Sean Moncrieff: Why are so many Isis fighters engineers?

There is a despairing need to find definitive answers to complex problems

What do members of Islamic State do for a living?

It's an odd, even tasteless question. But in 2009 two social scientists published a paper entitled Engineers of Jihad: The Curious Connection between Violent Extremism and Education.

They, like many others before and since, were puzzled as to why some young men sign up to violent jihad while others do not.

They studied the backgrounds of hundreds of such men and found that all too often the ingredients one might expect for radicalisation – poverty, social exclusion, religious zeal – were not present.


Many were middle-class and well educated and had little reason to be disaffected. So Diego Gambetta and Steffen Hertog looked at their education and found something odd: a disproportionate number of them were engineers.

Initially, they assumed that there was a practical reason for this. The likes of Islamic State would need engineers for jobs such as bomb making and the other grim mechanics of killing. But this proved not to the case. Almost all of them were assigned or chose tasks unrelated to their education.

There had to be another reason. Eventually, Gambetta and Hertog concluded that it was down to what they called a “need for cognitive closure”. In other words, the way engineers tend to think.

The argument was that engineers think in mechanical terms, without nuance or compromise

If you are an engineer, forgive the sweeping generalisation. But their argument was that engineers think in mechanical terms, without nuance or compromise. If there's chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria, then the establishment of an all-powerful caliphate solves that problem. QED.

That strategy hasn’t worked out for Isis, but the way of thinking remains, and it has metastasised far past the borders of Islam. If there is any way of defining the political flows of the last decade, it is that they are marked by a despairing need to find definitive answers to complex problems.

In the US, communities that were hollowed out by globalisation and robotics voted for a man whose simple answer to their problems was to Build A Wall. In the UK, the simple answer to the same problems was to leave the European Union.

In that engineers’ way of thinking, people voted for the appearance of certainty; even if, in their hearts, they know there isn’t any.

Profound insecurity

It’s always dangerous to make grand pronouncements about the times we live in, but I’ll do it anyway: this century is shaping up to be one of profound insecurity.

The economic groundwork of life in the western world is starting to desiccate, while Europe still faces an influx of millions of people fleeing war and persecution and poverty. It's not certain if Europe can accommodate them all, and solving the problems of the countries they have escaped from, if possible at all, would take decades.

And that's just the first wave. Climate change will burn up a large swathe of Africa, rendering it uninhabitable. Those people will come too.

And all these problems are interlocked and further complicated by politics, war, colonial history, religion, economics, science and geography. Just to unpick the connections is mind-scrambling, never mind solve any of this. Even if we were to abandon all humanity and shut our borders and our minds, it wouldn’t work. The world is too small now. There is no cognitive closure. There is no quick fix.

Yet the more these problems grow and intersect, the more there is desperation to find a Big Answer: which in turn makes the problems even more complex and difficult to solve.

I wish I had something wise and hopeful to add at this point, but I don’t. Only that lying to ourselves isn’t going to help.