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.
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,