Which academic pursuit has been the most prevalent among Islamic jihadis?
It’s not the oddest question to come up at a dinner party, especially at the University of Oxford. But when it comes up between a Middle East expert and a sociologist, idle talk yields to a quest for data. That’s how political scientist Steffen Hertog and sociology professor Diego Gambetta soon found themselves poring through records of 404 people from 30 countries engaged in political violence between 2005 and 2007. Their answer? Engineering.
Of the 178 whose academic focus could be ascertained, 44 percent of those were engineers—most of them in electrical engineering, civil engineering, and computer studies. The next-largest group, Islamic studies, had fewer than half as many, at 19 percent [see table below, ”Fields of Study”].
The authors acknowledge that the data underrepresent groups in South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and Iraq. They claim, though, that the sample population is ”disparate enough—there are individuals from 30 nationalities, nine larger groups, and no fewer than a dozen smaller groups—to allow us to establish whether the puzzle holds true.”
The findings garnered worldwide attention when they were published online last fall in a 90-page working paper. A catchy title didn’t hurt: ”Engineers of Jihad.”
Hertog, now a lecturer in political economy at the University of Durham, in England, says that though he and Gambetta expected the paper to get noticed, they were surprised by accusations of ”ethnic profiling.”