Sheila Riley / EE Times | April 3, 2008

Flashback: 9/11 Architects & Engineers site smeared with terrorism association

SAN FRANCISCO — Engineers’ personality traits make them excellent “field operatives”–that is, on–the-ground terrorists, according to an international security expert.

The connection between engineering and violent extremism is well known to terrorist groups and those who work to stop them, said Raphael Perl, who heads the Action against Terrorism Unit at the 56-country Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

“Engineers ideally make excellent strategic planners, and they make excellent field operatives. They think differently from how other people think,” Perl said from Vienna, Austria, where he is based.

Engineers may disagree, but they would be hard put to ignore Perl’s statements. OSCE, the world’s largest regional security organization, promotes democracy and conflict prevention, and includes non-NATO nations such as Russia and non-European Union countries such as the United States. The organization is seen as a growing and influential vehicle for the exercise of “soft power” in the anti-terrorism field.

Although not an engineer himself, Perl is a former fellow of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and a long-time terrorism expert for the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Engineers make good strategic planners because they think in terms of systems and networks. They make good operatives because they tend to be thorough and meticulous, Perl said.

Another quality many engineers share is the ability to keep quiet. “It’s fair to say they’re not perceived as super-social animals or the life of the party,” Perl said. “They’re not going to talk to a lot of people and brag about any terrorist activity they may be involved in.”

Because of those traits, terrorist groups actively recruit engineers. That means engineers are exactly the people who need to be in on anti-terrorism efforts, Perl said. He flatly disagreed with comments made by engineers in a recent EE Times article. Those comments criticized an Oxford study, “Engineers of Jihad,” which found terrorists in Islamic countries were more likely to be engineers than members of other professions.

The study argued that an “engineering mindset,” coupled with harsh socioeconomic conditions in certain Islamic countries, could lead to participation in terrorism. Angry engineers challenged the statistical significance of the study’s small sample and labeled it sloppy science.

But the reality is that engineers are overrepresented in terrorism, Perl said. Al-Qaeda is a clear example; it’s widely acknowledged that a significant number of the group’s top leadership had engineering backgrounds. Further, the terrorist organization works to attract engineers to its ranks, Perl said. While such groups might benefit from recruiting operatives with technical skills, the more fundamental qualities that define engineers and other tech professionals are the primary draw. “Al-Qaeda is actively recruiting from the engineering community because they like those qualities.They’re increasingly recruiting engineers, scientists, chemists, people with medical degrees and people with technical backgrounds,” Perl said.

It’s not only in Islamic countries that this is happening, he said. Al-Qaeda is increasingly recruiting scientists and engineers, especially non-Muslims, and is doing so worldwide, according to Perl.

There are very strong government policy implications, he said: Engineers need to participate in anti-terrorism efforts. Networks-possibly multiple networks at once-will be the next al-Qaeda targets. That’s where engineers could be a critical component of anti-terrorism work.

“Just like it takes a thief to catch a thief, it takes an engineer to catch an engineer,” Perl said.

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