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  • Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog
  • Brian J. Phillips (bio)
Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education, by Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016. 208 pages. $29.95.

Who are the terrorists? What can their educational background tell us about why they might engage in such violence? And to what extent are Islamist militants comparable to left-wing or right-wing terrorists? In Engineers of Jihad, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog seek to address these questions, among others, and in doing so help us understand the roots of certain types of political violence. The result is a thought-provoking and rich book that is highly recommendable to scholars of terrorism, development in the Muslim world, political psychology, and related topics.

A noteworthy observation motivates this research: engineers are overrepresented among Islamist extremists. In other words, militant jihadists with some university education are far more likely to have studied engineering, as opposed to other disciplines. This book shows that engineers are also overrepresented in right-wing terrorism, but not in left-wing terrorism. The authors explain that people who go on to become Islamic terrorists or right-wing terrorist have a great deal in common. The findings have implications for research on psychological profiles of extremists, the conceptualization of different types of terrorists, and other topics.

The book presents original data on hundreds of Islamist terrorists’ educational background. Of the 207 Islamist extremists in predominantly Muslim countries for whom they have information on discipline of study, 93, or about 45%, studied engineering. There were far more engineers than people who studied any other field. Even students of Islamic studies, the second most-represented discipline in the sample, only account for about 18% of the sample. Interestingly, Saudi Arabia is an outlier because it does not have an overrepresentation of engineers among its terrorists. This is suggested to be the result of a better job market for engineers in that country. [End Page 691]

The authors argue “relative deprivation” could explain the link between engineering and participation in terrorism. Relative deprivation generally refers to unfulfilled expectations of social advancement. In this case, it is argued to occur because many Islamic countries encourage the study of engineering, even though there are likely to be job shortages for engineers. Analysis of Egypt and other Middle Eastern examples suggests this is plausible. The authors convincingly rule out alternative explanations, such as the bomb-making expertise engineers might have.

To further test microfoundations of the relative deprivation argument, the text explores related themes, such as the proportion of engineers among jihadis from Western countries. Among the Western jihadis, engineers are about as overrepresented as they are in Muslim countries. This challenges the relative deprivation causal story. Another intriguing discovery is that among nonviolent Islamist groups, engineers are not overrepresented.

Beyond relative deprivation, the authors note that a personality trait could explain both interest in engineering and Islamist terrorism. To explore this further, Chapter 4 studies commonalities between Islamist and other terrorist types and finds connections between Islamist and right-wing extremists. Thus, it is argued, if a personality trait explains jihadism, it should also explain right-wing extremism. The examination of shared characteristics between Islamist and right-wing extremists is interesting, particularly the table displaying common traits and showing that left-wing extremists do not share these traits. This section could have benefitted from drawing more on the terrorism literature on these subjects (particularly right-wing extremism), but the analysis is nonetheless a substantial contribution.

Continuing the comparison of Islamist and other terrorist types, the authors demonstrate that the engineering overrepresentation does not occur with left-wing terrorists. The coauthors present data on the educational background of European groups like the Red Army Faction and the Red Brigades, which it turns out had few engineers. Students from the humanities and social sciences were over-represented among these groups.

Remarkably, however, among US and European right-wing extremists, the authors find disproportionate participation by engineers. This is based on rather small samples: 45 Russians, and 29 Americans, for example. The authors also examine early...


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pp. 691-693
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