POLS 167: Terrorism and Counterterrorism

In October 2019, the United States killed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the “Islamic State” terrorist group. The announcement of his death overlapped with the one year anniversary of the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, by a man motivated by anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant beliefs.

Both of these events arguably involved terrorism: the deliberate creation of fear through violence or the threats of violence in order to advance a political goal. In al-Baghdadi’s case, his group terrorized Iraq and Syria as it swept through, persecuting and repressing those under its control; the group also conducted and inspired attacks around the world. The Tree of Life attack involved a “lone wolf,” motivated by a political ideology who hoped to terrorize his targets and make a political statement through violence. The response to them involved various facets of counterterrorism, the effort to disrupt and prevent terrorist attacks, which ranges from “decapitation strikes” (the killing of al-Baghdadi) to law enforcement operations (the prosecution of the Tree of Life attacker) to initiatives to prevent violent extremism from arising.

These two events, however, also raise a multitude of questions. Do they both really count as terrorism? Is terrorism the best term to describe them? What led to these acts of violence? How can we best prevent them.

In this course we will attempt to answer these questions. Through a mix of lectures, debates (informal and organized), written assignments and group projects, we will explore the nature of terrorism, its history, its current manifestations, and efforts to combat it. We will both survey existing research on terrorism and critically engage with this scholarship to determine if we are approaching this topic in the proper manner. We will also apply this scholarship to current events to try and make sense of the world today.

After completing this course, students will be able to:

  1. Understand the history of terrorism and attempts to explain and counter it
  2. Assess how accurate and appropriate scholarship on terrorism has been in making sense of this issue
  3. Produce original insights into terrorism and counterterrorism, whether it is reactions to terrorism scholarship, research frameworks for studying terrorism, or policy suggestions for countering terrorism