Why are so many top terrorists engineers?

by on November 11, 2007 at 3:19 pm in Education | Permalink

Diego Gambetta and Steffan Hertog report:

We find that graduates from subjects such as science,
engineering, and medicine are strongly overrepresented among Islamist
movements in the Muslim world, though not among the extremist Islamic
groups which have emerged in Western countries more recently.  We also
find that engineers alone are strongly over-represented among graduates
in violent groups in both realms.  This is all the more puzzling for
engineers are virtually absent from left-wing violent extremists and
only present rather than over-represented among right-wing extremists. 
We consider four hypotheses that could explain this pattern.  Is the
engineers’ prominence among violent Islamists an accident of history
amplified through network links, or do their technical skills make them
attractive recruits?  Do engineers have a ‘mindset’ that makes them a
particularly good match for Islamism, or is their vigorous
radicalization explained by the social conditions they endured in
Islamic countries?  We argue that the interaction between the last two
causes is the most plausible explanation of our findings…

Henry Farrell adds commentary.  I take the bottom line to be that engineers are systematizers by nature and in Islamic countries in particular they face difficult social  circumstances, relative to their human capital and ambition.  I suspect also that elites with a clear inherited path to the top do not become engineers.

I am less convinced by the parallels drawn with politically conservative engineers in the United States, but the piece offers (p.51) this fascinating bit:

…engineers turn out to be by far the most religious group of all academics – 66.5 per cent, followed again by 61.7 in economics [emphasis added by TC], 49.9 in sciences, 48.8 per cent of social scientists, 46.3 of doctors and 44.1 per cent of lawyers, the most sceptical of the lot.  Engineers and economists are also those who oppose religion least (3.7% and 3.0%), and, together with the humanities, those who more strongly embrace it…

Footnote 63 (p.58) is not satisfactory but nonetheless intriguing.  This is probably the best piece on terrorism I have read.

1 razib November 11, 2007 at 3:53 pm

the representation of individuals from the sciences generally is known in other right-wing religious groups. doctors and scientists were prominent in the rise of hindu nationalism, and have been prominent in evangelical student associations in the UK. i’ve speculated on the issues before.

2 Sparty November 11, 2007 at 4:13 pm

What role might western education play in the answer to this question? I don’t have the statistics to back this up but I would venture to say that students from predominantly Islamic countries are more likely to study science, engeering, or more medicine than students from the United States or Western Europe.

3 washcycle November 11, 2007 at 4:35 pm

ASDs (autistic spectrum disorders) are more prevalent among engineers than the general population. That’s why we’re so difficult to work with. Perhaps ASD is what the study should be looking for. Are terrorists more likely to show signs of widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication? If so maybe the inability to make strong human connections plays a part.

4 Jacqueline November 11, 2007 at 4:38 pm

My experience with engineers is that many of them tend towards relating to others more as objects/tools than as people. This probably allows them to feel more morally comfortable with blowing them up.

5 rob November 11, 2007 at 8:45 pm

Awesome post–thanks for the link!
rob from SM

6 jules November 11, 2007 at 9:36 pm

I am civil engineer and lawyer.I was religious when i began engineering and became agnostic after studying physics well before begining law.But I have been a clasic liberal ( except for antilericalism) all the time.But here most lawyer are religius person , a big chunk of faculties at my school belong to the opus dei.
BTW, the evidence refered shows that CP SNOW was wrong

7 pc November 11, 2007 at 11:51 pm

I think BlogReader is right. I think there are lot more engineering jobs in developing countries than for other professions. So they possible represent the general population more closely than say scientists.

8 Eric November 12, 2007 at 1:01 am

You might also want to look at
Summary quote
“It’s not poverty and lack of education, according to economic research by Princeton’s ALAN KRUEGER. Look elsewhere.”

9 Steve Sailer November 12, 2007 at 1:24 am

One obvious explanation is that engineers are actually trained to build physical objects (e.g., bombs), unlike, say, lawyers or economists. So, engineers are more valuable recruits for any organizations that wants to build bombs than are professionals who only work with letters and numbers.

10 dearieme November 12, 2007 at 5:05 am

How odd that they didn’t try dividing their scientists into Physical Scientists and Biological Scientists.

11 Perete November 12, 2007 at 8:57 am

Perhaps a tendency in both groups of “implementing a solution” instead of “talking about a solution”?

12 bartman November 12, 2007 at 9:10 am

Sailer: engineers don’t build things, technicians do. When I was an engineer, I worked *exclusively* with words and numbers, and so did pretty much every other engineer I knew. The only ones who built stuff with their hands did so as hobbies on the weekends.

Have you ever heard of the terms “blue collar”: and “white collar”?

13 Peter Forrester November 12, 2007 at 9:42 am

Many, if not a majority, of the founding members of Opus Dei were also engineers.

14 John Dewey November 12, 2007 at 9:52 am

bartman: “engineers don’t build things, technicians do.”

I’m sure Steve Sailer understands very well the meaning of the word “build”:


1: to form by ordering and uniting materials by gradual means into a composite whole : construct
2: to cause to be constructed
3: to develop according to a systematic plan, by a definite process, or on a particular base

Merriam-Webster online Dictionary


1. To form by combining materials or parts; construct.
2. To order, finance, or supervise the construction of;
3. To develop or give form to according to a plan or process;


It doesn’t really mean “fabricate by hand”.

Engineers I’ve worked with are every bit a part of the building process as the grunt who pushes concrete or the technician who attaches cable or the machinist who operates lathes and milling machines.

15 HeShootsAndScores November 12, 2007 at 10:19 am

Perhaps we should look at engineering being less of a cause and more of a result. Engineers are generally smart, and more likely to be discontent due toa lack of opportunities. There are millions of unemployed, over-educated engineers here.

Also, engineering being one of the default degrees is a valid statement. In most asian countries, Engineering is a proxy for ‘educated’. Doctors as well, but there are usually fewer of them, and more of them following the social norm of ‘do no harm’.

16 Affe November 12, 2007 at 11:04 am

“We find that graduates from subjects such as science, engineering, and medicine are strongly overrepresented among Islamist movements in the Muslim world, though not among the extremist Islamic groups which have emerged in Western countries more recently.”

If I recall correctly, a relatively large number of revolutionaries of the Tsarist era also came from the intellectual strata of Russian society – a good education and limited capacity for advancement seem to be a bad combination – such countries may be well served by liberal emigration policies…

17 Steve November 12, 2007 at 12:46 pm

engineers treat people as tools

practicing law has taught me most people are tools

18 Vinay Gupta November 12, 2007 at 1:15 pm

Hm. Seems to be that nobody has mentioned the obvious things.

1> Engineers are trained to plan and estimate risk, and those skills are portable

2> Project management is enough to drive anybody to violence.

19 Larry November 12, 2007 at 1:33 pm

Is this a coincidence or not: Most Chinese (PRC) leaders are engineers too ?

20 Barkley Rosser November 12, 2007 at 2:16 pm

For once I agree with Stever Sailer. It is not just that they have superior skills
for building bombs and other damaging devices, but they are also more likely to know
how airplanes work and thus able to learn how to fly them than most other folks.

21 Eric H November 12, 2007 at 5:19 pm

washcycle has part of it: ASD explains M1EK’s angle as well as (in this case) Steve’s professional deformation. It also underlies part of Gambetta and Hertog’s explanation, the systematizer hypothesis. Check out Ted Kacynski’s wiki entry and tell me that guy doesn’t have Asperger’s.

22 S November 12, 2007 at 10:19 pm

Engineers have different incentives. Think about engineers you know, to them, any women even in the afterlife, looks pretty good.

23 BobG November 24, 2007 at 8:57 am

Chatting this over the Thanksgiving holidays, my father, an engineer, and I believe that people intelligent people who crave rules and order naturally gravitate to both religion and engineering. Each has a kind of logic and clear rules.

24 Joseph Dunphy December 13, 2007 at 7:20 pm

“Why the hell don’t these guys see a conflict between backward beliefs and modern science? Shouldn’t this clash be obvious or is this exactly the point why they become so fundamentalist?”

Maybe because they manage to ask a question that you don’t even manage to understand IS a question, Mr.Herbert – what makes modernity modern? You seem to simply take it for granted that if the normative views of society – “society” being defined in a knee jerk kind of way as being the society which you are used to – have moved in a particular direction for what you think of as being a long time, that direction must necessarily be good and right, and never mind the fact that maybe, on examination, we’ll find that “a long time” to you is something on the order of sixty years, as you dwell on a world where recorded history goes back for over 4700 years, and what are now acknowledged to be reverses of past civilizations have spanned centuries.

Understanding has a way of teaching one what the American cultural mainstream is so eager to claim but so reluctant to embrace – humility. The American suit, as he pushes around his little pieces of paper and applies “advanced analytical techniques” that are in reality barely more than repackaged freshman undergraduate mathematics, may imagine himself to be a self-made man competent to undo and replace all that came before him, but for the most part pure and applied scientists know better than to see themselves that way. They know that all that they have built has been laid upon the foundations built up by those who have gone before them, and see themselves as being a part of that history which, in their own low key sort of way, they view with a kind of calm reverence.

They are also left with one of those questions that the stridently “modernist” never seem to feel the need to ask themselves. If the advance of technology is one of the things that makes a civilization “modern”, and the supposedly modern need the assistance of those “backward” traditional folk to achieve those advances – then who, really, are the backward ones? In the case of an Osama Bin Ladin, we find somebody whose traditional cultural background is a rather grim affair, with grim results, but you and some of your friends seem to want to lump him in with the Opus Dei belonging Roman Catholic physician down the street or the Conservative Sephardic Jewish Probabilist teaching at the campus across town. You know, Herbert, speaking as one of those Jews, I’ve seen intolerance and a crazed hysteria appear in the encounter between the so-called “American cultural mainstream” and Judaism, complete with bombings – but guess what? The traditional religious folks weren’t the ones planting the bombs and the agnostics weren’t the ones being bombed. It was the reverse.


But we’re not supposed to remember that, are we? The thought I’d like to leave you with is that of the irony of presuming to tell another how he ought to believe, to preach to him about his refusal to let himself be steamrollered into abandoned his own ways and replacing them with one’s own simply because they are one’s own and one is being pushy about it, and then attacking that refusal with some blend of condescension, bitterness and outright psychosis, and one and one’s friends speak of the “intolerance” of those traditionalist who they would drag kicking and screaming into a supposedly modern era which the self-styled modernists have, in all humility, remade in their own image.

25 鑽石 April 2, 2008 at 11:19 pm
26 NomoreH1b August 11, 2008 at 1:40 pm

I think Jeans post about Gender Ratios was astute. However, I would suggest that technology is changing gender ratios. We see that in China because of the One Child rule-and the use of selective abortion for male births.

Now, I think Saudi Arabia has a choice:
either ban polygamy or select for female births so that polygyny can become a broader practice there.

It is pretty broadly accepted that China’s approach is pretty tragic. I suspect a more heavily female society might be a different story.

27 johngonole January 17, 2009 at 11:05 pm

Speaking as a structural engineer I think the observations probaly are correct. That is that engineers tend to be more religious. They are also as a group far more conservative then the rest of society politically. I don’t know what engineers this guy above hangs out with but engineers as a group are conservative. By the way libertarian is really just another word for VERY CONSERVATIVE. We work with architects which tend to be politically liberal so its really quite a funny combination. I disagree however with much of the fudge factoring that most of the so called ACADEMICS (a word for people who have never lived in the real world, live off of government, generally surround themselves with a very small circle of like minded thinkers, generally publish papers and research that is useless, and thus are deemed by most of the rest of society as very capable idiots) as come up with. Futhermore while many academic do publish good stuff lets face it most of the publications are the same thing over and over with small additions so they can meet publishing goals. Engineers publish less because we actually leave the academic world and apply are science. Think of engineer as applied science and physics.

Most engineers I know are very much more aware of how politics, freedom, secrecy, and how all the moving parts of society are entangled. Engineers also understand much better than the rest of society cause and effect. Engineers are more capable of actually realizing what the true causes of social injustice are.

What inclines engineers to violence is fourfold. First engineers are generally slow to anger and passive. Engineers are not generally good public speakers so their ideas generally fall on deaf ears (I’m not speaking for all engineers of course but in general). Notice the lack of engineers who are elected representative in government if you don’t think this is true. Many people don’t even know what engineers do. So as a group they probably are fustrated (oh yeah and we can’t spell). and in terms of violence I’d label the group passive agressive. At the same time (reason number two) they really do understand all the interactions of politics, the human condition, religion, self interest, charity, laws, crime and punishment, economics, etc… So here we have arrived as the second reason engineers are inclined to violence. They are actually aware of when they are being screwed. And in most cases how powerless they really are to change conditions on the ground. Now mix this with a religion of intolerance and you have a pretty short trip to violence as the quickest way from A to B. This of course isn’t true in most case or for most of us but if you are hopeless its a logical conclusion. A third reason I think engineers are more inclined to violence (when conditions are right) is that they have a very strong sense of right and wrong. A design is right or wrong. The machine either works or it doesn’t. Engineers live in a very black and white world in their daily practices. A person running an experiment can be wrong. And engineer designing a plane can not be. This strong sense of right and wrong probably makes them (as a group) much more inclined to act on how they feel. The fourth reason they may be more inclined to be militaristic is that Engineers are very well educated and thus are actually capable of acting on their anger in militaristic way. Most other people types are simply are enslaved. If you want a free society you need lots of engineers. Engineers after all create all those weapon systems. Back to applied physics…… Engineers deal in reality its everyone else who want to make believe that there can be one set of rules for a capital I and another set of rules for everyone else.

Finally to close on a personal note Engineers are (as a group) probably far more likely to understand why charity and compassion are necessary for progress but why when those two things are forced upon society by law leads to a long term social and moral decline. If you don’t understand this paradox you need to go back and think about all the cause and effect that us so called engineers don’t understand. If you still donbt an engineer’s capability to collect information and draw appropriate conclusions then someone should do a study on th GRE scores of enigneers in the analytical portion. I’m willing to bet they are much much higher than the rest of society in general.

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