Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education

Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education

by Diego Gambetta, Steffen Hertog


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Friday, October 25


The violent actions of a few extremists can alter the course of history, yet there persists a yawning gap between the potential impact of these individuals and what we understand about them. In Engineers of Jihad, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog uncover two unexpected facts, which they imaginatively leverage to narrow that gap: they find that a disproportionate share of Islamist radicals come from an engineering background, and that Islamist and right-wing extremism have more in common than either does with left-wing extremism, in which engineers are absent while social scientists and humanities students are prominent.

Searching for an explanation, they tackle four general questions about extremism: Under which socioeconomic conditions do people join extremist groups? Does the profile of extremists reflect how they self-select into extremism or how groups recruit them? Does ideology matter in sorting who joins which group? Lastly, is there a mindset susceptible to certain types of extremism?

Using rigorous methods and several new datasets, they explain the link between educational discipline and type of radicalism by looking at two key factors: the social mobility (or lack thereof) for engineers in the Muslim world, and a particular mindset seeking order and hierarchy that is found more frequently among engineers. Engineers' presence in some extremist groups and not others, the authors argue, is a proxy for individual traits that may account for the much larger question of selective recruitment to radical activism.

Opening up markedly new perspectives on the motivations of political violence, Engineers of Jihad yields unexpected answers about the nature and emergence of extremism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691178509
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 11/28/2017
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Diego Gambetta is professor of social theory at the European University Institute, Florence, and official fellow of Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. His books include The Sicilian Mafia and Codes of the Underworld (Princeton). Steffen Hertog is associate professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats.

Read an Excerpt


The Education of Islamist Extremists

ON CHRISTMAS DAY 2009, UMAR FAROUK ABDULMUTALLAB, A TWENTY-three-year-old Nigerian man, arrived from Ghana into Amsterdam's Schiphol airport where he boarded Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit. As the airplane approached its destination, Abdulmutallab disappeared for twenty minutes into the lavatory. Back in his seat, he started fumbling around with his underwear. Neighboring passengers saw his trousers on fire and Jasper Schuringa, a Dutch film director, jumped on Abdulmutallab and subdued him, while flight attendants rushed to the scene with a fire extinguisher. The explosive device he had hidden in his pants failed to detonate and Abdulmutallab was arrested. Authorities discovered that he had been in contact with Al-Qaida elements in Yemen. Just a year earlier Abdulmutallab had received a degree in mechanical engineering from University College London.

Two months before Abdulmutallab's attempt, on 13 October 2009, Mohamed Game, a thirty-seven-year-old Libyan living in Italy, blew himself up with two kilos of nitrate at the entrance of the Caserma Santa Barbara, an army barracks in Milan. This was the first and thus far only suicide attack attempted in Italy, and Game might have been a "lone wolf" operator, at most a member of a small local network. Game — who lost his right hand in the attack and is now serving a fourteen-year sentence — has a degree in electronic engineering.

Exactly three months before Game's failed attack, on 13 July 2009, a German court sentenced forty-seven-year-old German Pakistani Aleem Nasir to eight years in prison for his role as an Al-Qaida facilitator in Europe. Nasir had been traveling regularly to the tribal areas in Pakistan, supposedly to trade in semiprecious stones but apparently to transfer money to, and coordinate European recruitment for, Islamist militant groups. Nasir is said to have been enlisting a number of German Muslims for jihad, among them German Moroccan Bekkay Harrach, who would become infamous — also in 2009 — for his videotaped threats of jihad against the German government, apparently recorded in a hideout in Pakistan. Nasir holds a degree in mechanical engineering while Harrach had begun college studies of laser technology and mathematics before dropping out to take a part-time job in a mosque in Bonn.

Apart from being male and of Islamic faith, these four men have little in common. They vary in terms of nationality, age, the Western country with which they had most contact, and even the extremist network they were part of. They also differ in marital status: Game, Nasir, and Harrach had wives and children; Abdulmutallab did not.

Their careers vary greatly, too. Nasir had worked at an energy research institute in Karlsruhe before being fired for supposed extremist statements, after which he worked as a gem trader. Game, despite his degree, had a history of underemployment and was in debt, while Harrach lived off odd jobs. Abdulmutallab never even began a career, jumping straight from his studies into extremist activities.

The only thing they have in common is having studied engineering.

As one would expect there are militant Islamist university or college graduates who have not had successful careers after graduation: Faisal Shahzad, the Pakistani man who left an SUV packed with explosives near Times Square in Manhattan on 1 May 2010, is said to have been "unemployed and bankrupt at the time of his arrest," though it is not clear whether his progressive radicalization was the effect or the cause of his unemployment. Wadih El-Hage, a Lebanese man who is serving a life sentence in the United States for his involvement in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, held minimum-wage jobs in the United States as a city custodian and auto mechanic, despite having university training as an urban planner.

However, other extremists abandoned successful careers to devote themselves to the cause. Abdul Subhan Qureshi, leader of the Students Islamic Movement of India, who is wanted in India for various attacks, including the ones on the Mumbai trains on 11 July 2006, left his wife, three children, and a thriving occupation. Qureshi joined Radical Solutions, a computer firm in South Mumbai, in November 1996. According to his coworkers, Qureshi was an exceptional worker: "He handled several major independent projects, including an intranet for Bharat Petro-Chemicals carried out by Wipro in 1999, and then joined Datamatics." In just three years, his salary quadrupled. In a letter dated 26 March 2001 he resigned, stating, "I wish to inform you, that I have decided to devote one complete year to pursue religious and spiritual matters." For other extremists their careers mattered less because they came from very privileged backgrounds: underpants bomber Abdulmutallab is the youngest of the sixteen children of Alhaji Umaru Mutallab, former chairman of First Bank of Nigeria and former Nigerian Federal Commissioner for Economic Development, and lived in a luxury apartment in Marylebone while studying for his engineering degree in London.

And yet, despite their deeply dissimilar employment histories, Shahzad, El-Hage, and Qureshi all have engineering degrees, just like Abdulmutallab and the others. Shahzad "enrolled at the University of Bridgeport, where he received a bachelor's degree in computer science and engineering in 2000, followed by a master's in business administration in 2005." El-Hage studied urban planning at the University of Southwestern Louisiana in the 1980s, interrupted by spells of jihadist training in Afghanistan. Qureshi for his part "obtained a diploma in industrial electronics [in 1995], and landed a part-time job at String Computers in Mazgaon. Later, in 1996, he went on to earn a specialised software maintenance qualification from the CMS Institute in Marol."

Socioeconomic background, age, country of origin or relocation, group of affiliation, employment and family situation — all these features vary among the men discussed thus far. The only feature they share is a degree in higher education, in particular a degree in engineering. This is doubly puzzling when set against commonsense expectations. While we readily accept that the dispossessed are natural candidates for extremism, we are at a loss to comprehend why well-off, educated men should join the ranks of jihad. And why would individuals with a technical mind and training in modern technology have a penchant for a movement at once violent, religious, and in many cases, as we will see in chapter 4, permeated by antiscientific beliefs?

At the Origins

Evidence of this link is not limited to recent cases. It spans three decades and three continents and appears in connection with notorious attacks. Mohamed Atta (Egyptian) and Khalid Sheik Mohammed (Kuwaiti), leading figures in the 9/11 plot, both studied technical subjects: one urban planning in Hamburg, the other mechanical engineering in the United States. In fact, of the twenty-five individuals directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, eight were engineers. Engineers are, moreover, found right at the beginning of modern Islamist militancy. In 1970s Egypt, three groups considered part of the beginning of modern jihadism had been started or were led by individuals who had a technical education. Al-Takfir wal-Hijra, which was involved in the assassination of a cabinet minister, was founded in 1969 by Shukri Mustafa, an agricultural engineer and former member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Shukri was radicalized during his incarceration in the Tura prison and Abu Zabal concentration camp in Egypt. The second group — known as the Military Academy Group for its violent occupation of the Egyptian Technical Military Academy in April 1974, from where it launched a failed attempt to march on the ruling party's headquarters — was founded in the 1970s by Salih Siriyya, a Palestinian with a doctorate in the teaching of science (Ibrahim 1980; Kepel 1985). Siriyya, too, had been imprisoned. Finally, an electrical engineer, Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, played a pivotal role in the group al-Jihad, which was responsible for the assassination of President Sadat in 1981 and became the most notorious successor to the earliest Egyptian groups (Nesser 2004; ICG 2004). Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian sociologist who was the first to study the early violent Islamists, interviewed thirty-four members of two of these groups, the Military Academy Group and Al-Takfir, who were imprisoned in the late 1970s. Twenty-nine of them were either university graduates or students, and of the twenty-five for whom he reports their area of study, nine were engineers, seven were doctors, five were agronomists, two were pharmacists, two were studying technical military science, and one was studying literature (Ibrahim 1980, 1982).

Engineers were also members of radical student groups in Egypt in the 1970s called Gama'at Islamiyya. Ayman al-Zawahiri, who later gained worldwide notoriety as bin Laden's partner and successor at the helm of Al-Qaida, was a member of one of them. Abdallah Schleifer, an American Jew who is now a professor of media studies at the American University in Cairo and converted to Islam in the 1960s, made Zawahiri's acquaintance in 1974 when working for NCB news in Cairo. When they first met, Zawahiri, then at medical school, gave Schleifer a tour of the campus: "during the tour, Zawahiri proudly pointed out students who were painting posters for political demonstrations, and he boasted that the Islamist movement had found its greatest recruiting success in the university's two most élite faculties — the medical and engineering schools. 'Aren't you impressed by that?' he said" (Wright 2002).

Indications of the link between radical Islamism and engineering are also found beyond the Middle East. We have already mentioned Abdul Subhan Qureshi, the Indian computer engineer. Two of the three men who in 1987 founded Lashkar-e-Taiba, a Sunni fundamentalist Pakistani group that fights against India's sovereignty over the State of Jammu and Kashmir, were professors at the University of Engineering and Technology of Lahore, albeit not engineers themselves. While appealing to madrasa students and the disenfranchised, Jemaah Islamiya in Southeast Asia also recruited "many technical faculty members, including architects, engineers, geophysicists, chemists, and robotics engineers" (Abuza 2006: 78). The three leading suspects in the September 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta had an engineering background. According to a Tunisian professor of the history of Islam, 60 percent of salafi-jihadists in his country are trained as engineers.

While the groups mentioned thus far are made up of Sunnis, the phenomenon extends to Shiite Islamists too: engineers were prominently represented in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's radical 2005 cabinet, and the former Iranian president himself trained as a civil engineer. While he is not a militant, his rhetoric as well as his biography reflect radical leanings: he was among the many engineering students at the University of Science and Technology in Teheran who played a very active role in the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite group, also has a strong link with engineers. Soon after it was founded in 1982, Hezbollah established Jihad alBinaa ("construction jihad"), an organizational branch devoted to the reconstruction of civil infrastructure and private housing. According to Hezbollah expert Judith Palmer Harik, "this is an interesting organization because it is chock-full of professionals — contractors, engineers, architects, demographic experts." Representatives for Jihad al-Binaa estimate that more than two thousand of their engineers and architects have been involved in the reconstruction of Lebanon since the war with Israel in August 2006, which, considering that the estimated total Shiite male labor force in Lebanon likely lies below three hundred thousand, is a large number indeed.

A Systematic Test

Several scholars have mentioned the link between radical Islam and science and engineering but more as an oddity than as anything that could help us understand the phenomenon. A few have speculated about what might explain it, but no one has attempted to find a systematic confirmation of the phenomenon. In fact, no one since Russell and Miller (1977) has published any research on the type of higher education extremists, whether Islamist or otherwise, receive. The few studies that document levels of education are limited and include only small or partial samples.

To discover whether the overrepresentation of graduates in general and engineers in particular can be confirmed by more than anecdotal evidence, we compiled a list of 497 members of violent Islamist groups in the Muslim world active since the 1970s. It includes almost exclusively men for the simple reason that they are the overwhelming majority of extremists. We drew from a variety of sources. We took lists of names included in academic literature, we asked colleagues, we combed through government documents, and we visited websites of radical organizations themselves. Then we conducted research on each person to gather additional biographical data in news archives in several languages, online sources, and further official documentation. We mainly sought data on each person's level and type of education but also gathered information on age, socioeconomic background, international mobility, function within groups, and other qualitative biographical information. We supplemented this data-gathering effort with a daily survey of major international and Middle Eastern newspapers from 2004 to early 2010 to record, verify, and research new names as they appeared.

The list of names includes individuals who grew up in countries that have either a Muslim majority or an indigenous Muslim minority, all of which are non-Western. The list does not include violent members of groups born or bred in a Western country, which we investigate in a separate sample in chapter 3. The median year of birth of the three hundred cases whose ages we could establish is 1968. This implies that the median year in which those who went to university started their courses is 1986–87, with a spread ranging from the mid-1950s to the late 1990s.

Our sample consists of members of groups that manifest an Islamist ideology of some kind and that employ violence in pursuit of their aims. In cases in which the involvement of a given individual was not certain, we erred on the side of caution. For instance, we did not include prisoners at Guantanamo with the exception of the few among them whose involvement in violent groups was confirmed by other sources.

Our list is not a random sample of the Muslim world's Islamist extremists, and it does not cover all areas with a presence of Islamist militancy. It leaves out or underrepresents groups in South Asia and North Africa, for instance. It also excludes larger insurgent groups like Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Shabab in Somalia, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, which operate in a different strategic context of less asymmetric conflict.

However, the sample spans three continents and three decades, allowing us to investigate how far the phenomenon reaches in both space and time. The list includes individuals from thirty-five nationalities from a dozen larger groups and almost twice as many smaller groups, which injects ideological and organizational variety. The sample includes locally oriented groups struggling against authoritarian regimes (such as Egyptian Takfir wal-Hijra) or foreign occupation (such as Hamas), as well as global jihadists pursuing a millenarian anti-Western struggle (such as Al-Qaida and its franchises). The list includes members of both small cells (such as the October 2004 Sinai bombers in Egypt) and larger clandestine networks (such Jemaah Islamiya in Southeast Asia). Many of these groups are well-known in the West, but others, such as the Indian Mujahedeen, are known mostly to specialists. Variation in geography, group strategy, and ideology are important because they allow us to put the link between extremism and higher education in general and engineering in particular through a stricter test — to see whether it holds independently of the groups' specific makeup or whether it is more common in some types of groups than in others.

Education Levels

Out of the 497 individuals in our sample, we found some biographical information for 436 and educational information for 335 (figure 1.1). Of these, only 28 had less than a secondary education and 76 had completed secondary education (including madrasas). Two hundred thirty-one had undertaken higher education, whether finished or unfinished, and of these at least 40 studied in Western countries.


Excerpted from "Engineers of Jihad"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Princeton University Press.
Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface vii

1. The Education of Islamist Extremists 1

At the Origins 3

A Systematic Test 6

The Saudi Exception 19

Selection Effects 21

Conclusions 32

2. Relative Deprivation in the Islamic World 34

Frustrated Ambitions and Relative Deprivation 34

Beyond Egypt 38

Are Engineers Especially Deprived? 42

The Saudi Exception Again 52

Conclusions, and Facts That Do Not Fit 54

3. Relative Deprivation Probed 60

Western-Based Jihadis 60

Violent vs. Nonviolent Opposition 72

Religious vs. Secular Militants 76

Die-hard Militants vs. Defectors 80

Conclusions 83

4. The Ideology of Islamist Extremism Compared 85

Historical Links 86

Shared Values 88

Shared Tastes and Beliefs 90

Radical Ideologies Compared 94

Conclusions 98

5. The Education of Other Extremists 100

Left-wing Extremists 101

Right-wing Extremists 106

Are the Dividing Lines Robust? 113

Extremists Compared: Islamists, Leftists, and Rightists 120

Conclusions and Summary So Far 125

6. Mind-sets for Extremists 128

Traits for Types of Extremists 129

The Three Traits among Graduates 134

Enter Women 141

One More Trait: “Simplism” 146

Traits and Disciplines 150

Conclusions 154

7. Conclusions 159

Bibliography 167

Index 185

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Engineers of Jihad should take a front-and-center position on the bookshelves of anyone trying to understand jihad in the context of radicalization—Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog have clearly made an invaluable contribution at a pivotal time in history."—Raphael Perl, executive director of the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defense Academies and Security Studies Institutes

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews

Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Violent jihadis are surprisingly often engineers. Do violent jihadis, right-wing extremists, and engineers share identifiable traits which are less common among left-wing extremists, women, and the general population? The idea sounds ridiculous but could have some validity. I became less skeptical as I read and as the data and analysis piled up. If you want a taste first, look on the Web for the authors' preliminary paper and its related controversy.