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Terrorism: Understanding and Responding to a Global Threat

Course registration will be available for this course once it is scheduled.

Course Description

There is little question that terrorism presents a critical threat. In just the last twenty years it has caused a significant number deaths, resulted in major economic losses, influenced elections around the world, and even led nations to fail. As important, it has resulted in a political discourse characterized by fear-mongering and has threatened to undermine values central to the American identity by leading to national security responses that jeopardize civil liberties and justify tactics we might otherwise reject. This course is designed to complicate our understanding of contemporary terrorism by shedding light on the terrorist, the act of terrorism, and the response to terrorism. Inadequate theories often result in inadequate policies, so better understanding the threat of terrorism is critical to developing a sound response to this national and international security threat.

This course is designed to challenge our preconceptions about the terrorist (as an agent of terror), the act of terrorism (as a global phenomenon and critical security threat), and the response to terrorism (at the national and international scale). Much of the public discussion about terrorism is shaped by information that we get from necessarily simplistic newspaper headlines, TV shows, and movies. This course deconstructs these portrayals, and offers a more complicated narrative, by exploring a series of critical questions about terrorism and the terrorist: What precisely is terrorism? Is it a new phenomenon or just another kind of war? Are there really risk factors for terrorism? Who is at risk for becoming a terrorist? How are we responding to terrorism? How should we respond to terrorism? What does de-radicalization mean and is it even possible? What are we willing to sacrifice in the name of ‘national security’? How has being a victim of terrorism changed how America thinks about itself? To answer these questions, we will engage with materials written by academics, policy analysts, and terrorists themselves. We will also look closely at individual terror groups (Al Qaeda, ISIS, The Army of God, ELF, Aum Shinrikyo, etc.) active on a number of continents, pursuing different agendas, and employing distinct strategies.

This course will provide a foundation for further study – in International Relations, Political Science, Public Policy, etc. – by providing students with a nuanced vocabulary for discussing not only terrorism itself but also the environment in which it finds a home. It will challenge preconceptions about the terrorist and attempt to humanize (without excusing or sanctioning) this individual. At the same time, it will place modern terrorism in context: it will trace terrorism to its roots in the mid-19th century, critique simplistic theories about why terrorism occurs today, and explore some of the major themes in current terrorism research. Finally, it will explore national and international responses to terrorism and ask hard questions about the current global response. This course aspires to give students the tools to ask better questions when presented with over-simplified explanations of contemporary terrorist activities. At the same time, the course will introduce students to a number of important theorists who continue to shape – for better or for worse – this important discussion.

By the end of this course students will be able to offer a nuanced analysis of the contemporary discourse surrounding terrorism. They will be able to speak knowledgeably about the nature of terrorism, current research on political radicalization, the roots of modern terrorism, and the debates shaping the current discourse (prominent particularly in the most recent U.S. Presidential election) on how to respond to this threat.

Prerequisites: There are no prerequisites for this course.