Fringe theories on terrorism – 2: Engineers and extremism

(I just realised that the title of this blog could be seen as offensive.  Please believe that I am not equating those that build bridges and improve our way of life with those who wantonly slaughter innocent people in the name of ideology.  The two have nothing in common.  Or do they?)

Building on my previous blog on whether Islamic State would be the same without Islam, I now turn to a new book by two European researchers, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Herzog, called Engineers of Jihad: the curious connection between violent extremism and education (full disclosure: I have not read the book but am familiar with an article the two wrote some years ago on this topic and which I presume led to the full-length version of their thesis).  Their bottom line is that engineers are disproportionately represented among known Islamist extremists: 14 times more than random actually.  This is an incredible find and calls for analysis as to why.  The authors offer the hypothesis that there are similarities to engineering and terrorist mindsets, including “disgust” and the need for closure (a preference for order and certainty that can support authoritarianism).

And so the question remains: is there something to this notion that engineers are drawn to terrorist groups?  And, more importantly, at least to me, is this a case of correlation or causation?  It should be noted that very, very few engineers become terrorists world wide in any event.  And yet, the disproportionality remains.  I will now turn to whether this finding turns our analysis of who goes down the terrorist path on its head.

We have always maintained that there is no pattern to violent radicalisation when we try to determine who elects to become a terrorist.  There is no age profile, no psychological profile, no family profile, no personality profile and no education profile. Or so we thought.  Gambetta and Herzog’s work seems to undermine that belief, or at least as far as education goes.  If there is indeed a statistical blip of engineers in terrorist groups, that would give us an important piece of knowledge with which perhaps we could identify future extremists.  Trust me,  law enforcement and security agencies need all the help they can get (NB I am NOT saying that our spies and cops are incompetent: they do a great job but are no better than predicting future terrorists than the average citizen).  If we can narrow the field of potential terrorists, we save time and money.

So three cheers for these intrepid researchers, right? Alas no.  As interesting as their work is, it suffers from a few fatal flaws.  For some reason, the two limited their data, excluding members of the Taliban, IS and Boko Haram (totalling in all likelihood tens of thousands of people).  They ignored people like Usama bin Laden in fields “close” to engineering.  In all, their sample size was 838 men (no women – curious choice) and ended up with credible information on educational background for 200 or so.  When the final figures were in, they found that 45 percent of that last figure were engineers.  Startling, yes, but less so when you realise that vast numbers were excluded from consideration.  If we could look at ALL terrorists and knew what they studied in school (if they did post secondary that is), what would the ratio of engineers be?  Negligible I would wager.

Gambetta and Herzog go on to note that a disproportionate percentage of right wing extremists were also engineers and then state “strip the religion out of Islamist ideology…and what’s left is basic extreme right-wing ideology”.  This statement is a serious error in that it understresses the role of religion in these groups, as I noted in the previous blog.  I am not saying that there are no commonalities between jihadis and Neo-Nazis but I am saying that the differences are much more important.

In the end this research belongs in the category “interesting but so what?”  It is not predictive, says little about why engineers would make better terrorists, says nothing about correlation or causation and adds little to our understanding of violent extremism.  So while I do salute the social scientists for their effort, it does not constitute a game-changer in the study of terrorism.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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