A terrorist
Researchers have identified that a surprisingly large number of engineers make up the ranks of several terrorist organisations in the Muslim world iStock

Researchers from the European University Institute in Italy have found that a surprisingly large number of Islamic terrorists have engineering degrees – in fact, more than twice as many members of these terrorist groups have engineering degrees rather than degrees in Islamic Studies.

Renowned sociologist Diego Gambetta and associate professor Steffen Hertog have painstakingly gathered together data about the backgrounds of individuals belonging to a range of different terrorist groups in the Muslim world, and their research has revealed an interesting pattern.

Their findings are to be published in a new book entitled Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education that will be published in March 2016. The book builds on their previous paper Why are there so many Engineers among Islamic Radicals? that was published in the European Journal of Sociology in November 2009.

The researchers found that whether the Islamic terrorists had grown up in the West or in the Middle East, among those who had degrees, almost half had engineering degrees, but in non-violent Islamic groups, the reverse was true – there were far more people who had degrees in subjects unrelated to engineering.

In fact, their findings showed that engineers in Muslim countries such as Turkey and Iran were more likely to become terrorists than engineers in Saudi Arabia, because it is possible to find good employment in Saudi Arabia, but the job prospects in other Middle Eastern and North African countries are poor. The same could also be said for terrorists who had been part of a migrant population growing up in the West.

The researchers found that in countries were career prospects and lifestyle quality is adversely affected, engineers faced with overwhelming frustrations due to being unable to realise their ambitions for good and socially valued jobs were more likely to become terrorists.

Religious + societal frustrations = terrorist?

But it's not just about the money and career prospects – the researchers found that the mindsets of engineers in the affected countries were different from the mindsets of engineers in other countries.

In non-Islamic terrorism organisations in other countries, people with humanities degrees were more likely to become left-wing terrorists, but survey data from engineering faculties at universities around the world has showed that engineers tend to be more conservative and far more likely to be religious than people in other degrees.

You might think that engineers would be in high demand with a terrorist organisation as they can build things that blow up and devise daring plans, but Gambetta and Hertog say that this is not the case – at least in the terrorist group Hamas, engineers hold mostly administrative posts.

By combining this mindset with the social and economic pressures affecting engineers in Muslim countries where standard of living is not as good, the researchers propose that this is the reason why there are so many engineers in terror organisations, and that although this pattern is seen in the Muslim world, it could easily be replicated in other countries under similar circumstances.