Why Are So Many Would-be Terrorists Engineers?

Engineers are characterized by a greater intolerance of uncertainty, a quality evident among extremists.

Emmanuel Sivan
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Emmanuel Sivan

What links the following people: the Nigerian who wanted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 to Detroit on Christmas Day; the two Palestinians arrested at Be'er Sheva's Central Bus Station and who are suspected of reconnoitering for a mass terror attack; Mohammed Abd al-Salam Faraj, leader of the killers of Anwar Sadat; Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, planner of the attack on the Twin Towers; Mohamed Atta, who commanded the attack; and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Answer: all are engineers or students of engineering and applied science. There are other examples, such as in the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan, and in the Hamas leadership. We're talking about real engineers or students of the science, not the terrorist bomb makers often described as "engineers".

I am among those who attribute this phenomenon first and foremost to what is described as engineering thinking or an engineering mindset. The concept includes an assumption, which has been raised in psychological research, that engineering as a field of study and a profession tends to attract people who seek certainty, and their approach to the world is largely mechanistic. So they are characterized by a greater intolerance of uncertainty - a quality that is evident among extremists, both religious and secular.

Those with engineering mindsets are also characterized by an approach that requires society to operate "like clockwork" and abhors democratic politics, which requires compromises. It's clear that this is a cumulative tendency and not a stereotypical generalization.

I raised a similar thesis years ago at a Technion conference, where the presidents of similar institutions from around the world were invited to discuss "The image of the engineer in the 21st Century." A lively debate took place between supporters and opponents of the thesis. According to the organizer of the conference, the late physics Prof. Paul Singer, the number of those in favor and those opposed was about equal. If this is the case, it's possible to offer additional explanations, completing or overlapping this thesis.

First, cognitive dissonance, in other words, high expectations that end in bitter disappointment. In the Arab world the standards for being accepted into engineering programs are very high and the studies are demanding. On the other hand, work in the enormous public sector is routine, wages are low, subjection to hierarchy is humiliating and the position's social status is moderate - unless they are willing to go abroad to the United Arab Emirates, (which is how it is seen) from Cairo, Amman and Damascus. There wages are good, but amid social isolation and cultural desolation.

Today, employment in the Gulf is less available than even in the 1970s. In-depth interviews and focus groups have shown that Muslim engineers tend to interpret this situation as an expression of fundamental injustice that characterizes their societies, and from that the distance is short to viewing the radical Islamist solution as representative of the egalitarian ideal.

Second, it can be assumed that in technological fields, a young Muslim faces Western superiority (including the superiority of Japan, China and South Korea). How can this inferiority be explained in the Muslim world, which in the past was at the cutting edge of scientific progress? That Islam is in decline. Whoever aims to stop this decline and opposes blind imitation of the West to preserve his cultural uniqueness will find many people sharing the same outlook among the radical Islamist groups.

On the other hand, a young Muslim who studies humanities and social sciences will encounter critics of Western culture from within. Some observers have noted that Western culture is becoming impoverished, others have identified structural failures in the West and foresaw crisis and/or revolution: Karl Marx to Antonio Negri, Frantz Fanon to Joseph Stiglitz, Mikhail Bakunin to Naomi Klein. A young Muslim can join an anti-globalization movement without any relation to fundamentalist Islam and sense that he is fighting for a more just world; he can sense that through him flow major historical trends.

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