Does Engineering Education Breed Terrorists?
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
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?
If there’s anything to this I’m sitting next to a huge breeding ground – Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.