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Why terrorists are often engineers: implications for nanotechnology

An IEEE Spectrum podcast asks the question, Why Are Terrorists Often Engineers? The blurb:

With terrorism back in the news, so, too, is a curious footnote: Of the hundreds of individuals involved in political violence, nearly half of those with degrees have been engineers. This finding, first published in 2008, has been substantiated by two years of additional research by Oxford sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog, of the London School of Economics. Host Steven Cherry talks with Hertog about why terrorists seem to have a knack for engineering.

I have not listened to this, but the obvious answer would seem to be that many people might wish to be effective terrorists, but only the more technical ones have the needed skills to carry out an action that causes significant harm.  (I have often been thankful that the superb technical people I know appear to have no leanings in that direction.)

See also Open-Source Warfare and Extremist Engineers.

For now, nanotechnologies are primarily being developed by people who are not likely to deploy them for terrorist purposes, but as time passes this will change.  It took about a century for airplanes to be used outside traditional warfare to do major harm; probably that sequence will be faster for nanotechnologies.  We will need to model both offenses and defenses so that “white hat” nanotechnologists stay ahead; this proposal came from Mark S. Miller.  See the Foresight Guidelines and Open Source Sensing for further thoughts.  —Chris Peterson

26 Responses to “Why terrorists are often engineers: implications for nanotechnology”

  1. flashgordon Says:

    This doesn’t say why; it just says what the statistics are;

  2. Steven Cherry Says:

    Is this what passes for intelligent discussion these days?

    “I have not listened to this, but the obvious answer would seem to be…”

    Is it really likely that in a carefully-edited 15 minute conversation, that question wouldn’t come up? That “the obvious answer” wouldn’t occur to an Oxford professor in the course of his two years of researching the issue? That a trained interviewer wouldn’t raise “the obvious answer”?

    You have at least thirty 15-minute blocks to your working day, if you’re going to spend a couple of them blogging something, shouldn’t you at least spend one absorbing the subject matter?

  3. Higher education and political violence « FrogHeart Says:

    [...] to Christine Peterson’s (Foresight Institute) Sept. 16, 2010 posting for pointing to this podcast and here are a couple of excerpts on her thoughts about the study, I [...]

  4. Ellen Says:

    It makes sense. Humanities students learn to talk and argue. Engineering students learn to DO. The world of terrorism is filled with people that froth and talk and scream; but they’re nowhere the immediate problem next to those who wish to Do Unto Us.

  5. Pierce Wetter Says:

    Maybe all the non-engineer terrorists blow themselves up, that is, terrorism selects for anal.

  6. MIke From Philly Says:

    Its simple …… When you want something done right, hire an engineer.

  7. jgriff Says:

    I work for a large international engineering company. I can tell you why most terrorists are engineers. We’re overrun by engineers from places like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It’s not that most terrorisits are engineers… the places where terrorists come from are the breeding ground of engineers. You can easily get a degree over there and come here for big pay compared to what most people make in the middle east. No one in the U.S. wants to be an engineer anymore becuase the profession is being overrun with foriegners who work for pennies. Engineering is a great profession to go into if you are from a terror supporting country. In the U.S. not so much.

  8. D Says:

    This is a pretty easy one. The mindset of an engineer allows you to follow an idea to a logical conclusion. Regardless if it’s a political idea followed to an extreme, or the design of a device that takes a beer can and makes it lethal.

  9. Insufficiently Sensitive Says:

    It took about a century for airplanes to be used outside traditional warfare to do major harm;

    A CENTURY? It took less than ten years from Kitty Hawk to WW I, and less than thirty for the German practice against civilians in Spain, and less than forty for the enormous airplane-driven carnage of London and Dresden and Hiroshima/Nagasaki. All of which dwarf the piddly 9/11 toll of 3,500.

    Get some perspective.

  10. Ethan Says:

    Engineers look for solutions to problems not by seeking out fundamental principles but by following rigid guidelines.

    A Muslim engineer that can be convinced that there is a problem (i.e. Infidels killing Muslims, Infidels existing on Muslim lands, Infidels existing at all) will have already been trained in applying a strict methodology to solving the problem – i.e. Islamic dictates. Islam has already a legal formalism known as Sharia. All the Engineer has to do is dot his i’s and cross his t’s and bam – personal spiritual problems and global social problems now have a solution.

    Let’s now implement them.

    Engineers are not trained to question like a scientist, they are trained in finding optimal solutions based on methodologies. This makes them highly susceptible to religious or quasi-religious dogma (of any stripe: Islam, Communism, etc. ).

  11. Max Says:

    If you look at the base population from which terrorists are drawn, I would expect that half of those with degrees are engineers.

  12. Charles Eaton Says:

    Reminds me of the John Wayne movie THE HORSE SOLDIERS. It was in turn based on an incident in the American Civil War called GRIERSON’s RIDE. Basically a raid across the south to cause infrastructure damage.
    Grierson was what we would call today a civil engineer.
    He knew just how to cause the most damage for the least time and effort.
    In this context nothing has changed since the 1860s.

  13. Shelby Says:

    It takes technical engineering skills to build bombs. It doesn’t take them to hijack an airplane or shoot a rifle, which are also common terrorism techniques.

  14. Maureen Says:

    You’re neglecting some important thoughts.

    1. Military people often take engineering, yet most terrorists don’t take any military training outside their own weird little groups.

    2. Most Mideastern-heritage parents don’t seem to want to pay for their kids to major in poetry or Women’s Studies. Science is a little too blue-sky. But engineers and doctors are always useful.

    3. You’re not including the IRA, Weather Underground, the Mansons, or other successful terrorist groups in your list.

  15. Jay Says:

    There may also be social/political factors. In many Third World countries, especially after World War II, there were big, centralized pushes to modernize. This was especially true in countries influenced by the Soviet Union, which graduated and employed far more engineers than the US. So lots of smart students were pushed into engineering, and yet were often unable to find good employment in the corrupt, dysfunctional autocracies in which they lived. Add the global resurgence of ethnic/tribal conflict and religious strife, and lots of engineers show up in terrorist groups.

    In the US, though, there doesn’t seem to be that correlation. I suspect that there are proportionately fewer engineers among our homegrown (Earth First/ALF/etc.) terrorists… but perhaps more liberal arts students!

  16. Martin L. Shoemaker Says:

    I’m no expert on terrorist psychology. I don’t know if terrorism is a choice one makes relatively quickly, or a choice one plans for over a long stretch of time. Certainly, the 9/11 terrorists planned for a long time.

    Assuming that one wants to spend years becoming an effective terrorist, engineer or chemist seems like a more productive field of study than, say, poetry. For cyberterrorism, computer engineering is the way to go.

    So I think the selection force here is bidirectional: terrorists who have technical skills are more effective; and terrorists who want to be effective will pursue technical skills. And some of those skills may be gained in military/intelligence training or informal training; but some may be gained in the university.

  17. dennymack Says:

    Three (speculative) points:

    Could it be that their educations are sponsored by the extremist organizations on whose behalf they act?
    I am not sure how the timeline of education vs. radicalization looks.

    I could also see such organizations fast-tracking the advancement of engineers over house painters, and making a concerted effort to recruit them.

    Perhaps we make a particular point of going after anyone known to be an engineer, hence their over-representation. If I were in counter-terrorism I might be especially anxious about anyone they nick name “the engineer.”

  18. Brett Bellmore Says:

    On the other hand, given the limited damage terrorists usually cause, compared to the relative fragility of most things, it appears to me that it’s not the competent engineers who are attracted to terrorism. Thankfully.

  19. LAG Says:

    So, you think a terrorist gets up one day and says, “You know, I could be a lot better at this if I only took a few class.”

    Nah, that ain’t it. It’s probably that engineers and terrorists share a number of qualities: focus, drive, single-minded pursuit of obscure goals, etc.

  20. Chris Peterson Says:

    @Brett — quite right, and thank goodness for it!

  21. Joe Says:

    One possible answer:
    In the countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia (and across all of Asia and the Middle East, for that matter). Most college students study technical and hard-science subjects from physics to medicine. This is well-known: the humanities and the arts are not popular majors. If they are real free-spirits, they’ll rebel against their family and community pressure and study something mushy like business or economics.
    The trends continue for Asian immigrants in the West and their children. This dynamic diminishes with each generation though the pressures remain (see “Harold and Kumar”…LOL).
    This is probably where the correlation comes from. I doubt there is much in the way of causation.
    Does this trend hold for non-muslim terrorists? The Unabomber, math guy = sorta. McVeigh, I don’t know? Rudolph? Bill Ayers, ELF et all, I don’t think so.

  22. Kristin Says:

    Perhaps this is because of one of these two reasons:

    1. The workplace is so feminized, real men can’t stand working there anymore and must find other pursuits, or
    2. The Engineering minded can no longer get their geekiness out by building real model rockets and bombs like they could 50 years ago.

    And so they resort to terrorism.

  23. Titus Says:

    Why are terrorists engineers? Because the study of electronics and explosives happens to fall more under that category of “engineering” and less under “poetry” or “music.”

  24. SwedeR Says:

    This statistics shows results for small terrorists. Large state terrorists like USA, Britain, the NATO, Israel and other western powers use advanced technology to destroy and harm civilian population in large quantities in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., etc.

  25. Nanoman Says:

    My main concern is this: I do not want terrorists building nano assemblers, nanotech hardware (REAL Mechanical Chemistry, not mere nano particle stuff), or advanced programmable bio nano machines. Is there a REAL danger of this, or, are they too backward, too foolish, and too far behind the USA and the Western world and our allies to do this? Thoughts?

    Ie where do you all think the Assembler Breakthrough will happen? USA? China? Europe? Israel? Japan?

  26. Christopher Says:

    I think people are overlooking that most engineering terrorists are making IED’s and other such smaller scale devices. On occasion, they do something flashy like crash a 747 into a building. Maybe they fix your aging artillery pieces.

    Guerrilla fighters don’t have a big budget. So while nukes are an looming threat, you tend to get more dirty bombs than an actual nuclear catastrophes.

    Not to belittle the issue, but there are definite strategic considerations that limit how much force can be mustered against somebody you’d like to hurt.

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