Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Where Do Terrorists Want To Go To College? (Thesis Months)

Choosing a college is always difficult but imagine how much more challenging the issue is if you are a terrorist.  You have been told that you are a smart young person, you have aced all your exams, and it has been suggested to you by several bearded men in assorted caves that you should go somewhere to learn how to build a nuke.

How to choose?

Not every college or university has a nuclear engineering program and, to the best of my knowledge, none of them offer a course in "Nuclear Weapons Building 101".  Even if you find the right program with the right teachers and labs, etc., you probably also want to make sure you pick a place where you will not excite the interests of the local security services too much.

While it may be easier to imagine a terrorist group recruiting (or hiring) someone who already has the requisite knowledge to build a WMD, the attacks on the World Trade Center prove that Al Qaeda, at least, had (and may still have) the patience to execute a long-term plan involving the education of one of their best and brightest.

Cyndi Lee, in her thesis, Deadly Education:  Evaluating Which Universities Are Attractive To International Terrorists, explores this issue in some depth.

Specifically, Cyndi used German universities as the testbed for her case study (The German university system provides most of the data, including indications of quality, that Cyndi needed to demonstrate her concept.  The same system could be applied to any country where the data is available, however.)

Her goal was, first, eliminate any college or university that did not offer the possibility of getting the appropriate education and, second, rank order the remaining universities according to their perceived attractiveness to the international terrorist (in terms of program quality and ability to remain anonymous).

While Cyndi is careful to acknowledge the limitations of her study (not the least of which would be the unacceptably high false positive rate should her work be taken too literally), it does suggest that, in a resource constrained environment, there may well be ways to reduce uncertainty about possible terrorist courses of action and, in turn, allocate what resources that do exist more efficiently.

You can see the full text of the thesis below or download it directly from here.

Deadly Education -- Evaluating Which Universities Are Attractive To International Terrorists
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Anonymous said...

Interesting thesis. I would just comment that the author is leaving one of the most important factors for international students looking at universities: ease of obtaining a nonimmigrant visa. The United States, for example, uses the Visas Mantis program (described here: to keep an eye on potentially sensitive programs of study undertaken by foreign scientists BEFORE they arrive in country. If a terrorist can't get in the country, it won't matter which university is more attractive than another.

Kristan J. Wheaton said...


Thanks for the comment!

While I agree that Cyndi did not look at visa laws in specific, she did discuss European immigration standards and why this was important to her selection of Germany as a case study. See pages 12-13 for more detail.

Likewise, while visa programs do deter such activities, they are by no means a guarantee against them. We had an Iraqi nuclear scientist speak here last year on how he had circumvented the visa system. See: