Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Teaching about Jihadism and The War on Terror
Teaching about Jihadism and The War on Terror

Teaching about Jihadism and The War on Terror

  • Barak Mendelsohn
  • October 27, 2010
  • Wachman Center for Civic and International Literacy

This essay is focused on my experience in teaching courses on jihadism and terrorism at Haverford College. Despite the difference between the college and high-school settings, I believe that some parallels can be identified and hope that my experience will provide some useful insights for teachers in this underdeveloped and landmine-strewn field.

I teach three courses that relate to the question of terrorism, particularly jihadi terrorism. At the intermediate level, I offer “The Evolution of the Jihadi Movement” and “Introduction to Terrorism Studies.” At the advanced level, I teach a seminar titled “War on Terrorism.” The courses are analytically linked but distinct, as reflected in the minimal overlap in the readings. Each course focuses on a different element: the terrorist actors, states combating terrorism, and the jihadi movement. In this way, students can take individual courses or all three, as a more comprehensive course of study in terrorism.


Although these courses focus on the question of terrorism and counterterrorism, they are designed for a larger value and application. Therefore, the objectives I set combine goals unique to the class subject and goals we should seek in all academic courses. First, I seek to capture the issue’s complexity: While the words terrorism and jihadism are very salient and courses with these words in the title are immediately perceived as attractive, both are complex phenomena. Students arrive at the term’s first class with disparate and often distorted pieces of knowledge-and a great many misconceptions. The courses’ main objective is to open up these concepts and create link between their multiple facets.

At the same time, students must accept that they will not be handed simple answers to their most burning questions. The courses offer no magic solution to the problem of terrorism in general and jihadi terrorism in particular. There is no secret course of action that is unknown to policymakers but basic knowledge for professors of international relations. To calibrate students’ expectations, it is important to be straightforward and tell them that, in fact, by the end of the course they are likely to be less confident in any one clear view of the problem or its solution. They will, though, gain a more comprehensive understanding of the topics’ intricacies and complexities, a recognition and understanding of different viewpoints, and an ability to analyze them from diverse perspectives.

A second objective is to enhance students’ analytical skills and improve their argumentation abilities. Students need to identify arguments. To achieve this goal, I use scholarly journal articles. Such articles often locate a question in a broader topic, divide the positions about the question among diverse schools of thought, and offer critiques of the literature and new ways to think about and even answer the puzzle. For example, rather than the common assertion that ties terrorism to failed states, one needs to explain how the two are connected.

Students are expected to think about arguments in a critical manner. I often dedicate class discussion to critiquing assigned articles. One example: is the war on terrorism a clash of civilizations? This involves choosing articles for the syllabus based not on how well written they are, or on whether I agree with the arguments they present, but on how suitable they are for students’ critique. At the same time, this requires avoiding more polemical articles that would lead to a political debate rather than an analytical one.

I try to teach students about the various ways in which one can criticize arguments, such as empirical accuracy, internal logic, external validity, conceptual clarity, circularity, inability to refute, among others. Given time constraints and the focus of the course on terrorism, I cannot deal with such issues in a systematic manner; they are more appropriate for classes on research methods. But I make occasional references, and indeed I have found that over time, students internalize my references and explanations of the various ways to offer critiques.

A major obstacle I face is students’ need of constant affirmation, fear of being wrong, and tendency to see everything as personal. Indeed, I must clarify repeatedly that every argument has holes (yes, even mine), and consequently almost every argument is open to some level of critique. I also fight against a culture that fears telling students when a claim is weak or invalid. Students must understand that it is “OK” to be wrong sometimes. It is a real challenge to get students to understand that I appreciate a genuine effort and do not judge them negatively because they failed to offer a devastating critique. Usually after a few weeks, most students understand me well enough to argue freely.

Analytical skills are also demonstrated by constructing and articulating arguments. The ability to construct arguments is inextricable from the ability to critique. However, students often find when starting their independent research, it is more difficult to construct than to destroy. The challenge is to make students understand the importance of causality and start thinking in such terms-to understand how a certain condition leads to a particular outcome. Instead of correlation between certain psychological traits and an individual’s acts of terrorism, students should think about causality: How do such traits lead to terrorist acts? This also requires thinking about non-events. For example, if there are numerous people with similar psychological profiles who do not turn to terrorism, what does that suggest for the validity of the argument? Another insufficiently recognized tool is counterfactuals: What would happen if we change one variable? For example, to understand the importance of the role of Osama bin Laden, one must first ask whether conflict between the jihadis and the United States could still have happened. Moreover, as the significance of variables may change over time, we need to hypothesize what would happen if bin Laden were to die tomorrow.

A third objective is to improve students’ writing skills. Teaching terrorism offers a great opportunity to fulfill this greater educational goal because the “sexiness” of the topic renders students much less resistant to independent research. Thus, in all three courses I require a research paper ranging from twenty to thirty pages long. My request that all papers include a research question that is a “why” question imposes a certain structure and is particularly useful for inexperienced researchers. A “why” question also serves the goal of getting students to write explanatory rather than descriptive work. Students must locate their question in the broader literature by thinking about answers to research questions as categories or schools of thought. I then require that the students use case studies. To assist the students in meeting these requirements, my undergraduate research assistants developed, under my supervision, a couple of research tools. The Global Terrorism Resources (located at is a master list of terrorism-related sources (which includes numerous resources that can be used for many other kinds of studies in political science as well). The al Qaeda Statement Index (AQSI, located at is an elaborated index for statements made by al Qaeda leaders. We are currently working on a new version of the index which will create search options. The new and improved version will go live by the end of 2010 and will be hosted on the Haverford domain at I also require students to present their work in progress to the class. This way, students are forced to start their research early and can benefit from their classmates’ feedback. These presentations also expose the class to new topics and to contribute to their ability to offer critique.

The fourth objective is to provide foundations for students who would like to write a thesis on a related topic. Haverford College requires all seniors to write a thesis. Thus, the work that students undertake in earlier stages of their academic career provides them tools for this final project, the culmination of their studies. Last year, five of my students wrote theses on terrorism-related topics: foreign fighters, alliances between terrorist organizations, state sponsorship of terrorism, the targeting of journalists by terrorist groups, and how to use the AQSI to study al Qaeda.


Teaching about jihadism, terrorism, and counterterrorism involves some intrinsic challenges. First, the subjects’ broad scope requires selectiveness, which means some topics will be excluded. The main consideration guiding me is how to maintain cohesiveness. This led me to exclude a discussion of state terrorism from “Introduction to Terrorism Studies.” In “Evolution of the Jihadi Movement,” I largely avoid discussing Shiite groups, except for when they play a role in the divide between Sunnis and Shiites. While these Shiite groups (particularly Hezbollah) may be committed to jihad, they do not belong to the al Qaeda-led jihadi movement. While never the focus of any particular class, Shiite terrorism is addressed in various ways in “Introduction”-for example, in the discussion of suicide bombing or of religious terrorism. Another major group of actors I left out of “Jihadi Movement” are Sunni groups with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, including violent ones such as Hamas. Again, when I refer to such groups, it is usually through the lenses of jihadis’ attitudes toward them. Note that the paper assignment is a good way to compensate for topics that cannot be addressed because of time constraints. I encourage students to write about topics or cases that are not discussed in the course, thus increasing their knowledge.

A second challenge is how to make each class period a discussion about politics rather than a political discussion, as international relations courses tend to. Mine is probably a minority opinion, but I normally view political debates as distractions-they often deteriorate into shouting matches and rarely encourage students to consider others’ positions. Moreover, given that on many subjects students hold passionate positions but have little actual knowledge, it is rare that these arguments end up beneficial to overall understanding. I prefer to focus on the quality of arguments on all sides. When students feel no pressure to defend their own particular political positions, they actually find it attractive to play devil’s advocates, sometimes even critiquing an argument they just articulated themselves.

The third challenge concerns the role of values and morality in courses on terrorism. It is hard to separate the study of violence, especially in the current environment, from questions of morality. Professors at a Quaker school, such as Haverford College, that emphasizes certain values (especially social justice) face this challenge regularly. I choose to focus on the intellectual enterprise, and while I do not dismiss the importance of moral values, I do not let them taint arguments. In fact, I try to make my classroom a place where students feel comfortable to express every logically defensible position, including positions they fear may not be in line with their (often misidentified) perception of what constitutes a legitimate discourse at Haverford. It is a challenge to create an atmosphere in which students overcome their apprehension of saying something that is not politically correct.

As a first step, I clarify that I do not presuppose that jihadis represent a distortion of Islam. My approach is guided by my understanding of religion as being interpreted and mutually constituted with the people and groups who claim to adhere to it. With an extensive debate raging within Islamic circles on what “true Islam” really is, it would be pretentious for me to announce who truly represents the religion and who does not. I prefer to avoid questions of right and wrong and instead locate the jihadi movement in the broader battle for the shape of Islam and the leadership of the Islamic umma, while making sure that students are aware that comparatively few Muslims support jihadis. While I make clear my role in preventing students from abusing freedom by making abusive, racist, and hateful comments, I have found that demanding causal inference and requiring students to explain and justify their positions serves as a good tool for preventing such undesirable outbursts.

A fourth challenge concerns the availability of primary sources. Such sources, mainly statements by al Qaeda leaders, have been extremely useful in getting students excited about studying terrorism and the jihadi movement and more aware of the discourse used by jihadis as well as the particular arguments they employ. Rather than relying on the arguments of scholars, students are able to get their hands dirty and form ideas on the personalities involved, al Qaeda leaders’ mindset, the organization’s aspirations, the media strategies it uses, as so on. Since few students know Arabic, we rely on translations. For a long time, I was able to find translations of statements provided by Open Source Center (OPC) and bring the newest bin Laden or al Zawahiri statements, which we then read and analyzed as a group. However, depending on such governmental sources is problematic. In June 2010, OPC decided-an indefensible and arbitrary decision, in my opinion-to classify all statements taken from jihadi websites and forums. Classifying these statements serves no real counterterrorism purpose and creates difficulties for teachers and researchers. We found partial solutions in subscribing to commercial services that provide translations (for example, the SITE Intelligence Group), and we are dedicating greater effort to finding material translated by jihadis and intended to reach non-Arabic speakers, but this is not a sufficient substitute for the services of OPC.

Fifth, there is the challenge of students’ absence of prior knowledge. This is not a complaint but simply a statement of fact: When students come to college they have very little knowledge of the subjects I teach. Students’ knowledge of history is deficient, and their familiarity with Islam and its history is basically nonexistent. But one needs to play with the hand that is dealt. In “Jihadi Movement,” I try to overcome this problem by giving an extremely abbreviated introduction to Islam and Islamic concepts, and I assign a book about the history of Islam in the beginning of the semester. This is far from ideal, but as the semester progresses, events, names, and concepts link together. In “Terrorism Studies,” I use a textbook by Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism, mostly because it includes a useful survey of the development of terrorism throughout time.

A final challenge I would like to address is how to get students involved in class. Discussing recently released statements by al Qaeda leaders is one way, but I also designed an assignment called “This Week in Jihad.” Every week, two students are required to present the main events in the jihadi scene-delivering, in essence, a news report based on newspapers (including translations of foreign newspapers), websites, and blogs. It lasts about ten minutes and, given the issues in the news, may even serve for further discussion. This exercise helps students to get acquainted with events around the world and links the course to current events, thus making it appear more relevant and useful. Indeed, when I taught “Jihadi Movement” in the spring of 2009, news reports directed class attention to the deterioration of security in Pakistan. The threat of the country’s fall into chaos became a central question that accompanied us throughout the course. The “This Week in Jihad” assignment also strengthens students’ ability to research by forcing them to contextualize the news. In a way, this exercise facilitates establishing students’ knowledge using two timelines simultaneously: While the syllabus is based on historical trajectory, “This Week in Jihad” supplements it by emphasizing current events.

Despite the challenges, teaching about jihadism and the war on terrorism is important-and very satisfying. Students become more aware of a phenomenon that since the attacks of September 11, 2001, has become an integral part of our daily lives. By teaching these subjects, we contribute to making our students better citizens. At the same time, these subjects provide us with new ways to achieve more general educational goals. In international relations, few situations are genuinely win-win, but this one is.