Islamist extremists born and educated in Muslim countries are 17 times more likely to have a university qualification in engineering than the general population of these states, according to a new book.
Engineers of Jihad explores the background of more than 800 members of violent Islamist groups and aims to challenge the view that many terrorists are “poor, ignorant and have nothing to lose”, according to authors Steffen Hertog of the London School of Economics and Diego Gambetta of the European University Institute.
“There is little doubt that violent Islamist radicals are vastly more educated than the general population born and educated in the Muslim world, and engineers are dramatically over-represented,” said Dr Hertog, an associate professor in comparative politics at the LSE.
The authors claim that graduates are over-represented among extremists because of failures of economic development in many Muslim countries.
“Ambitious young graduates, particularly engineers and to a lesser extent, newly-trained doctors, were frustrated by a lack of job opportunities when their economies turned south in the 1970s,” the book says. “Unlike Western-educated graduates who enjoyed good economic opportunities, their counterparts – educated in Muslim countries – were disaffected and ripe for recruitment by radical Islamic networks.”
Engineers are over-represented because they represent “the most talented and ambitious graduates at the sharp end of frustrated expectations”, the authors say.
However, the book also reveals that the over-representation of engineers extends to Islamist radicals who were born and brought up in Asian and Western countries, where labour market opportunities have often been better than in Muslim states.
Out of 71 Western-based cases with a known higher education background, 45 per cent have been enrolled on an engineering degree at some point, compared with 16.2 per cent of the general Western population.
The authors argue that there is no evidence that the technical skills of graduates explain their over-representation among jihadists.
“Bomb-making skills are not a prerequisite in the recruiting process,” Dr Hertog said. “An Al-Qaeda training manual instead instructs members to look for individuals who are at once inquisitive and intelligent with the ability to observe and analyse, but who are also disciplined and obedient. If anything, it is these traits that radical groups look for in engineers.”
What the book finds is that engineers are also significantly represented among far right groups, while humanities and social sciences graduates dominate the far left; and the authors argue that the ideology of Islamist radicals, stripped of its religious components, overlaps far more with that of extreme right-wingers than with that of radical left-wingers.
They suggest that the traits that make Islamism attractive to some engineers could also be what makes right-wing extremism attractive to other graduates.
“Political psychology research links a number of personality traits to right-wing attitudes: a propensity to be easily disgusted, a desire to draw rigid social boundaries and a preference for order, structure, and certainty known as ‘need for cognitive closure’,” Dr Hertog said.
“We find that, on average, indicators for these traits are stronger among engineers compared with graduates in general, while they are weaker among students of humanities and social science.”
Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education is published on 23 March by Princeton University Press