Terrorism & Insurgencies S20

Spring 2020
POLT 34014 Selected Topics in Comparative & International Studies

Terrorism and Insurgencies

Spring 2020
Prof. Chip Gagnon
MWF 2-2:50pm, Williams 222
Course website: https://chipgagnon.com/terrorism/
Office: 324 Muller Center
tel. 607-274-1103
Office hours: MWF 1-2pm and by appointment
email: vgagnon@ithaca.edu

Updated 3/12/2020

Starting on Monday  March 23 until at least Friday April 1, as per Ithaca College policy, we will be meeting virtually via Zoom. Please refer to emails and Sakai messages I’ve sent out. All readings are accessible via links on this syllabus to files on Sakai.

The issues

Terrorism is in the headlines, with violent attacks within the US and around the world.  But what exactly is terrorism?  Are terrorists madmen, religious fanatics, or are they rational?  Why and under what conditions do people resort to violence?  Why would someone become a suicide terrorist?  How is terrorism related to insurgencies?

What we’ll be doing

We’ll be looking at these and other related questions to try to understand why people resort to violence as well as how they respond to violence.  We’ll explore these questions both theoretically and through specific case studies, drawing on a range of disciplines, from political science and international relations to anthropology, sociology, law, economics, criminology, philosophy, psychology, and history.

As we’ll see, acts described as “terrorism” are not a new phenomenon, and occur in every region of the world. We’ll be looking at specific cases of violence, cases that range over time and around the globe, with indepth looks at two of the movements that are receiving the most attention these days: rightwing extremists in the US and Europe, and ISIS.  Each student will also be researching a group of their choice and presenting their findings to the class.

Course Objectives

By the end of the course you should:

  • Understand the meaning(s) of the word “terrorism”
  • Be familiar with the debates about what is called “the New Terrorism”, including what role, if any, religious beliefs play in terrorism.
  • Understand the sources and effects of insurgencies, and their relationship to terrorism.
  • Learn about a number of specific terrorist groups and events.

The course has the following objectives as part of the overall Politics Department mission:

  • Students will demonstrate a capacity for critical writing
  • Students will demonstrate global awareness and understanding
  • Students will demonstrate critical self-consciousness about their ethical positions vis-à-vis political and civic life
  • Students will demonstrate sensitivity to and understanding of multiple perspectives, eg, class, race, gender, ethnicity, and sexuality.
  • Students will demonstrate a capacity to apply ideas to lived contexts

Course Materials

  • Required readings are in two course readers, packets of photocopies.  Page numbers in the syllabus refer to the printed page numbers at the bottom of each page in the course readers. The course readers can be purchased in the Ithaca College Bookstore for a total of $15.25. As of 3/12 all readings are available as pdf files on Sakai. Links on this syllabus are to those files.
  • Most assigned readings are included in the course readers. Some of the readings are on Sakai. These can be accessed by clicking on the links in the relevant places on the web version of the syllabus.

Readings listed as “Required” are mandatory — you should have read and thought about them before class — and serve as background for the class discussion. They come from a wide range of disciplines: Political science, international relations, sociology, anthropology, law, criminology, economics, philosophy, psychology, history.

The readings are of varying complexities; some are quite difficult. If you have any questions on the readings, please ask in class, or stop by my office.

I would suggest taking notes on the readings as you do them to ease review for the written assignments. The assigned essays require an in-depth understanding of specific assigned readings, so it is in your interest to do all required readings carefully. The amount of reading is generally small enough that you should have time to carefully read and take notes on the readings before each class.


What does “doing the readings” mean?

It doesn’t mean just sitting down and mechanically going through the articles; that’s a sure way to make even an interesting article boring.

Reading is an active and interactive process between the reader and the text. If you’re really reading a text you are also reacting to it. I’ve included a wide range of texts in order to provoke a wide range of responses from readers.

Reading should also be a reflective process. To really understand an article deeply it is usually necessary to read it and think about it, and then read it again, and think about it, and discuss it with others, write about it and read it yet again. I’ve found that even after many readings, when I read a text in order to explain it to someone else I get new perspectives on the author’s arguments and assumptions, on the text’s strengths and weaknesses.

So when I say “do the readings,” I mean “engage yourself with the ideas of the text.” I understand that some of the texts are quite complex and that not all of them are entertaining. But struggle is part of the reading experience. If something’s not clear, if it’s confusing, talk about it with others outside of class, and/or bring it up in class.

If it’s a long or complex reading, don’t try to do it all in one sitting; take breaks, come back to it, read it in small doses. As I mentioned above, taking notes on a text while you read it or re-read it is also a very good way to engage the text and to make sure you understand it.

If you do not understand the readings after we discuss them in class, please see me immediately. Some of the readings are challenging, and I expect you to speak with me if anything is not clear.


The final grade in the class will be determined by:

  • Class participation (20% of final grade): This part of the final grade will be based on participation in class, which includes:
    • Attendance. I expect students to be present at every class. For every absence after the fourth one, your final grade will be reduced by a grade (that is, from an A to an A-, for example). Much of the learning in this class happens in the classroom, in discussions. If you are missing class you are missing a crucial part of the course.
    • Being prepared. I expect you to have done the assigned readings for the day and to have thought about them before class. Being consistently unprepared will significantly affect your final grade.
    • Participation. Classroom discussion of readings is a key part of the learning process.  To be an effective participant means having done the readings and being prepared to take part in discussions.
    • No electronic devices. During class I expect all electronic devices to be turned off. This includes laptops, cell phones, iPhones, tablets, etc. If you cannot bear to be parted from your device, you should take another class. Use of an electronic device in class will count as an absence for that day. Here are some of the reasons for this policy (from Scientific American). Here are even more (from a leading prof of new media).  And here’s a good reason for you to turn off your phone and put it away where you can’t access it.
  • Presentation. (15% of final grade). Each student will choose a group that has been labeled “terrorist” from a list I provide, and do a presentation of about 15 minutes based on prompts I will provide you. Click here for details. Presentation dates start after Spring break and are listed on the daily assignments. Click here for updated schedule of presentations.
  • Written assignments. (65% of final grade)
    Please note: 
    The grade for an assignment is reduced by one grade (eg, from A to A-) for each day an assignment is late. It is your choice whether to hand the assignment in by the due date or afterward, but please be aware of these consequences.

    • Reading reflections (15% of final grade). Throughout the semester you will be writing five reflections on a series of readings, including the one that is assigned for the date the reflection is due.  Reflections should be at least 3 pages, not more than 6.  Due dates are noted in the syllabus and also starred. Each reading reflection contrast the readings for the previous classes (noted below and on the syllabus) and the reading on the due date.
      – Each response is worth 6 points, for a total of 30 points. The rubric for these is: 6 points – Strong Analysis and Synthesis – basically an “A”; 4-5 points -Acceptable Analysis – basically a “B”; 3 points or less -Unacceptable or Incomplete – basically a “C” or lower.

      • Monday 2/3. Reflection #1 on readings on definitions of terrorism and who becomes a terrorist and why (1/24 – 2/3)
      • Wednesday 2/12. Reflection #2 on readings about terrorism and religion (2/5 – 2/12)
      • Friday 2/28. Reflection #3 on readings about insurgencies (2/14 – 2/28)
      • Friday 4/3. Reflection #4 on readings about right-wing extremists (3/25 – 4/1). Submit on Sakai
      • Monday 4/20. Reflection #5 on readings about ISIS (4/6 – 4/20)
    • Essay #1. Due Monday 3/2 by 4pm. (25% of final grade) A take-home essay on the first part of the course. Submit on Sakai and give me a hard copy.
    • Essay #2. Due by Monday 5/11 by 4pm (25%) A take-home essay on the last half of the course. Submit on Sakai and give me a hard copy.

Please note: You cannot pass the course unless you have handed in all written assignments.

Meaning of grades:

A = excellent: intense effort and remarkable achievement.
B = good: good effort and pretty good understanding
C = okay: barely adequate amount of effort or effort that is somewhat misfocused or mistargeted
D = inadequate effort or mistargeted effort
F = little or no effort or complete misunderstanding of expectations
(Thanks to Naeem Inayatullah for these characterizations.)

If you get below a C, you should immediately come to see me so we can discuss your paper or exam.

If you have any questions about the class, the readings, the discussions, or anything else, I will be more than happy to meet with you either during office hours or at some other time. To schedule another time please see me after class, or contact me by e-mail.

Daily Assignments

Introduction: Terrorism defined

W 1/22 Introductions. What is and isn’t terrorism?

F 1/24 Terrorism: definitions
Required reading:
Hoffman, “Defining Terrorism” pp.1-25
Batuman, “Searching for motives in mass shootings”, pp.37-40
To think about:
What distinguishes the violence that is called “terrorism” from other kinds of violence?

M 1/27  Terrorism and morality  
Required reading:
– Jaggar, “ What is terrorism, why is it wrong, and could it ever be morally permissible?” pp.41-54
To think about:
Can violence ever be morally justified? What about violence against noncombatants?

W 1/29 Just war theory: terrorism vs war
Required reading:
–  Asad, “Thinking about terrorism and just war” pp.57-76
Reading of interest:
– Amjad-Ali, “Jihad and Just War Theory: Dissonance and Truth” (on Sakai)
To think about:
Is terrorism different than war? If so, how and why?  Think also about the difference between Jaggar’s analysis and Asad’s.

F 1/31  Radicalization
Required readings:
McCauly and Moskalenko, “Mechanisms of political radicalization” (on Sakai)
Lopez, “The radicalization of white Americans”, pp.80-87
To think about:
What is the process by which people become radicalized? What does radicalization mean?

M 2/3 Commonalities among differences *
Required readings:
– Ebner, “How jihadism and the far right have more in common than you’d think”, pp.88-92
– Ebner, “Reciprocal rage: why Islamist extremists and the far right need each other”, pp.93-100
To think about:
The parallels, in both goals and methods, of disparate nonstate groups and movements that use violence to achieve their goals.  What is Ebner’s argument about why they need each other?
Films of interest:
White Right – Meeting the Enemy (on Netflix)
Jihad – A story of others (on Netflix)
an interview with the filmmaker of White Right and Jihad
bl_diamReading reflection #1 on definitions of terrorism and who becomes a terrorist and why (1/24 – 2/3) due.

W 2/5  “New” Terrorism
Required reading:
– Rapoport, “The Fourth Wave” pp.101-106
– Morgan, “The origins of the new terrorism” pp.113-126
Suggested reading:
– Juergensmeyer, “Understanding the New Terrorism” pp.107-112
To think about:
According to these authors, how and why does the “new terrorism” (what Rapoport refers to as the Fourth Wave) differ from terrorism in the past? What is the role of religion in terrorism according to these authors?

F 2/7  No class, snow day

M 2/10 New terrorism: Religious or not?
Required reading:
– Gunning and Jackson, “What’s so ‘religious’ about ‘religious terrorism’?” pp.128-143
To think about:
Does it matter if the new terrorism is religiously motivated? Why?

W 2/12 Religion, terrorism, and mutual aid*
Required reading:
– Berman, excerpt from “Why are religious terrorists so lethal” pp.148-161
– Berman, excerpt from “Religious radicals and violence in the modern world” pp.164-173
To think about:
Religious extremism and social networks.
bl_diamReading reflection #2 on readings about terrorism and religion (2/5 – 2/12) due.

Terrorism as recruitment strategy
Required reading:
– Lemann, “What terrorists want” pp.177-184
– Cole, “Sharpening Contradictions: Why al-Qaeda attacked satirists in Paris” pp.186-188
– Gambhir, “ The Islamic State’s trap for Europe” pp.189-190
To think about:
The goal of fear in terrorists strategies.


F 2/14  Insurgencies: Background
Required reading:

– Joes, excerpts from Resisting Rebellion: “Guerrilla insurgency as a political problem”  and “Guerrilla strategy and tactics”  pp.192-214
To think about:
What is the goal of insurgency? What’s the difference between insurgency and regular war?

M 2/17 Insurgencies and terrorism
Required Reading:
Merari, “Terrorism as a strategy of insurgency” (on Sakai)
To think about
Can insurgencies ever be justified? Think about the range of actions that Merari attributes to insurgencies, and whether terrorism is ever justified.

W 2/19 Terrorism, insurgency and Just War doctrine
Required reading:

– Gross “Asymmetric war, symmetrical intentions: killing civilians in modern armed conflict” pp.222-238
Link of interest:
Ethics of Insurgency (Cambridge U.P., 2015), Gross’s book on the topic.
To think about:
The difference between regular and asymmetric war; the concept of “noncombatant.” International law on just wars.

F 2/21 Insurgency and Terrorism as Economic Strategy
Required reading:
– Ahmad, “The Security Bazaar: Business Interests and Islamist Power in Civil War Somalia,” pp.239-267
To think about:
– What happens when the state can’t provide security? How to economic actors respond?

M 2/24 Suicide terrorism and foreign occupation
Required reading:
– Pape, excerpts from Dying to Win pp.268-287
Link of interest:
University of Chicago Suicide Attack Database (Pape’s data, updated to 2016)
To think about:
The strategic logic of suicide bombing. Why is it difficult to think of those who use violence, including suicide bombing, as rational?

W 2/26 – F 2/28 Counterinsurgency  *
Required reading:

– Record, “Why the strong lose” pp.293-307
In class:
Obama’s War (Frontline)
Document of interest:
US Army Countersurgency manual
bl_diamReading reflection #3 on insurgencies (2/14 – 2/28) due Friday 3/28.



M 3/2 Slave revolts: Insurgency or terrorism?
Required readings:
– Etcheson, “John Brown, Terrorist?” pp.309-321
– Egerton, “ Abolitionist or Terrorist?” pp.329-332
To think about:
What kinds of violence are justified in the face of the violence of slavery? Was John Brown a religious terrorist? Was he an insurgent?

bl_diamEssay #1 due M 3/2 at 4pm


Tu 3/3 Film: The Battle of Algiers


W 3/4 Anti-colonial struggles and terrorism: Algeria
Required reading:
– Polk, “The Algerian War for National Independence,” pp.334-343
– Evans, “The Battle of Algiers: historical truth and filmic representation” pp.346-349
– Gourevitch, “Winning and Losing” pp.351-353
– Dobie, “‘The Battle of Algiers’ at 50: From 1960s Radicalism to the Classrooms of West Point”, pp.354-360
Link of interest:
More articles on the Battle of Algiers, its genesis and impacts from OpenDemocracy.net
To think about:
Is there a difference between the violence of colonialism and the violence of terrorism and/or insurgency? Also think about how the US Army used the film as a way to learn about counterinsurgency strategies.
Film showing Time and place TBA
Showing of The Battle of Algiers (121 minutes)

Film viewing:  Battle of Algiers

F 3/6 No Class (evening film viewing earlier in the week)

M 3/9 – F 3/13 Spring break, no classes

M 3/16 – F 3/20 Extended Spring break

M 3/23  Anti-colonial struggles and terrorism: Israel
Required reading:
Hoffman, “The rationality of terrorism and other forms of political violence”, pp.362-372
Walton, “How Zionist extremism became British spies’ biggest enemy” pp.377-390
To think about:
What kinds of violence are justified in the struggle for independence?

Right Wing extremism and terrorism

Volume 2 of the course reader starts here

W 3/25  United States: violence and right wing extremism, background
Required reading:

Cox, “Beyond the fringe: the extreme right in the United States of America“, pp.392-401
Juergensmeyer, “Soldiers for Christ” (on Sakai)
FBI report, “Christian Identity Movement” pp.404-412
Liss-Schultz, “New ugly surge…” pp.413-418
To think about:

Why do Americans tend to think about domestic terrorism as fundamentally different than foreign terrorism?
Presentation #1

F 3/27  Right wing extremism: cultural and economic background
Required reading:
Lipschutz, “From culture wars to shooting wars”, pp.419-452
To think about:
What were the motives of the right wing extremist movements in the 1990s? What were their goals? Why did they resort to violence?
Presentation #2

M 3/30 Rightwing extremism today
Required readings:
Conroy, “They hate the US government, and they’re multiplying”, pp. 460-467
ADL, “A Dark & Constant Rage: 25 years of rightwing terrorism” (Read the Introduction; skim the list of incidents), pp.468-494
Department of Homeland Security, “Rightwing extremism: Current economic and political climate fueling resurgence in radicalization and recruitment”, pp.495-504
Owen, “The FBI Just Put White Nationalists and Neo-Nazis on the Same Threat Level as ISIS” (online)
Bertand, “State pushes to list white supremacist group as terrorist org” (online)
Link of interest:
ADL report “Murder and extremism in the United States in 2018”
To think about:
What are the motives of current right wing extremist movements? What are their goals? Why do they resort to violence?

W 4/1 Right wing extremism, US and Europe
Required readings:
Edgar, “Alt-America and English Uprising review”, pp.505-508
Neiwert, “Alt-America”, pp.509-516
Beauchamp, “White Riot“, pp.517-543
Michel, “The account of a former white supremacist leader shows path out of Trump-driven racial retrenchment” (on Sakai)
To think about:
Commonalities in the US and European cases
Presentation #3

F 4/3 Presentations #4 & 5  *

bl_diamReading reflection #4 on rightwing extremists (3/25 – 4/1) due April 3. Submit on Sakai

Note: April 3 is the last day to withdraw from the course.

Al Qaeda and ISIS

M 4/6 Islam
Required reading:
Esposito, “Islam and the West: A Clash of Civilizations?” pp.544-560
– Tharoor, “The long history of Muslims and Christians killing people together”, pp.565-567
To think about:
The diversity within Islam; the historical encounters between the West and the Muslim world.
Presentation #6

W 4/8  Islam and suicide bombing
Required reading:
Gonzalez-Perez, “The False Islamization of Female Suicide Bombers” (on Sakai)
To think about:
The use of religious framing to achieve political goals.
Presentation #7

F 4/10  Al Qaeda
Required reading:
– Excerpts from Al Qaeda in its own words (on Sakai)
Links of interest:
– Letters from Abbottabad (internal Al Qaeda communications)
To think about:
How and why Al Qaeda came into existence. The role of religious vs the role of geostrategic goals.


M 4/13 ISIS: Origins
Required reading:
Barrett, “The Islamic State” excerpts (on Sakai)
Sly, “The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants” (on Sakai)
– Chulov, “ISIS: The inside story” pp.568-577
To think about:
Was the rise of ISIS inevitable? Is it an insurgency?
Link of interest:
– ISIS situation live map real time updates of situation in ISIS controlled areas


W 4/15 ISIS and religion
Required reading:
– Crooke, “You can’t understand ISIS…” pp.578-581
– Crooke, “Middle East Time Bomb…” pp.582-585
– Doostdar, “How not to understand ISIS” pp.586-590
– Ghilan, “Is ISIS Islamic or Not? It Doesn’t Matter”, pp.593-602
– Niva, “The ISIS shock doctrine” pp.603-606
To think about:
The degree to which religious beliefs/doctrines do or do not explain the rise of ISIS and its methods of fighting
Presentation #8

F 4/17 ISIS as state
Required reading:
– Hussain, “Islamic State’s goal…” pp.607-610
– Malik, “The ISIS papers … how ISIS is building its state” pp.611-613
– Reuter, “Secret files reveal structure of Islamic State” pp.614-621
Suggested Reading
– Atran, “Paris -The War ISIS Wants”, pp.622-629
To think about:
ISIS as a political organization
Presentation #9

M 4/20  ISIS fighters: Who and why?
Required reading:
– Wilson, “What I discovered from interviewing imprisoned ISIS fighters” pp.630-639
– Kuntz, “Why is a small country producing so many jihadists?” pp.641-643
– Parkin, “How ISIS hijacked pop culture, from Hollywood to video games”, pp.644-647
– Koerner, “Why ISIS is winning the social media war” pp.648-663
– Koerner, “The Orlando shooting shows how ISIS outsources terror” pp.664-668
Suggested reading:

– Roy, “France’s Oedipal Islamist Complex” Foreign Policy
– Atran, “ISIS is a Revolution” (2015)
To think about:
Why people join ISIS; in particular think about the range of reasons.

bl_diam Reading reflection #5 on ISIS (4/6 – 4/20) due M 4/20.


W 4/22  Counterterrorism: International vs. domestic terrorism
Required readings:
Byman, “Should we treat domestic terrorists the way we treat ISIS?” (on Sakai)
ICG, “Counterterrorism Pitfalls: What the US Fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda Should Avoid” (on Sakai)
To think about:
The differences and commonalities in international vs domestic terrorism, and whether they should be battled differently.
Presentation #10


F 4/24   Presentations #11 & 12

M 4/27 – W 4/29 Counterterrorism
– In class: Film: (T)error (2015; 84 mins)
Required readings
 (on Sakai):
– Shipler, “Terror Plots, Hatched by the FBI”, pp.669-673
– Moynihan “(T)error Focuses on Informant and Piques FBI’s Interest”, pp.674-677
– Int’l Crisis Group, “Counter-terrorism Pitfalls: What the U.S. Fight against ISIS and al-Qaeda Should Avoid” (executive summary), pp.678-681
Suggested readings:
– Reitman, U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism. Now They Don’t Know How to Stop It.
– “National Strategy for Counterterrorism” (2011)
“National Strategy for Counterterrorism” (2018)
– Hersh, “What to do about Brussels”
Link of interest:
– Adama (2011; 57:41) Sutcliffe’s first film
– Brennan Center for Justice’s Countering Violent Extremism Resources Page

F 5/1  Presentations #13 & 14

M 5/4    Presentations #15 & 16

W 5/6 Presentations #17 & 18

F 5/7 Presentations #19 & 20

M 5/11  Conclusion of the course

bl_diamEssay #2 due by M 5/11 by 4pm