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Engineers of Jihad. The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education
New research sheds light on why some seemingly well-functioning engineers end up as radical Islamists.


The name Muhammad Atta is burned into the memory of many people in the Western world: He was one of the 25 men who, either aboard the four hijacked aircraft or back on land, was behind the attack at the World Trade Center 11, among others. September 2001. The perpetrators all had backgrounds in the Middle East, and as many as eight of them were engineers, or had a closely related subject in their pack. Atta was an architect herself and studied urban planning at the Technical University of Hamburg.

There is an apparent logic to the matter: Engineers, after all, have the professional background to tinkle with bombs, and learning to steer a passenger plane into a high-rise is probably a relatively simple matter if you already have a technical education. But the truth is another – the participation of engineers is not just about 11. September. This was noticed by the two researchers Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, which led them to investigate the matter further.

Saudi Arabia has always provided work for its newly graduated engineers – therefore the radicalization of the country does not take place in their strata of society, but in the underclass.

Prestigetab. The research duo has accumulated a comprehensive register of radicalized Islamists who have recently been involved in violent acts of one kind or another, and it is immediately noticeable that the said occupation appears six times as frequent as their natural proportion of the population they come. from shoulder to face. The explanation – and more – can be found in Gambetta and Hertogs Engineers of Jihad, which has just been published at Princeton University Press. Initially, the book is a bit of a draw, with lots of graphs, statistics and cross-references – but then the text unfolds and becomes an ongoing tale that is more reminiscent of a better suspense novel than of traditional case prose.

It all starts in Egypt – in particular, the officers' coup in 1952 – with Gamal Abdel Nasser, who became the country's leader four years later. Nasser aimed for a radical modernization of the country, which included, among other things, a large number of major infrastructure projects, including the Great Aswan Dam built in the 1960s. To that end, the Egyptians trained engineers on assembly lines, and quite quickly it became associated with great prestige to have this title on the business card. As Nasser even introduced a state job guarantee for anyone with a college education, many Egyptians saw an academic degree as a social springboard.

But then the problems arose: In 1973, the oil crisis hit and Egypt's economy experienced a dramatic downturn. Many engineers returned from the Gulf states where the oil industry no longer needed them. The result for these people was the loss of prestige and earnings, and the means to stay married were no longer available. For many, therefore, it was a natural thing to look for the Islamist movements that could impart a different kind of prestige and goals to life.

Atta was an architect herself and studied urban planning.

Unemployment. The defeat was quite concrete on a personal level, but in cases like this, psychology also speaks of a kind of collective disappointment – a frustration on behalf of the subject, if you will, which is very difficult to face once it has settled down. Later years of Egyptian engineering students chose to seek happiness abroad, and here we meet Muhammad Atta from September 11. The book lists volumes of cases, but Atta will stand as an archetype. Coming from a small town on the Nile Delta, he saw engineering education as the golden opportunity to save himself a better life. On top of that, he sought education in Europe; thus, he belongs to a group that, according to the authors, is even more ambitious in their efforts and therefore experiences the disappointment as even deeper. It was not Atta's intention to stay in Europe, but back to his homeland he saw that only those with the right family connections came first in the job queue. There was no room for him – and thus his path was paved.

On the whole, the 25 men behind the September 11 attack draw an interesting and highly representative profile. As mentioned, eight of them were engineers. Fifteen were Saudi Arabians, while the rest had other Middle Eastern nationalities. But only one Saudi Arabian was an engineer! This is explained by the fact that Saudi Arabia has never had trouble finding work for its newly qualified engineers, and therefore the radicalization of the country does not take place in the social middle classes, but among the poorest of society from a young age is seeking Islamic education.

Engineers act six times as frequently in terrorist attacks as their natural proportion of the populations they come from.

The teaching profession. It is not the first time research has looked at engineers' special role in Islamist terrorist actions – but here we get the big picture, that is, of the entire Muslim world together, as well as well-documented explanations why engineers in other cultures do not exhibit the same radical behavior. In addition, the book puts the whole issue of prestige and disappointment in a historical perspective. From earlier in the 20th century we hear about Hassan el Banna and Sayyid Qutb, early key figures in the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas founder Ahmed Yassin. They were all school teachers – a prestige position in their time, which usually provided a social boost. But the three experienced the same disappointment as the later engineers when placed in obscure schools in the world's corners, for a salary that did not meet expectations. Their bitterness was felt, and they sought Islamism on exactly the same terms as the radicalized engineers some decades later.

Gambetta and Duke offer only a partial explanation – the whole phenomenon is large and nuanced, and human destinies are as different as human beings are now – but their research has provided a really good explanation of an obvious question. So the obvious cause of the engineering phenomenon is found in Egypt. And the theory is further substantiated with a look at the earlier generations of Islamic radicalists – the aforementioned school teachers. The engineers and teachers, in many cases, experienced the same frustration of ending in miserable positions – which the authors see as a key driver of Islamism by a large number of its leaders and theorists.

Hans Henrik Fafner
Hans Henrik Fafner
Fafner is a regular critic in Ny Tid. Residing in Tel Aviv.

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