Against The Grain: Why do men engineer a way into terrorism?

Diego Gambetta, Professor of Sociology at the University of Oxford, explains why engineers are more likely to become terrorists.
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The Independent Online

Engineers are almost absent among violent left-wing groups but since the 1970s they have been over-represented among violent Islamist groups. This is one of the few things we know about violent Islamists, apart from their being all men and aged 18 to 40

This could be a historical coincidence, with one or two engineers forming groups and recruiting via their professional or educational networks. But engineers are over-represented across countries and groups in the Middle East, South Asia, South East Asia, and in the West, which rules that out.

So why is this? Everyone's first reaction is that they are recruited for their technical proficiency, but there's no evidence for this. Recruiters say they look for a personality profile rather than technical skills.

So we are left with two ideas: that certain social conditions affect engineers more than other graduates; and that certain unobservable traits attracting people more to radical Islamism are a little more frequent among engineers. My co-author Steffen Hertog and I think it's a combination of these two things.

With engineers in the Middle East we have intelligent students who found it difficult to find professional satisfaction in their ambition to help their countries develop, so they have endured relatively greater frustration than other graduates. The fact that you see no over-representation in Saudi Arabia where they have greater professional opportunities supports this view. But other graduates are equally represented among non-violent groups and even in Western countries and South East Asia, where labour market opportunities are better, engineers are more attracted to violence. Why?

Something else is going on, and it might have something to do with personality traits. In the USA, engineers are seven times more likely to be right wing and religious, and in the 16 other countries we looked at it seems there are not more right wing and religious engineers individually. But when engineers have either of these traits, right wing or religious, they are more likely to have the other trait, too.

Piecemeal evidence suggests that traits such as a greater lack of tolerance of ambiguity, a belief that society can be made to work like a clock, and a dislike of democratic politics, are more frequent among engineers. The probability of a Muslim engineer becoming a violent Islamist remains minuscule but it's still between two to four times greater than among other graduates.

Engineers of Jihad by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog is available online at: