Understanding 9/11: Why Did al Qai’da Attack America?

Duke University

This course will explore the forces that led to the 9/11 attacks and the policies the United States adopted in response. We will examine the phenomenon of modern terrorism, the development of the al Qai'da ideology, and the process by which individuals radicalize towards violence.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, were a seminal moment in modern history. They demonstrated the ability of non-state actors to inflict serious damage on the world's greatest superpower and exposed the vulnerability of the entire global community to catastrophic acts of terrorism.

To understand the causes of the attacks, 9/11 and Its Aftermath -- Part I will examine the phenomenon of terrorism, in general, and, more specifically, the radical ideology developed and propagated by Osama bin Laden through al Qai'da. We will consider why individuals are attracted to this ideology and how they radicalize to violence. We will also explore the way in which the United States addressed terrorism prior to 9/11 and the policy challenges it (and its allies around the globe) faced in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

The second part of this course -- to be offered sometime in 2014 -- will examine the policy "aftermath" of 9/11. Part II will examine how the United States changed its policies in response to 9/11 in three areas: the use of military force, law enforcement and intelligence activities, and homeland security. We will trace the evolution of these policies from the Bush to the Obama Administration and critically assess the overall counter-terrorism strategy. 

Together, these courses will provide the background necessary to understand why 9/11 occurred, and consider the range of options that democratic nations can use to counteract this form of political violence.  


Course Topics

Week 1: The 9/11 Attacks
Week 2: What is Terrorism?
Week 3: A Primer on Islam
Week 4: The Al Qai'da Ideology
Week 5: The Radicalization Process
Week 6: Counterterrorism Pre-9/11
Week 7: September 12, 2001

Recommended Background

No background is required.

Suggested Readings

There will be weekly readings that will either be provided as PDFs or as links. You will not be required to buy any texts.

If you are interested in learning more, I can highly recommend Lawrence Wright's The Looming Tower and The 9/11 Commission Report.

Course Format

Each week will consist of lecture videos, readings, and an assessment. Along with content lectures by Professor Schanzer, there will be videos of student discussions and interviews with various experts. There will be multiple opportunities for engagement with fellow students and Professor Schanzer through Google Hangouts and the discussion forums.

Students will submit weekly posts commenting on an aspect of the materials. In addition, there will be either a quiz or peer assessment for each topic. Students will be asked to think critically about the subject matter and form their own opinions -- this is not a course with right and wrong answers. Rather, it is designed to provide the information necessary to engage in informed debate about difficult issues, think critically, assess tradeoffs, and express your own opinions.


Will I get a Statement of Accomplishment after completing this class?

Yes. Students who successfully complete the class with a 70% or better will receive a Statement of Accomplishment signed by the instructor. Students who complete the class with a 85% or better will receive a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction. The Signature Track will be available for this course.

What is the code of ethics for this course?

There is an ethics code relating to your work for the course and participation on the discussion forums. Students will be required to agree to the Coursera Honor Code, which requires that students do their own work and act honorably on assessments. Vibrant and open discussion will be encourage on the discussion forums. Education is advanced by exposure to a full range of ideas and vigorous exchange of perspectives and opinions. Nonetheless, comments that make no contribution to thoughtful discourse and appear to be intended primarily to offend, intimidate, demean, or stifle other will not be tolerated. Posts that violate this standard will be removed from the forums and students unwilling to abide by this standard will be removed from the course.

What is the most important thing I will learn about in this class?

The main objective of the course is to teach students to think critically about controversial, important issues. You will learn to form opinions and craft arguments that are based on facts and substance, not mere feelings or conjecture. You will be exposed to the wide variety of opinion around the globe about the ideas promoted by al Qai’da and like minded groups and the origins of the 9/11 attacks. The course will provide you the basis to be an informed participant in these discussions and debates. You will not be taught what to think or believe about these issues. Rather, you will be provided background information and exposure to ideas so you can to develop your own views and reach your own conclusions from an informed perspective.  

  • 9 September 2013, 7 weeks
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  • Language: English Gb


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