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There's a Good Reason Why So Many Terrorists Are Engineers

Whiling away his days in a CIA prison in Romania, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had a simple request for his captors: Would they allow the mechanical engineer to design a vacuum cleaner?

According to a fascinating Associated Press account of Mohammed's detainment published on Thursday, the CIA allowed him to do just that, granting the terrorist access to vacuum schematics available online, which he used to re-engineer the appliance.

Mohammed, who faced brutal interrogation practices, was granted the request because the CIA wanted to prevent him from going insane. But Mohammed's desire to put his engineering acumen to use also raises a question that has long enticed scholars of terrorism: Why is it that so many terrorists have engineering backgrounds?

It's a question that's particularly relevant when it comes to Islamic terrorism. Mohammed Atta, the 9/11 hijacker, was an architectural engineer. Two of the three founders of Lashkar e-Taiba, the Pakistani terrorist group, were professors at the University of Engineering and Technology at Lahore. Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist group, is chock full of engineers. Jihad al-Binaa, one of its branches, had more than 2,000 engineers working on reconstruction in Lebanon following the 2006 war with Israel.

But the link isn't just anecdotal. In a 2009 paper, Diego Gambetta, an Oxford sociologist, and Steffen Hertog, a political scientist at the London School of Economics, found that "among violent Islamists with a degree, individuals with an engineering education are three to four times more frequent than we would expect given the share of engineers among university students in Islamic countries." Of a group of 404 members of violent Islamist groups in the Muslim world, Gambetta and Hertog tracked down the course of study for 178 individuals. Of those 178 violent Islamists, 78 (44 percent) were engineers. Broadening the course of study to engineering, medicine, and science, 56.7 percent of their sample had studied these fields.

According to Gambetta and Hertog's findings, this is a problem unique to violent Islamist groups in the Muslim world. Among nonviolent Islamist groups, for example, engineers are present -- but to a far lesser degree than in violent groups. And among violent Islamist groups in the West, education levels tend to be much lower on the whole. Meanwhile, non-Muslim left-wing groups -- Germany's Red Army Faction, Italy's Red Brigades, and Latin American guerrilla groups -- include almost no engineers. Among anarchist groups, engineers are equally absent. Right-wing groups include some engineers, but they are far from overrepresented.

To account for this disparity in occupation among Islamic terrorists in the Muslim world, Gambetta and Hertog sketch out a particular engineering "mindset" in which the profession is "more attractive to individuals seeking cognitive 'closure' and clear-cut answers as opposed to more open-ended sciences -- a disposition which has been empirically linked to conservative political attitudes." Engineers, the authors find, are far more conservative on the whole than members of other professions. Islamic extremism "rejects Western pluralism and argues for a unified ordered society" -- a political worldview that lines up nicely with a profession averse to chaos.

There's also a societal component. In countries like Egypt, the period after the 1970s was one of massively thwarted expectations, with engineers emerging on the job market only to struggle to find employment. Per the classic explanation of the onset of rebellion -- thwarted expectations coupled with relative deprivation -- a generation of highly trained students had been made promises (and made subsequent investments in their education) that their societies could not deliver on. Angry, they turned to violence to restore order in society.

Still, a few objections to this theory immediately emerge. First, certain aspects of work as a terrorist -- placing wires here, installing fuses there -- seem naturally suited to an engineer, raising the possibility that the profession is sought as a preparatory pathway for a career in murder and mayhem. But this criticism, the authors point out, misses the fact that bomb-making is typically handled by a small cadre of specialists and that individuals trained as engineers have frequently ascended to management positions within terrorist organizations, where they have little contact with technical, day-to-day operations. Moreover, engineers simply don't turn up with the same frequency in terrorist groups in other parts of the world.

More importantly, there may be problems with the causal mechanism the authors lay out. In other words, how is it that one goes from being an earnest engineering student to being a terrorist? Here, the authors are quick to emphasize that the argument they posit is a feedback loop between the conservatism of an engineer and the disappointment of thwarted expectations. Somewhere in that swirl, they argue, a terrorist can be born.

Of course, after being waterboarded hundreds of times and held in isolation, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was probably also trying to engineer some semblance of order in his chaotic world as he sat tinkering with his vacuum cleaner in Romania.

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Latest Victims of Egypt's Coup: 70,000 Syrian Refugees

CAIRO -- On July 8, Suad, a Syrian woman residing in Egypt, returned home with her mother after a trip to Jordan to renew her passport. Her three daughters and husband were waiting for her in the city of Alexandria, just a few days before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.

But the pair was stopped at Alexandria International Airport: New regulations had been put in place that very day, they were told, requiring Syrians to obtain an entry visa before entering Egypt. Meanhwile, Suad's mother was suffering from diabetes and was running out of medication; while they were caught in legal limbo, there seemed to be no way to get her treatment. Suad suddenly found herself separated from her family and grappling with a medical crisis as she struggled to figure out how to return home.

Suad and her mother found themselves stranded at the airport for nearly 48 hours. When it became clear that there was no hope of gaining entry to Egypt, her husband bought her a plane ticket back to Amman, where she can tackle the new visa process.

"We have a nine-year old girl who is very attached to her mother, she's very upset, she cries every day," the husband said. "We had no idea what was happening. Nobody told us anything."

The coup in Egypt has not only upended politics in Cairo, it has endangered some of the country's weakest residents: The estimated 70,000 refugees who have fled the horrific civil war in Syria. Egypt previously had an open-door policy for Syrians. Fears for the country's stability -- fueled by conspiracy theories that foreigners are providing crucial support to the Muslim Brotherhood -- is causing that to change. On July 8 alone, 276 people were denied entry to Egypt, with some having no choice but to return to Syria.

"According to the security apparatus, they found [Syrians] participating in protests and using violence," said Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesman Badr Abdelatty, in explaining the decision to institute a visa requirement. "We ask our Syrian brothers to respect the current circumstances in Egypt now."

According to the U.N. Refugee Agency, there are currently over 70,000 Syrians who have registered as refugees in Egypt. According to Syrian activists and aid workers, many more Syrians fleeing the violence currently reside in Egypt but have not applied for refugee status. But with the new restrictions, the days of Egypt as a safe haven for incoming refugees may be coming to an end.

"I think it will be difficult for Syrians to get a visa," said Mohamed Dayri, the UNHCR regional representative in Cairo. The process could take up to a month -- a long time for a refugee trying to flee the bloodshed in Syria, or trying to make ends meet in a foreign country with no form of employment. Dayri also noted that the U.N. refugee agency was "very concerned" about the fate of Syrians like Suad who were turned away after arriving in Egypt.

The backlash against the Syrian community has been fueled by scattered stories of Syrians joining sides -- or even taking up arms -- in Egypt's political unrest. On July 6, three days after the ouster of President Mohamed Morsy, the Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm reported that a Syrian named Mohamed Mohie al-Darjuni was under investigation for being paid by the Muslim Brotherhood to attack anti-Morsy demonstrators in clashes near downtown Cairo the previous day. Darjuni allegedly received 500 pounds (roughly $71) for each clash with the protesters.

Officials who work with the refugee community, however, insist that such stories are merely isolated examples. "A few Syrians in public demonstrations and using violence should not be generalized," said Dayri. "The Syrian community should not be held hostage to the bad decisions of a few people."

Some prominent anti-Morsy voices, however, have been only too eager to stoke fears that the Syrian community in Egypt has been bought off by the Muslim Brotherhood. Television commentators Youssef el-Husseini and Tawfiq Okasha both publicly warned Syrians against supporting Morsy or participating in Egyptian affairs; Okasha went so far as to encourage Egyptians to arrest them should they see them on the street.

Syrian activists here are trying to contain the public backlash. Over 20 groups who work with Syrian refugees in Egypt recently signed a statement calling on all Syrians in the country "to stand in a neutral position in what is an internal Egyptian affair."

Whether they are successful, however, may depend on whether Egypt is able to avoid more spasms of violence like those that have occurred over the past week. Just as xenophobia arose following the most violent days of the 2011 uprising, attacks on foreigners in Cairo appear to be directly linked to the stability of the current regime -- and this time, the most vulnerable are in the crosshairs. 

MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images