Engineers of Jihad

The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education

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Diego Gambetta, Steffen Hertog
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , March
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Engineers of Jihad seeks to explain why engineers are overrepresented in violent Islamist extremist (jihadist) groups. In doing so, Diego Gambetta of Oxford University and Steffan Hertog of the London School of Economics trace the contours of the socio-political debate regarding relative deprivation and the psychological profiling of extremists. Ultimately, what makes this contribution unique is their data and methodology. However, from a religious studies point of view, the authors disappointingly and conspicuously sidestep the relationship of jihad to Islam. Without an Islamic-sourced explication, justification, or even refutation of jihad, the text fails to establish the prerequisite religious sensibility needed to sustain the credibility of their analysis.      

Gambetta and Hertog focus primarily on the educational background of jihadists. Their findings and interpretations then underwrite the rest of the text. As it is so foundational for their argument, Gambetta and Hertog lay out the case for the overrepresentation of engineers “beyond a reasonable doubt” in chapter 1 (viii). Data was taken from “members of groups that manifest an Islamist ideology of some kind and employ violence in pursuit of their aims” (7), and include 497 individuals from 35 nationalities, 36 different Islamist groups, over a period of three decades (6-7).

At the outset, the authors disarm the idea that engineers are recruited for their bomb-making skills: “We have never encountered any evidence of recruits being selected because of their technical skills. Personal trust and dedication seem a far more important criteria” (25). Simply stated, then, those jihadists with higher education are significantly more likely to be engineers by training than to belong to other educational and professional groups. Importantly, Gambett and Hertog conclude that, “the core of the Islamist movement emerged from would-be elites, not from the poor and dispossessed” (33). This conclusion flies in the face of the popularly accepted idea that people become terrorists due to frustrated career opportunities and unfulfilled ambitions. This theory, known as relative deprivation, is explored at length through the lens of their findings in the next two chapters.

Chapters 2 and 3 complicate the relative deprivation hypothesis in light of the engineer/jihadist correlation. Since radical Islam’s appeal extends beyond the confines of contexts that have experienced “economic closure,” they argue that, “radical Islam cannot be reduced to the effects of high labor market expectations combined with failed economic development” (55). For Gambetta and Hertog, then, relative deprivation is a helpful, but not fully adequate explanation. As a theory, they maintain, relative deprivation is inadequate in that it “does not predict the type of action that will be taken, whether violent or peaceful, religious or secular, enduring or ephemeral” (71). It turns out that relative deprivation is not granulated enough to be predictive, and must be reduced further.

Chapter 4 represents the first stage of reduction in the relative deprivation thesis and is perhaps the most interesting chapter as far as religious studies scholars are concerned. The authors strip away the contextual and socio-economic strata to lay bare the ideological base by comparing Islamist extremism with other extremist groups. They argue that Islamist extremism is closer to right-winged ideologies rather than left-wing ones (99). Most of the chapter is taken up with the overlap of worldviews such as “a shared backward-looking aesthetic of chivalry and of medieval . . . myths” (90-91); a “multipronged range of beliefs about how the world works that include superstition, mythology, and esotericism” (93); and “beliefs in conspiracy theories and tales of betrayal” (94). The link between right-wing ideologies, jihadism, and education is then explored in chapter 5.

Chapter 5 uncovers “the deep-seated affinity between students of specific disciplines and specific types of radical politics” (126). Humanities and social science students tend towards left-wing groups while engineers go right (126-27). From this evidence, the authors conclude “certain degrees are a proxy for personality traits” (127) or “mind-sets.” Significantly, too, the data suggest that engineers prefer violent religious groups and are less likely to defect from them (127). But Gambetta and Hertog claim that a further reduction is still necessary. 

Chapter 6 seeks to delineate the personality traits or “mind-sets for extremists.” Gambetta and Hertog argue that there are four salient traits: a “proneness to disgust”; a “need for cognitive closure” [hereafter NFC]; an urge to impose strict distinctions between in-group and out-group members” (130); and “simplism”: the “penchant to seek simple and unambiguous explanations of the social world and its ills” (147). NFC, they maintain, is the strongest indicator of religious extremism (156). Following this logic, people with the aforementioned traits—especially a strong need for cognitive closure—are more likely to choose engineering as a discipline and, if radicalized, will prefer a violently religious path with a right-wing ideology that they will persistently uphold. If that process occurs within an Islamic context, one ends up with a jihadist. Confidently, the authors declare that “by knowing the type of graduate one can guess, with near perfect accuracy in the case of some disciplines, which type of extremism a graduate is attracted to or repulsed by” and that “different ideologies meet the cognitive and emotional needs of different people” (163).

Engineers of Jihad, while a thought-provoking and fairly well organized text, it overlooks issues religious scholars would expect to be covered in such a work. While the statistical nomenclature can be off-putting to non-specialists, Gambetta and Hertog’s explanations are clear enough for anyone to follow. But despite the text’s relative lucidity and accessibility, it goes too far in its reduction as it seeks explanation. In their efforts to flatten out all forms of violent extremism as simply ends of an ideological spectrum held by individuals with particular “mindsets,” they overlook another pressing issue that is tantalizing suggested by the title: the relationship between jihad and Islam. That one could write an entire book on jihadists and not once quote the Hadith, the Quran, or the Sunnah is nothing short of extraordinary. Jihadists, in their view, are basically extremists in dishdashas. Additionally, the authors sidestep both metaphysical and external inducements to jihad that are intrinsic to the Islamic tradition. This apparent lack of familiarity with the contours and sources of Islam means that Paradise and harems do not factor into the radicalization equation as much as the rather nebulous “need for closure.” In the end, Engineers of Jihad is a significant contribution to our understanding of the linkage between education and extremism. However, it freights one correlation with too much theoretical and phenomenological weight without seriously considering the significance of religion beyond mere context.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin Crace is a doctoral candidate at the University of Birmingham.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Diego Gambetta is professor of social theory at the European University Institute, Florence, and official fellow of Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. His books include The Sicilian Mafia and Codes of the Underworld (Princeton).

Steffen Hertog is associate professor of comparative politics at the London School of Economics. He is the author of Princes, Brokers, and Bureaucrats.



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