Build-a-Bomber: Why do so many terrorists have engineering degrees?

Posted Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009, at 9:32 PM ETIllustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

By Benjamin Popper
Posted Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2009, at 9:32 PM ET

Engineering is not a profession most people associate with religion. The concrete trade of buildings and bridges seems grounded in the secular principles of science. But the failed attack this Christmas by mechanical engineer Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was a reminder that the combination has a long history of producing violent radicals.

The anecdotal evidence has always been strong. The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Mohamed Atta, was an architectural engineer. Khalid Sheikh Mohamed got his degree in mechanical engineering. Two of the three founders of Lashkar-e-Taibi, the group believed to be behind the Mumbai attacks, were professors at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lahore.

A paper (PDF) released this summer by two sociologists, Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog, adds empirical evidence to this observation. The pair looked at more than 400 radical Islamic terrorists from more than 30 nations in the Middle East and Africa born mostly between the 1950s and 1970s. Earlier studies had shown that terrorists tend to be wealthier and better-educated than their countrymen, but Gambetta and Hertog found that engineers, in particular, were three to four times more likely to become violent terrorists than their peers in finance, medicine or the sciences. The next most radicalizing graduate degree, in a distant second, was Islamic Studies.

So what’s with all the terrorist-engineers? The simple explanation is that engineering happens to be an especially popular field of study in the countries that produce violent radicals. But Gambetta and Hertog corrected for national enrollment numbers in engineering programs and got similar results. Even among Islamic terrorists born or raised in the West, nearly 60 percent had engineering backgrounds.

Another possible explanation would be that engineers possess technical skills and architectural know-how that makes them attractive recruits for terrorist organizations. But the recent study found that engineers are just as likely to hold leadership roles within these organizations as they are to be working hands-on with explosives. In any case, their technical expertise may not be that useful, since most of the methods employed in terrorist attacks are rudimentary. It’s true that eight of the 25 hijackers on 9/11 were engineers, but it was their experience with box cutters and flight school, not fancy degrees, that counted in the end. Continue reading

Can university subjects reveal terrorists in the making?

How can we spot future terrorists? There may be clues in the subjects they study (Image: Gaza Press / Rex Features)How can we spot future terrorists? There may be clues in the subjects they study (Image: Gaza Press / Rex Features)

Editorial: Seeking out the engineers of terror

WHO becomes a terrorist? An MI5 report leaked to London newspaper The Guardian in August 2008 concluded that there is no easy way to identify those who become involved in terrorism in the UK because there is “no single pathway to violent extremism” and that “it is not possible to draw up a typical profile of the ‘British terrorist’ as most are ‘demographically unremarkable'”.

The extraordinary lengths the German authorities went to after 9/11 to track down potential terrorists are a stark example of how useless profiling can be. They collected and analysed data on over 8 million individuals living in Germany. These people were categorised by demographic characteristics: male, aged 18 to 40; current or former student; Muslim; legally resident in Germany; and originating from one of 26 Islamic countries. Then they were sorted into three further categories: potential to carry out a terrorist attack (such as a pilot’s licence); familiarity with locations that could be targets (such as working in airports, nuclear power plants, chemical plants, the rail service, labs and other research institutes); and studying the German language at the Goethe Institute.

With the help of these categories authorities whittled the 8 million down to just 1689 individuals, who were then investigated, one by one. Giovanni Capoccia, an Oxford-based political scientist who analysed this case, reported that not one of them turned out to be a threat. All the real Islamic terrorists arrested in Germany through other investigations were not on the official “shortlist” and did not fit the profile.

Does it follow, as some scholars now think, that anyone, given the right conditions and the wrong friendships, can end up joining a terrorist group? Not entirely. We found that engineers are three to four times as likely as other graduates to be present among the members of violent Islamic groups in the Muslim world since the 1970s. Using a sample of 404 Islamic militants worldwide (with a median birth date in 1966), we tracked down the education of 284. Of these, 26 had less than secondary education, 62 completed secondary education (including madrasas), and 196 had higher education, whether completed or not. Even if none of the cases where we lack data had higher education, the share of those with higher education would be a hefty 48.5 per cent. Continue reading

‘Why Don’t Moderate Muslims Police Their Own?’ Here’s One Who Did.

Surely you’ve heard that question asked many times over the past decade. Before we all get lost in election-year political recriminations over the Christmas Day terrorism attack, let’s note that there was a hero to this story who hasn’t gotten as much credit as he deserves:

Based on current news reports, Umaru Abdul Mutallab, father of terror suspect Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, did everything but take out an ad in the Washington Post to let American authorities know that his son needed watching. Months before the 23-year-old Nigerian tried to blow himself up and take down a jet over Detroit, his father warned officials that the young man might be dangerous.

CNN put it this way:

“He told officials he believed his son was under the influence of religious extremists and had traveled from London, England, to Yemen.”

Here’s Fox News:

“Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab abruptly told his family he would abandon the life that took him from a $25,000-a-year private school in Togo to a degree at an illustrious London university. That message pushed his father, a prominent banker from Nigeria’s Muslim-dominated north, to contact state security officials and later the U.S. Embassy in hopes of someone bringing home his missing son.

” ‘We provided them with all the information required of us to enable them do this,’ a family statement read Monday, without elaborating.”

And from the New York Times:

“Mr. Mutallab visited the embassy on Nov. 19 and told officials his son had been radicalized, was missing and might be in Yemen, said a State Department spokesman, P. J. Crowley. Mr. Crowley said that Mr. Mutallab did not say he believed his son planned to attack Americans, but that he expressed general concern about his radical views.”

Who is the father? Here’s an account on

“Dr. Umaru Abdul Muttalab is chairman of the Nigeria’s first Islamic Bank, Jaiz Bank International Plc, which was established in 2003. He has over 30 years experience in developmental, commercial and merchant banking. One of his co-directors at the bank is Nigeria’s minister for petroleum resources & former secretary of OPEC, Dr. Rilwanu Lukman.”

So what do we think we know about the father? He’s a Muslim, one sophisticated enough in the technical aspects of Islamic law to run an Islamic bank. And he was willing to put himself, his reputation and the rest of his family at risk by letting American authorities know that his son had been radicalized.

At risk? No doubt. I imagine that crossing al-Qaeda is something like crossing the Mafia. Particularly if you live in a country where sheer numbers — 75 percent of Nigerians are Muslim — make it at least somewhat likely that someone sympathetic to al-Qaeda is in the neighborhood.

That the information from Muttalab was not used by intelligence officials to its best advantage is hardly his fault. And that he was hoping the information would be used to get his son safely returned to the family does not diminish his deed.

As a headline on a commentary in the Nigerian newspaper This Day puts it:

“Mutallab: Profile in Courage”

Look, I’m not trying to canonize the guy. It’s not like he gave the date and time of his son’s planned attack. And it may be that the facts eventually will unroll differently than as portrayed in the early accounts. But the reports so far have been pretty consistent. Continue reading

Upper Crust Is Often Drawn to Terrorism

Published: December 30, 2009

NEW YORK — That Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, fated to go down in history as the failed underwear bomber, comes from a prominent and prosperous family in Nigeria invites comparison with Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the U.S. Army psychiatrist who is accused of killing 13 fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, Texas, in November.

Both men came from middle- or upper-class families, went to good schools and would seem to have had much better prospects than to destroy numerous lives, as well as their own, in acts of terrorist mayhem.

Both men seem to illustrate the observation made by historians of violent political extremists from Robespierre to Pol Pot: that they tend more often to be intellectuals with a grievance, a concept, and a thirst for power than the desperate and wretched of the earth on whose behalf they usually claim to have acted.

The way recent Islamic terrorists embody this notion is quite striking. Mr. Abdulmutallab, who is accused of trying to set off a bomb on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day, didn’t come from the sprawling, desperate slums of Lagos but from the upper crust of Nigerian society. He went to the elite British School of Lomé, Togo, and to University College London, where he graduated with honors in 2008.

Then, apparently because of a false statement on his a application to continue his studies in London, the British authorities did not renew his visa. He was accepted for a master’s degree program in Dubai, but he told his family that he wanted to go to Yemen to study Shariah, or Islamic law.

Those recruited as suicide bombers are supposedly poor and without prospects. Many are, yet most of the Islamic radicals who have attacked the United States or have tried to in the last decade come, like Mr. Abdulmutallab, from the elite of their countries. Osama bin Laden himself came from fabulous wealth in Saudi Arabia; his chief deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, was — like the Latin American revolutionary Che Guevara — a medical doctor from a distinguished family.

Though not from the same elite social class as Mr. bin Laden or Mr. Zawahiri, the operational leaders of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were uniformly from upwardly striving middle-class families. Mohammed Atta, the lead hijacker, studied architecture and engineering in Cairo. His father was a successful lawyer who had the connections to get his son a spot at the Technical University of Hamburg, which is where he seems to have volunteered for the jihadist cause. Continue reading

China Starts Restoring Internet in Divided Muslim Region

Owen Fletcher, IDG News Service Dec 30, 2009 12:00 am

China will start restoring Internet service in its western Xinjiang region after nearly six months of a near-total ban on Web access and international phone calls, state media said Tuesday.

The clampdown on communications, in which China also blocked Web sites including Facebook and Twitter nationwide, followed deadly ethnic riots in Xinjiang in July. Nearly 200 people died as Uighurs, a mostly Muslim minority group native to the region, and members of the Han Chinese ethnic majority hunted each other in the streets.

Internet service ceased in the province, though authorities later opened a regional network that let users access certain local news portals and bank and government Web sites, according to the state-run China Daily. Text messaging on mobile phones and international call services were also blocked.

Authorities have started gradually restoring Internet access to the province this week, but the only new Web sites made available so far are two government news portals, run by the newspaper People’s Daily and the official Xinhua news agency, Xinhua said, citing an announcement by the regional government. Text message and international call services will also be gradually restored, Xinhua said.

The clampdown helped stabilize the region but also caused some economic difficulty, the report cited the Xinjiang government as saying. Companies in sectors such as e-commerce had to find ways to work around the communications outage.