What is the common link between these terrorists: bomb-maker Ramzi Yousef; his uncle Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, operational leader of the 9/11 attacks; 9/11 hijacker Muhammad Atta; Finsbury mosque preacher Abu-Hamza al-Masri; and Palestine Liberation Organization's Yasir Arafat? They were all engineers.
In 2002, Stephen Emerson observed in American Jihad that "some of the worst anti-Americanism among Muslim fundamentalists comes from people who are often remarkably well educated—engineers, doctors and even scientists." In this study, Gambetta and Hertog explore the remarkable over-representation of engineers among jihadists.
The authors mostly reject prominent explanations for the root causes of Islamist terrorism: relative deprivation, social movement, and demand driven theories. Their study offers valuable statistical analyses that lead them to conclude that "ideology matters." Importantly, "engineers are nearly absent among left-wing groups ... dominated by graduates in the humanities and the social and psychological sciences, of whom we had found barely any among Islamist radicals." Unfortunately, too much effort is expended trying to establish that "right-wing extremism has much more in common with Islamist radicalism than with left-wing extremism"—without satisfactorily defining either left-wing or right-wing.
Jargon-filled and sometimes simplistic, the book raises serious questions but provides dubious answers. What are we to make of the observation, "Most rightists and at least some radical Islamists are also fans of Tolkien's trilogy The Lord of the Rings" or the fact that "jihadists and right-wingers ... also appear to be into computer gaming"? Purported Islamist-right-wing similarities also come across as overgeneralizations, as in the assertion that the "three character traits" shared by adherents to both ideologies are "proneness to disgust, need for closure, and strong in-group bias." The same can be said for fans of losing sports teams.
It is a pity the authors did not devote more pages to examining "the ideology of radical Islam." Had they done so, they might have found more answers. The late sociologist Khalid Duran related an interested anecdote to Emerson: "The words 'al-ikhwan al-muslimun' mean 'Muslim Brothers' and 'al-ikhwan al-muhandisun' means 'Engineer Brothers.' In Egypt, they always say the Muslim Brotherhood is really the Engineering Brotherhood." Alas, Engineers of Jihad mentions the Muslim Brotherhood only once.
Readers interested in a more historically-grounded (and less PC) examination of the topic would do well to consult the Center for Islamic Pluralism's report "Scientific Training and Islamic Radicalism."