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Science Careers Blog

October 1, 2011

More on Technical Education and Extremism

Anwar al-Awlaki, the charismatic cleric and leader of Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by an American drone on Friday, received a degree in civil engineering from Colorado State University in 1994. His excellent computer skills, fluent English, and familiarity with American culture made him a potent recruiter of disaffected young men in English-speaking countries, most famously Nidal Hasan, the military doctor charged with the 2009 Fort Hood shooting; Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab, the so-called "underwear bomber" accused of attempting to blow up a plane over Detroit 6 weeks later, on Christmas Day; and Faisal Shahzad, who allegedly tried to bomb Times Square in New York in 2010.

What's the relevance of Awlaki's engineering studies?  Just that it provides support for the research of Dr. Russell Razzaque, the British psychiatrist about whom we blogged some weeks back.  Razzaque studies the process of radicalization that has made violent extremists out of a number of highly educated young Muslim men who were either born or received a considerable part of that education in Western countries. Among the characteristics shared by those susceptible to such a transformation, Razzaque identified a background of studying a technical field, often engineering, technology, or a similar subject.  Abdulmuttalab holds a degree in mechanical engineering from the elite University College London.   Hasan graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (better known as Virginia Tech) with an honors degree in biochemistry and minors in biology and chemistry before attending Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.  Shahzad received a computer degree from University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

So is Razzaque -- himself a trained in the technical field of medicine -- saying that there's something about science or technical studies that makes people terrorists?  By no means.  But he does think that certain individuals have characteristics that attract them to both that type of subject and to extremism.  You can read about Razzaque's work here.

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