Janet Hamlin / Reuters A file photo of a courtroom sketch by artist Janet Hamlin, reviewed by the U.S. military, shows alleged 9/11 co-conspirators Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (C) and co-defendant Walid bin Attash (L) attending a pretrial session at Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base, December 8, 2008.

Uncivil Engineers

The Surprising Link Between Education and Jihad

The two main images of jihadists in the Western media are nearly diametrically opposed. One depicts the terrorist as socially marginal. For example, Chérif Kouachi, the younger of the two brothers whose January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris claimed 12 lives, was a would-be rapper and pizza delivery boy with a record of petty crime. Amedy Coulibaly, an accomplice who killed a policewoman and four hostages in a kosher supermarket in Paris during the manhunt for the Kouachis, had been convicted five times for armed robbery. Neither had any higher education.

The other image is of the terrorist as a highly educated expert: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, mastermind of 9/11, holds a degree in mechanical engineering from a U.S. university. Similarly, al Qaeda head Ayman al-Zawahiri is a medical doctor. And there have also been highly educated front-line operatives: Seifiddine Rezgui, who killed 38 people on the beach of Sousse in Tunisia in summer 2005, was an electrical engineering student at a local university. In fact, of the 25 individuals directly involved in the 9/11 attacks, eight were engineers.

So are jihadists typically losers who lack the education and wherewithal to make it anywhere else, or are they highly skilled, ideologically driven operatives? A look at the social and educational profiles of past jihadists sheds light on the conditions under which they get radicalized. In Engineers of Jihad, we’ve conducted the first systematic investigation of levels and types of education of more than 4,000 political radicals operating across the Muslim world and in the West.

A man identified by a lawyer as Cherif Kouachi, one of the two brothers who killed 12 people in the attack on the weekly paper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, is seen in this still image taken from Reuters TV video shot at a Paris courthouse while facing charges

A man identified by a lawyer as Cherif Kouachi, one of the two brothers who killed 12 people in the attack on the weekly paper Charlie Hebdo in Paris, is seen in this still image taken from Reuters TV video shot at a Paris courthouse while facing charges of helping smuggle Islamist fighters into Iraq, March 19, 2008.

Two findings about Islamist radicals stand out. First, among those who have been to university, engineers are dramatically overrepresented almost everywhere across the world and in every jihadist group. Among 207 Islamist radicals in the Muslim world whose degrees we know, 93 (or 44.9 percent) have studied engineering. Among the general populations of the relevant countries, that figure is only 11.6 percent. Among 71 Western-based Islamist radicals with known higher education, 32 have at some point been enrolled for an engineering degree, or 45.1 percent,

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