The Chronicle Review

Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists?

March 23, 2016

Chronicle photo illustration by Julia Schmalz

In May 2010, Faisal Shahzad hoped to kill dozens of pedestrians when he parked his Nissan Pathfinder near Times Square, loaded with improvised bombs. Four months earlier, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to bring down a trans-Atlantic flight carrying 289 passengers by igniting explosives sewn into his underwear. Last year, Mohammad Youssef Abdulazeez opened fire on two military facilities in Tennessee, killing five soldiers.

Like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Azahari Husin, and Mohamed Atta, these men sought to commit acts of terror in the name of Islam.

But all six also shared something else. They had studied engineering.

Researchers have long noticed that an oddly large number of jihadists have engineering backgrounds. Recently two social scientists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, scrutinized the numbers and concluded that, yes, the proportion of terrorists who are engineers far outpaces expectations. Why is that? The researchers, who have pursued this question for the past several years, offer answers in a new book, Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection Between Violent Extremism and Education (Princeton University Press). In the process, they join two current debates: about the seeds of terrorism and about the blind spots that can afflict engineering education.

These debates coincide with the ascendance of engineering in the public eye. Graduates rank among the highest-paid right after college, and the discipline is praised as central to the nation’s military stature and economic competitiveness. Meanwhile, the study of terrorism, which is still a young field, is grappling with fundamental questions about root causes.

Central to the debates are questions of causality: Do engineering programs select a certain kind of person, one who arrives on campus already predisposed toward acts of terror? Does something in these programs worsen some students' tendency toward extremism? Or is the relationship between terrorism and engineering simply an intriguing correlation with no deeper meaning?

Gambetta and Hertog's research grew out of a class assignment. When Gambetta was a professor of social theory at the University of Oxford, he often asked his students to empirically investigate some seemingly random bit of trivia. Why, for instance, do science students live longer than art students? Why are people discharged from the hospital on a Friday at higher risk of dying or of needing to return to the hospital? Why have fertility rates collapsed in formerly Communist countries in Eastern Europe?

One group explored the prevalence of engineers among Islamists. Hertog, then a doctoral student at Oxford, was intrigued. At a chance dinner one night, he and Gambetta agreed to explore the puzzle more fully. They began with a data set of nearly 500 Islamist extremists, almost all of them men, whose use of violence to achieve their goals dated back to the 1970s. The researchers narrowed their list to 207 people who pursued higher education and whose majors could be determined. A pattern emerged: 93 of them, nearly 45 percent, had studied engineering. This frequency far exceeded what would be predicted statistically; among male college students from the 19 countries represented in the sample, fewer than 12 percent studied engineering.

The researchers found that the overrepresentation of engineers held true in other contexts. Of the 40 jihadists who studied at universities abroad, 27 were engineers. In another data set, comprising 71 extremists who were born or grew up in Western countries, 32 were engineers.

Francois Lenoir, Reuters
Explosions on Tuesday killed dozens of people in Brussels. ISIS claimed credit.
 The relationship extended beyond Islamist movements to other extremist groups. Violent neo-Nazis and neo-Stalinists in Russia and neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups in the United States also showed disproportionate numbers of engineers.

Not surprisingly, earlier releases of the research sparked objections from many engineering professors. Several "were absolutely irate about those idiots from the soft sciences who don’t understand anything," says Hertog, now an associate professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Others saw the papers as an attempt to smear the profession.

His and Gambetta’s intentions aside, many engineers question the book’s conclusions. "I find it hard to swallow," says Michael K.J. Milligan, executive director of ABET, an accrediting agency for engineering programs. People become terrorists for a wide variety of reasons, he says. Other engineers told the authors it wasn’t surprising that the members of their profession were so highly represented, given their problem-solving abilities and technical skills. Many jihadi groups are very selective about who joins their causes, and engineers would seem to make valuable recruits.

But Gambetta and Hertog puncture that explanation. Most of the engineers weren’t recruited into extremist movements; they joined on their own. The vast majority of the engineers involved in 228 plots acted as group founders or leaders; just 15 percent of them made the bombs.

Several scholars of terrorism have lauded Gambetta and Hertog for bringing nuance to what’s known about terrorism’s causes. A few years ago, conventional wisdom attributed terrorism to poverty and ignorance, but little evidence supports that notion, says Jessica Stern, a research professor at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies. The new book, she says, amplifies the findings of "Great Expectations and Hard Times," a 2014 paper by Sarah Brockhoff that argued that education often helps reduce terrorism in nations with sound institutions and dynamic economies, but that when the opposite conditions apply, education may fuel violent extremism. Both works disentangle the ways that education can either halt or hasten a descent into terrorism, depending on the context. They "really help us refine our understanding of what the risk factors are," Stern says.

Some experts have quibbles. It’s possible that Gambetta and Hertog oversampled a certain type of terrorist, the kind whose ambitions were grand enough to result in the attention of Western governments, says Jacob N. Shapiro, an associate professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, who still praised the work overall as "wonderful."

It is hard to dismiss the evidence that the authors have meticulously amassed in reaching their conclusion: that "no other major subject seems to behave the way engineering does."

The question then becomes: Why? What makes engineering unique?

Gambetta and Hertog’s first explanation is sociological. When people’s hopes for individual and social advancement are raised and then dashed, a dynamic called relative deprivation can occur. People who experience relative deprivation don’t need to be objectively disadvantaged; they must simply feel they’ve been denied their due.

The theory makes intuitive sense for engineers in developing countries, where the programs’ graduates enjoy high social status. Instead of finding lucrative careers, however, they often encounter limited job prospects in sclerotic economies. The gap between expectations and opportunities can come to feel galling, perhaps even humiliating. Hell hath no fury like a frustrated elite.

The authors cite the exception of Saudi Arabia. There, engineers have high expectations for success, and the kingdom’s economy can absorb them into its labor market. It’s true that Saudis often loom large in terrorist plots: 15 Saudis were among the 25 jihadists whom Gambetta and Hertog describe as being involved in the attacks of September 11, 2001. But just one was an engineer. The book also counts in its sample 12 Saudis with higher education. Just two of them studied engineering.

But relative deprivation also isn’t the whole story. Medical students, for instance, graduate with prestigious degrees only to find a straitened reality waiting for them. They, too, were overrepresented in extremist movements relative to predicted levels, but at a rate far lower than for engineers. And stifled ambitions aren’t always involved, either. Scions of prosperous families have joined Islamist movements. And countries with relatively robust economies, like Malaysia, India, and Indonesia, had greater than expected numbers of engineers who became jihadists. Something else has to be at work.

Gambetta and Hertog turned to another discipline: psychology.

They focused on three traits. One is the need for cognitive closure, or a preference for order and distaste for ambiguity. Scholars like John T. Jost, Arie W. Kruglanski, and Jonathan Haidt have documented high levels of this trait among politically conservative voters. These groups, Gambetta and Hertog write, also have two other tendencies: They accept prevailing hierarchies and, when confronted with the unfamiliar, they experience high levels of disgust.

The authors observe that these traits are also central to radical Islamist ideology. Did engineers have them, too?

Gambetta and Hertog chose proxy measures for these traits among Western European, male college graduates polled by the European Social Survey. The need for closure and embrace of hierarchy, for example, were correlated with survey questions that elicited opinions on social norms, immigrants, income inequality, and the likeliness of a terrorist attack. Disgust was indexed to how likely respondents were to disagree that "gays are free to live as they wish."

Economics graduates often topped the list, the authors found, but engineering students most consistently scored higher across all of the measures.

By way of contrast, Gambetta and Hertog also explored which traits and disciplines applied to the opposite end of the political spectrum. Disgust seldom cropped up among those on the political left. And groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang, in 1970s Germany, and Italy’s Red Brigades included few engineers but attracted plenty of social-science and humanities majors.

Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland at College Park, has studied how the need for closure can figure into violent extremism. The term he uses is "certainty-seeking." In basic human terms, he says, people often seek certainty to help them regain a sense of significance, the feeling that they matter. Shame and humiliation can undermine this sense of significance. For example, Abdulazeez, the military-facility shooter in Tennessee, who had earned an electrical-engineering degree, couldn’t bring himself to tell his family that he had lost his job at a nuclear-power company. "The failure left him deeply embarrassed and ashamed," the Chattanooga Times Free Press reported, quoting a family member.

People in these situations face a choice. They can reframe their thinking and embrace, or at least tolerate, the feeling of uncertainty until they regain a sense of balance. Or they can double down, looking for closure, certainty, and reassurance from the like-minded. When engineers make the latter choice, another dynamic comes into play, says Kruglanski. Engineers are particularly likely to act on their beliefs. "It’s a perfect storm," he says.

Stern, the Boston University professor, observed a similar underlying cognitive trait in the religious extremists she interviewed for her book Terror in the Name of God. Many of them were serene in their certainty. They rarely second-guessed themselves or obsessed over gradations of gray.

"They just seemed to have an easier time," Stern says. "I felt almost envious."

She understands how simplicity can be seductive. Stern recalls the solace she sometimes found in several courses she took for her master’s degree in chemical engineering and technical policy. "Having equations that balanced was very comforting," she says. Life, on the other hand, can be messy. Many times the choice is not between right and wrong, Stern says, but "between bad and worse."

Perhaps, then, the reason engineers turn up so frequently among jihadists is not because of their nationality or religion but because of how they think. Would it be going too far to say that?

"It’s not going too far," says Martha Crenshaw, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, at Stanford University, who is widely acknowledged as the mother of terrorism studies. But the difference in cognitive traits is one among many causes. "It’s a mind-set," she says, "but it’s not just a mind-set."

While it’s understandable for scholars to try to find a common thread that connects terrorists, she says, one simply may not exist. "Everybody is not completely sui generis," says Crenshaw, "but they don’t have a lot in common."

The body of research on the psychology of terrorism remains too thin to draw many broad conclusions, says Jeffrey I. Victoroff, a clinical associate professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, who studies terrorism.

The need for closure, he says, is an example of systematic thinking, or a preference for conducting analysis without the distraction of emotions. In some cases, systematic thinking is accompanied by traits like self-aggrandizement and low levels of empathy. But that cluster of characteristics isn’t necessarily dangerous, he says. Maybe one person in five has them, he guesses. These people might seek rule-bound jobs, like engineering or computer science. They probably wouldn’t blow themselves up.

To Victoroff, mind-sets aren’t the real issue in terrorism. The cause is something more like the clash of civilizations described in the 1990s by Samuel P. Huntington. It’s a conflict, Victoroff says, between Christians and Muslims, or Sunnis and Shias. Still, he praises Gambetta and Hertog for skillfully laying out the statistical differences in the expected and observed representation of engineers among jihadists. "That’s really good work, and they deserve credit for that observation," he says. "It is thrilling and intriguing as a theoretical issue."

Will it make any difference in the fight against violent extremism? Probably not. "You’d have to pre-empt the inclusion of, say, the one billion men in society who have this trait," Victoroff says. And, he adds, no therapy can cure it.

The sample of engineers whom Gambetta and Hertog describe represents a tiny fringe, and the two researchers are wary that their work might be misconstrued. They would hate for security officials to start profiling engineers. And they wouldn’t presume to make curricular recommendations to the discipline’s educators.

The chief reason so many violent extremists are engineers, the authors think, is that these programs appeal to a certain kind of mind. "It seems they’re selected rather than being shaped," Hertog says. A college education can’t completely reframe how people think, he notes. "What you can do is influence the social environment that allows some problematic tendencies to emerge."

But some engineering educators aren’t ready to let their discipline off the hook. Donna M. Riley, a professor in the department of engineering education at Virginia Tech, thinks that traditional programs not only attract certain kinds of minds but also reinforce positivist patterns of thinking. General-education courses are intended to broaden students’ perspectives, but those requirements are increasingly being narrowed. And she worries that the less exposure that nascent engineers have to the humanities and social sciences, the less they will be able to appreciate other people’s perspectives. As it is, she says, "engineers spend almost all their time with the same set of epistemological rules."

Gambetta and Hertog describe how traditional engineering programs might inadvertently spur the kind of loss of significance that Kruglanski describes. "Engineering curricula anywhere are a giant showcase of Western technological achievements," they write. In developing countries, such triumphalism carries an edge of humiliation: "They throw the economic backwardness of local societies into sharp relief."

Engineering curricula in the United States may unintentionally close minds, too, according to a 2014 study by Erin A. Cech, an assistant professor of sociology at Rice University. Cech, who earned undergraduate degrees in electrical engineering and sociology, analyzed survey responses by 326 students in four engineering programs. Between their freshman year and graduation, their self-reported answers showed drops in measures of public-mindedness, including a commitment to professional and ethical responsibilities and a social consciousness.

The discipline’s culture and curricula emphasize "an ideology of depoliticization," she argues, which treats nontechnical factors as irrelevant to the work of "real" engineering. The notion of meritocracy also runs through the discipline, she writes, but this ideal tends to accept existing social structures and relationships as inherently fair. "Engineering education," Cech writes, "fosters a culture of disengagement that defines public welfare concerns as tangential to what it means to practice engineering."

Many engineering educators find that argument dubious.

Norman L. Fortenberry, executive director of the American Society for Engineering Education, sees engineering curricula as emphasizing human needs, contexts, and interactions. Many introductory and capstone courses are project-based and inherently complicated and open-ended, he says. Far from fostering rigid thinking, they build tolerance for ambiguity.

Engineering programs also emphasize communication and teamwork skills. "We want engineers to understand what motivates humans, because that’s how you satisfy human needs," says Fortenberry. "You have to understand people as people."

Authentic engineering, he says, is not a march to a single correct answer but a quest to find a satisfactory solution amid competing priorities and constraints, including social ones. Understanding the social forces that shape these priorities is crucial, he says, to becoming a successful engineer. The task is essentially sociological, he argues, with an acknowledgment: "To be fair, we don’t teach sociology."

That’s part of the problem, says Riley, who thinks her field is about to make the problem worse. Accreditation standards are being revised, which she argues will further dilute general-education requirements.

The proposed standards prescribe set amounts of time for studying science and mathematics (at least a year), and for engineering (a year and a half). General-education courses, too, have traditionally been included in this list of requirements, but only insofar as "adequate time and attention" can be devoted to them. The proposed standards remove those words altogether.

Supporters of the suggested changes say they reflect a broader commitment among educators to defining outcomes that students can achieve and that programs can measure. General-education and ethics courses don’t lend themselves as easily to that kind of evaluation. Besides, supporters of the recommendations write, the problems of tomorrow will require engineers to innovate in multidisciplinary teams. And that calls for more-flexible standards with fewer prescriptions.

Being flexible can cut in many ways. Sometimes it means entertaining uncomfortable notions of the kind raised in Gambetta and Hertog’s book, says Karl A. Smith, a professor of engineering education at Purdue University. To ask whether engineering education contributes to a vexing problem is, for many people in the field, to court anxiety. But it's worth asking, he says, even if "the answer could be embarrassing to us."

Dan Berrett is a senior reporter for The Chronicle.