, but not as much, and I appreciate things more. So-called ‘Liberal Arts’ is good for people like me. Thanks for making me do it.”

That program, by the way, was very heavy in liberal arts. Students would spend considerable effort, typically at the graduate level, focusing on their area of expertise, which was often quite developed in these older students with vast life experience. But at the same time they had to meet all the university liberal arts requirements, plus ones we added that consisted mainly of self reflection and integration of the other liberal arts study with each other and their core area.

The vast majority of engineers are not jihadist terrorists or suicide bombers.

But it turns out that among jihadists and suicide bombers, an alarmingly disproportionate share are engineers.

This is covered in Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog. I’ve not read that book, but I have read Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists? by Dan Berrett summarizing the research (hat tip Maggie Koerth-Baker).

(I’ll probably get the book and report back later.)

The researchers seem to have nailed down the data suggesting that more than expected terrorist bad guys have engineering backgrounds. All the objections I was thinking of as I read the article, related to how this apparent bias might have resulted as an artifact of the data, were addressed.

The explanations provided are multiple, and likely, several apply.

One possible expansion, which the data suggest explains part, but not most, of this phenomenon, is the concept of relative deprivation. You put sweat and tears and maybe some blood into developing skills and raising your own prospects, but then you fail because of external or contextual forces. Many of these engineer-terrorists became engineers in societies where they could not actually get jobs or status as engineers, and thus may feel bitter and disenfranchised. In countries where engineers do get high status and have a high employment rate, but otherwise provide a good number of terrorists (like Saudi Arabia) the percentage that are engineers is low. Looking across the data, this concept seems to explain part of the resulting pattern.

Another explanation has to do with the sort of person who becomes an engineer. I’m not going to go into this psychological argument here (read the article or book), though it is key to the discussion. I just feel this is pretty complex stuff and I’ll avoid forming an opinion until I see the book. Suffice it to say that the sort of mind set that makes one more likely to be drawn to engineering, or succeed in engineering training, has features that for a small number of individuals may lead to the determination to go blow oneself up and take a few perceived enemies with you.

That argument involves selection of those who go into the field, but a third argument involves what happens during the process of education. It is generally true that some professions, including engineering, have narrow liberal education requirements than other professions, such as the social sciences and humanities. As I demonstrated anecdotally above, taking liberal arts seriously can expand, change, and enrich minds, but if those requirements are reduced, then not so much.

This can be a vicious cycle of sorts. Large university units (such as a college with in a university, or a major program, controlling the details of undergraduate or graduate education) can move towards or away form liberal arts eduction over time as people “typical” of that subset of academia regularly make programmatic decisions. For example, a technically oriented college may have relaxed language requirements compared to the sister college in the same university system that focuses on social science and humanities.

Anyway, the argument here is that academic training matters. The leftist terrorist groups of yore (back in the 60s and 70s) involved operatives with a disproportionate number of humanities and social science education, while today, rightist (statist, jihadist) terrorists are more of the opposite bent.

But, again, that only explains part of the larger pattern. Yet it may be a factor, and that would be interesting.

The important thing about this study, and the reason I’m going on and on about it, is that it is an interesting and apparently well done look at the cultural and social nuances, and the role of lived experience, behind important geopolitical factors that matter. There is some good anthropology to be done here, if we can find some good anthropologists to do it (I don’t think there is much anthropology going on these days in this area, and what is done is mainly critical theory, so not much pragmatic use.)