Engineers Among the Terrorists

A study by sociologists Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog reveals that engineers are “three times more likely to become violent terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine, or the sciences,” as reported in Slate. So why the career change? Among the sociologists’ hypotheses: Lack of jobs for engineers in Arab countries and “a particular mind-set among engineers that disdains ambiguity and compromise.” [%comments]


Any hat tip to the expertise required to pull off the plots? Thinking of a finance major or even worse, a journalism major working with high explosives, disease agents or corrosive chemicals is enough to give an engineer the heebie-jeebies. The finance major would be looking for the ROI on the explosion, the journalism major would be looking for the conflict - should the explosive explode or not. The engineer simply is looking to make something go boom.


The causation is the other way around. It's not that Engineers become Terrorists; it's that Terrorists become Engineers.

If you want to be a terrorist, what else are you supposed to study? Medicine? Not helpful. English Lit? Anthropology?


Given that engineering is largely the study of compromises and trade-offs in the design and functioning of systems, it seems imprecise to assert that there is "a particular mind-set among engineers that disdains ambiguity and compromise." I would concede the former much more easily than the latter. Perhaps more to the other point, this study may invert cause and effect with the statement that engineers are "more likely to become violent terrorists." Isn't it at least equally plausible that individuals who wanted to blow things up would seek to learn how by studying engineering -- particularly where, as here very, very few people become violent terrorists?

G Pendergast

Engineers solve p[roblems. Since there training is in technical areas they tend to solve them techinically- I>E with bangs and booms.

Be glad they have no economist terrosits for we would have booms and busts.

Eric M. Jones

The Japanese recruited many college students to become Kamikaze pilots. But the engineering, science and math students were told to stay in presumes--"or else!"

One constant of engineering and science is that they are usually devoid of women. So the only way to score may be by becoming a martyr.

Who said life is fair?

David L

In the U.S., too, and in other industrialized countries, engineers are more likely to end up in the military than doctors or financial professionals. Their skills are valued, so they are more heavily recruited. Simple enough...


Most comments above pinned it down really well.


hello?- engineers are nerds- and nerds are anti-social QED- sheesh, i should start charging for elementary truisms

Kevin H

I'll take a stab, but as befits a internet comment, this is off-the-cuff.

Finance some pretty rediculous mental gymnastics to be compatible with Islam. You basically have to believe in form over substance in a field that teaches you substance over form. I'd say generally it's only people who aren't as fundamentalist in their religious beliefs that can do this.

Medicine, you take an oath to do no harm. This provides a huge mental stumbiling block. You have to basically, not believe in the oath, yet take the oath, while at the same time believe absolutly in a religious which values honesty and honor. Also, you are constantly confronted with the similarities of all people rather than the differences, which probably makes it harder to separate people into 'us and them'.

In the sciences, you are taught to to examine and make decisions based on empirical evidence, which runs directly head to head with fundamentalism which is based on pure, blind faith.

Engineers is a sort of catch all phrase for smart people who want to work with technology. The training is more skill based than outlook on life based, and the profession seems to put less restrictions on your values to me, because it is easier to separate out 'the job' of engineering from the rest of your life.

Certainly, these are rules full of exceptions. There are molecular biologists who don't believe in evolution, and plenty of engineers who base their decisions on fact rather than faith. I'm not sure which stat would back this up, maybe % who fast for all of Ramadan in these groups? I just don't know what behaviors have enough variance in Muslims to get a good correlation.



As my engineer father often says, "Engineering isn't a profession, it's a personality disorder."

Engineers want things to work in a specific manner. They have a low tolerance for factors that they cannot control (which include people, governments, and ideologies). Dogmatism is an easy step.

I doubt that terrorists are drawn to engineering (chemistry, physics, and infectious disease have similar terrorist utility).

I do think it's reasonable to say that many engineers feel underappreciated and intellectually superior to the general public.


Another coorelation vs. causation mistake.


I read the referenced article and disagree with their assertion that engineers "disdain ambiguity and compromise." On the contrary. The engineering mindset is more like "given that we as a people are determined to create this bridge/building/road/dam, and recognizing the gaps in our knowledge about use, conditions, materials, etc., can we reach a consensus about what will work?" The engineer's job is defined by ambiguity, but we are expected to produce a workable result.

Once a group establishes that something must be done, be it creation of a factory or mass murder of innocents, the engineer is able to reach compromise on a solution with an acceptable likelihood of success.


Just so I understand your logic. What has done more damage to the world economy, Financial Derivatives and the subsequent implosion, or car and plane bombs. You just think the terrorists are studying engineering and not finance.


All I became when I got laid off from my engineering job was a lazy bum. Guess next time I need more motivation...


I am an engineer and I fully agree with adrienne in that things that don't match my mindset annoy me. I think most engineers, myself included, have a hard time seeing other points of view and can only rationalize their own view. I know with me, things are very clear in my head and if you don't agree with me I get frustrated because "it makes complete sense" This is a lot like a religious zealot.

What I don't understand but saw daily throughout college is the religious fervor of engineers (Christian in my case). I am not religious at all and talking religion to me can get me fired up because I just can't understand how such an analytical thinker can base their life on faith and not hard evidence. Again I struggle to see the other side.

I think engineers and terrorists are stubborn in their set ways. It is nearly impossible to change our minds once they are set. Maybe that mindset is another draw to engineering for religious fanatics.


Nick Partridge

My admittedly limited data on the pants bomber suggests he is the misfit child of a rich family who went overseas for education and fell in with the wrong crowd. I imagine he went into engineering because he could not get in to medicine. Interestingly he has recently been studying "biznis" does this let engineering off the hook?

The other year in the UK there were medical doctors trying to bomb Glasgow airport so score something for the non-engineers.

I can imagine that drifting into terror is not an engineering thing but a dissafected youth thing and rich parents send such kids for education in the hope they will "straighten up".


I agree that it's probably the other way around: that terrorists are more likely to become engineers. If you want to be able to build a working fuse for your explosive material, you become an engineer, not a pure mathematician or a physicist. If you want to build a bridge, you become an engineer, not a doctor or an (ahem!) economist. Same goes if you want to blow up said bridge. Terrorists surely value application more than theory, and engineering is a promising field in that regard.

I say all of this as an engineer. I can be stubborn and sometimes have difficulty seeing things in certain ways, but I don't think this is unique to engineering.

Perhaps it's the know-how that makes the difference. An engineer can program a microcontroller or build a radio (these are the benign examples; the malevolent ones are just as easy to imagine and often easier to put into effect (just look at defense spending)). If a fundamentalist and complacent engineer wants to send a violent message, he/she is simply more able to do so than, say, a fundamentalist and complacent anthropologist.


Sunny Kalsi

Since we're all coming up with wild theories I should probably relate mine: Anyone can actually get an engineering degree. All you need is some cash and you study a little and voila, you're an Engineer by name.

Engineering is hard, needed, and doesn't pay so well. This means that the engineering intake is generally very large and it's... err.. very, very difficult. You need to match the mathematics of the scientists with solving business problems like finance guys alongside practical problems which the science guys never deal with ("scientists make it work once, engineers make it work every single time").

As you go through you can see the successes and the failures. The successes cope and thrive, they can handle the various difficult tasks and get better with time. The failures just study very hard and pass, and you can tell because if you ever put a real problem in front of them they won't be able to solve it. In reality the universities or colleges should fail the lot of these guys, but then you'd get a very small percentage of the intake actually graduating, and I think these institutions give these guys a pass because otherwise their teaching would be called into question.

There are other practical issues like you can mark someone on an exam, but how do you mark someone on a project or lab without knowing they were cheating? For this reason lab marks make up the minority of the engineering course marks, and the exam the majority.

It's usually fine to pass an underqualified Engineer, because they can always get a job *managing* other engineers, or some related "off to the side of engineering" job. Because they can still talk the engineer lingo, the "failures" still do very well. Also, because they've been through the trial-by-fire of being an engineer, they can do something like an MBA and, just feel like Moh in the Simpsons: "Ooh! Okay the face! Oh that actually feels good after the crotch!". All the challenges of other degrees just don't seem that hard.

Note here that I don't mean that other degrees aren't as difficult, just that they're elective enough that Engineers usually don't have to cope with the difficult parts of other fields. The crappy engineers act as "bridges" between the fields.

Onto Religion: AFAICT religious people get through challenges by sheer force of will. When it comes to following things to the letter, they're kings. When it comes to using that knowledge to create new knowledge or to solve problems they're a fail, but they can pass the exam par excellence. They still won't come out with excellent marks because enough Engineering degrees still have a practical component that they always screw up, but it's certainly enough to pass, and you can often cheat on the practical stuff anyway.

So, in conclusion, religious guy decides to become an Engineer, because his parents think it's a respectable career. Realises he's too dogmatic to actually solve problems, but memorises stuff and passes anyway. Can't get a job, and gets frustrated and angry.



It does not need much empathy to become a good engineer... I suppose to much empathy prevents a successful carrier in terrorism...This could be an explanation.


Who does the following best? Objective=plan=execution.

How many of the others are needed to screw in the timer and electrodes?