Today's Highly Educated Terrorists

Today's Highly Educated Terrorists

Today's terrorists, yesterday's graduate students.

“The Idea Lab” page in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine had an interesting article titled “Engineering Terror: Why are so many extremists from a single profession?” by David Berreby. It explained, much to the chagrin of the former president of the National Academy of Engineering, that “in the ranks of captured and confessed terrorists, engineers and engineering students are significantly overrepresented.”

The article cited the research of sociologist Diego Gambetta and political scientist Steffen Hertog whose databases of terrorism perpetrators evidences this trend. “For their recent study,” Berreby reported,

the two men collected records on 404 men who belonged to violent Islamist groups active over the past few decades (some in jail, some not). Had those groups reflected the working-age populations of their countries, engineers would have made up about 3.5 percent of the membership. Instead, nearly 20 percent of the militants had engineering degrees. When Gambetta and Hertog looked at only the militants whose education was known for certain to have gone beyond high school, close to half (44 percent) had trained in engineering.

Terrorism, it must be said, has always been an individual avocation. The reasons why someone picks up a gun or throws a bomb represent an ineluctably personal choice born variously of grievance and frustration; religious piety or the desire for systemic socio-economic change; irredentist conviction or commitment to revolution.

Joining an organization in pursuit of these aims is meant to give collective meaning and equally importantly cumulative power to this commitment. The forces that impel individuals to become terrorists and insurgents are thus timeless—and, in fact, have less to do with one’s chosen profession than perhaps with other factors.

[amazon 0826414354 full]For terrorists to survive, much less thrive, in today’s globalized, technologically savvy and interconnected world, the preeminent terrorism expert, Walter Laqueur has argued, they have to be

educated, have some technical competence and be able to move without attracting attention in alien societies. In brief, such a person will have to have an education that cannot be found among the poor in Pakistani or Egyptian villages or Palestinian refugee camps, only among relatively well-off town folk.

Because engineering is often the most prestigious vocation in developing countries, it makes sense that this new generation of well-educated terrorists would disproportionately come from that profession.

This was in fact the conclusion also reached by Peter Bergen and Swati Pandey in their 2006 study of madrassas (Islamic schools) and lack of education as a putative terrorist incubator. Using a database of some 79 jihadis who were responsible for the five most serious terrorist incidents between 1993 and 2005, they found that the most popular subjects amongst those jihadi terrorists who attended university was engineering followed by medicine.

Bergen and Pandey further observed that 54 percent of the perpetrators either attended university or had obtained a university degree. The terrorists they studied “thus appear, on average, to be as well educated as many Americans—given that 52 percent of Americans have attended university.

Finally, they observed that two-thirds of the 25 terrorists involved in the planning and hijacking of the four aircraft on September 11 th 2001 had attended university and that two of the 79 had earned PhD degrees while two others were enrolled in doctoral programs.


The popularity of medicine as a terrorist vocation most recently surfaced in connection with the botched attempt to bomb a nightclub in central London and the dramatic, but largely ineffectual, attack on Glasgow’s International Airport in June 2007. Six of the eight persons arrested were either doctors or medical students; the seventh person was employed as a technician in a hospital laboratory; and the eighth member of the conspiracy was neither a medical doctor nor in health care, but instead had earned a doctorate in design and technology.

Medical doctors becoming terrorists is hardly new, either. George Habash, the founder and leader of a prominent 1960s-era Palestinian terrorist group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), was a medical doctor. As was the PFLP’s head of special operations, Wadi Haddad.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s chief strategist and bin Laden’s deputy, is a trained surgeon. Orlando Bosch, who was active in the militant Miami, Florida-based anti-Castro movement and was charged with the inflight bombing of a Cubana Airlines flight in 1976 that killed 73 persons, practiced as a pediatrician.

The more salient point may be that, contrary to the common place belief that poverty and lack of education breeds terrorism, to a large extent, those historically attracted to terrorism have in fact tended to be reasonably well, if not, highly educated; financially comfortable and, in some cases, quite well off; and, often gainfully employed.

[amazon 0198208065 full]Peter Hart in his seminar work, The IRA and Its Enemies found that IRA Volunteers in West Cork circa 1920 were “more likely to have jobs, trades, and an education than was typical of their peers.”

This was also true in the Jewish terrorism campaigns that occurred in pre-independence Israel. Menachem Begin, the leader of one underground movement, for instance, received his law degree from Warsaw University in 1935. David Raziel, a predecessor, was the son of an elementary school teacher and himself studied mathematics and philosophy at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

A fellow Hebrew University student was Abraham Stern, who founded a rival militant group. Fluent both in Greek and Latin, Stern majored in classics, was a protégé of the university’s first chancellor and later president, Rabbi Judah Magnes, and won a prestigious scholarship to study in Florence, Italy.

Engineering, it must also be said, is not exclusive to the current terrorist generation. Yasir Arafat, the founder and leader of the Palestinian terrorist group, al-Fatah, and later Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and President of the Palestinian Authority, was employed by the Kuwaiti Public Works Department as an engineer when he founded al-Fatah, having graduated from Cairo’s Fouad the First University (now Cairo University).

While it is certainly true that the rank-and-file Palestinian fighters of the 1960s and 1970s were likely to be from considerably less comfortable socio-economic backgrounds, it is nonetheless clear that the Palestinian movement’s leadership did not conform to the stereotype of the poor, uneducated, jobless fighter much like their terrorist counterparts today.

Little needs to be said about the socio-economic strata of the American university and graduate students who in the 1960s joined the radical political movement, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), before gravitating to the anti-establishment terrorism of the Weather Underground group. Many of its most prominent leaders—including Bill Ayers, Bernadine Dohrn, Kathy Boudin, Diana Oughton, David Gilbert and Susan Stern—were all the progeny of wealthy, well-connected families (utility company presidents, bankers, toy manufacturers, and lawyers); while most of the others were of families anchored solidly in the middle-class (e.g. Jane Alpert).

The same is true of their radical Muslim counterparts in Britain today. The father of Shahzad Tanweer, one of July 2005 London suicide bombers, was a prominent local businessman and, indeed, the archetype of the successful, hardworking immigrant owning a string of commercial interests as diverse as a slaughterhouse, a convenience store and fish-and-chips shops. Tanweer was a graduate of Leeds Metropolitan University where he obtained a degree in sports science.

The cell’s ringleader, Mohammad Siddique Khan, who was age 30 at the time of the bombings, had a business studies degree from the same university and was gainfully employed as a community worker. Although the third and youngest member of the cell, Hasib Hussain, had an undistinguished academic record and never completed his college course in business studies, according to the official Parliamentary inquiry’s report of the attacks , his family’s socio-economic background, like that of Tanweer and Khan, “was not poor by the standards of the area.” The fourth bomber, Jermaine Lindsay, perhaps conformed better to the terrorist stereotype of a poor, underprivileged, and only occasionally employed carpet fitter who never completed secondary school.

But Omar Khyam, the mastermind behind a 2004 bombing plot of London that Scotland Yard code-named “Operation Crevice,” was also the son of a wealthy businessman and grew up in a comfortable, upper-middle-class environment.

Similarly, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, who orchestrated the 2002 kidnapping and beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter, Daniel Pearl, also enjoyed a very similar upbringing and attended an exclusive—and expensive—private school. He later was admitted to the world-renowned London School of Economics (LSE), where he studied applied mathematics statistical theory, economics, and social psychological. Described as “handsome, tall and muscular, very bright and charming,” his parents expected he would be knighted some day and not now languishing in prison awaiting execution.