By Alan Shapiro


To the Teacher:

Terrorist attacks and threats against Americans receive widespread attention, but rarely does the media explore what motivates this hostility. The first student reading below describes a White House briefing for reporters following two terrorist incidents in the U.S. in which officials seemed unwilling to discuss the terrorists' motives. The second reading includes excerpts from past statements by President Bush and Osama bin Laden about terrorists' motivations. The third offers additional information, including statements by U.S. officials.

Following the readings are discussion questions and a suggested inquiry project that probes terrorist motivations.

Student Reading 1:

Searching for reasons

In November 2009, Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, an American citizen and Army officer, opened fire at Ft. Hood, Texas, killing 12 soldiers and wounding 31 others. He was captured alive.

On Christmas Day, 2009, a Nigerian, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to set off a plastic explosives device on a Northeast flight headed for Detroit with nearly 300 people aboard. He, too, was captured alive.

A White House briefing for reporters on January 7, 2010, dealt with these incidents.

President Obama spoke first:

"It is clear that al Qaeda increasingly seeks to recruit individuals without known terrorist affiliations ... to do their bidding. ... And that's why we must communicate clearly to Muslims around the world that al Qaeda offers nothing except a bankrupt vision of misery and death ... while the United States stands with those who seek justice and progress. ... That's the vision that is far more powerful than the hatred of these violent extremists."

John Brennan, Deputy Assistant to the President, answered questions from reporters that focused on how the administration would improve collaboration between U.S. intelligence agencies and how to increase air travel security.

But Helen Thomas, a Hearst Newspapers columnist and a member of the White House Press Corps for 50 years, wanted an explanation for why terrorists want to kill Americans.

From the transcript of the press conference:

THOMAS: And what is the motivation [of the terrorists]? We never hear what you find out on why.

BRENNAN: Al Qaeda is an organization that is dedicated to murder and wanton slaughter of innocents. What they have done over the past decade and a half, two decades, is to attract individuals like Mr. Abdulmutallab and use them for these types of attacks. He was motivated by a sense of religious sort of drive. Unfortunately, al Qaeda has perverted Islam, and has corrupted the concept of Islam, so that he's able to attract these individuals. But al Qaeda has the agenda of destruction and death.

THOMAS: And you're saying it's because of religion?

BRENNAN: I'm saying it's because of an al Qaeda organization that uses the banner of religion in a very perverse and corrupt way.


BRENNAN: I think this is a — this is a long issue, but al Qaeda is just determined to carry out attacks here against the homeland.

THOMAS: But you haven't explained why.

The press conference continued with questions on other matters.

Is the Thomas question important to ask? For many people, the answer is no. They feel that a terrorist act is so vile, so indiscriminate in its murderousness that offering any explanation for the terrorist's behavior seems somehow to justify it.

Glenn Greenwald, a lawyer, columnist, and blogger for Salon, doesn't agree:

"To acknowledge motive is not remotely to imply legitimacy or justification. In fact, the opposite is true: pretending motive doesn't exist legitimizes it more than acknowledging (and refuting) it would, since that fantasyland behavior creates the impression that one is afraid of its being aired and heard. That's certainly the impression that one gets watching John Brennan feed cartoon idiocy to the public in response to Helen Thomas' questions and then having everyone just move on when she tries to get an answer. It's just amazing, given how much endless chatter there is over terrorism, how rare it is for this question to be raised." (www.salon.com, 1/9/10)


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is President Obama's answer? Brennan's?

3. Thomas was clearly dissatisfied with Brennan's answer. Why? Would she have been satisfied with the president's? Why or why not?

4. Why does Glenn Greenwald think it important to consider terrorist motivations? Do you agree? Why or why not?

5. How would you answer Thomas' question, "Why?" Why do Hasan, Abdulmutallab, and others commit such acts?? If you need more reliable information, where might you find it?

Student Reading 2:

A few explanations


From President Bush

President George W. Bush addressed a joint meeting of Congress on September 20, 2001, nine days after the 9/11 attacks. In his remarks, he answered the question Helen Thomas asked persistently more than eight years later:

"Americans are asking, 'Why do they hate us?'

"They hate what we see right here in this chamber, a democratically-elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

"They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They want to drive Israel out of the Middle East. They want to drive Christians and Jews out of vast regions of Asia and Africa….With every atrocity, they hope that America grows fearful, retreating from the world and forsaking our friends. They stand against us, because we stand in their way."


From Osama bin Laden

Three and one-half years earlier, on February 23, 1998, Osama bin Laden, not yet a fugitive, answered in his own way the Helen Thomas question:

"First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples."

(Bin Laden, a Saudi citizen at the time, was referring to military bases in Saudi Arabia that Saudi rulers had granted the U.S. at the time of the Gulf War in 1991. Saddam Hussein, the Iraq ruler, had sent his armies into Kuwait, which borders on Saudi Arabia and much of whose territory he claimed belonged to Iraq. The Saudis saw this invasion as a threat and welcomed American help. Almost all U.S. troops left Saudi Arabia in 2003. About 400 remained to train Saudi forces.)

"Second, despite the great devastation inflicted on the Iraqi people by the crusader-Zionist alliance…the Americans are once again trying to repeat the horrific massacres….

(Here, bin Laden is referring to the period after the last Gulf War, when the U.S. and its allies imposed severe economic sanctions on Iraq. By the "crusader-Zionist alliance" Bin Laden meant the U.S.-Israel alliance.)

"Third, if the Americans' aims behind these wars are religious and economic, the aim is also to serve the Jews' petty state and divert attention from its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there. The best proof of this is their eagerness to destroy Iraq,…and their endeavor to fragment all the states of the region such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Sudan into paper statelets.

"All these crimes and sins committed by Americans are a clear declaration of war on God, his messenger, and Muslims….On this basis, and in compliance with God's order, we issue the following fatwa [religious edict] to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military—is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…."

In the years since bin Laden's 1998 remarks and especially since 9/11, we've seen many new developments in the Mideast, including the following:

  • The U.S. invaded Afghanistan and Iraq
  • Bin Laden and his lieutenants escaped from Afghanistan
  • the U.S.-Taliban war continued in Afghanistan and spread to Pakistan's border
  • areas
  • Al Qaeda developed into a loose network with alliances among elements of the
  • Afghan and Pakistani Taliban
  • U.S. troops withdrew from Saudi Arabia; the U.S.-Saudi relationship continued to be friendly
  • the U.S. continued its close relations with such other Muslim nations as Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, and the oil-rich Persian Gulf states
  • the close U.S.-Israel alliance continued
  • Israel continued to create and defend settlements on Palestinian land
  • Israel made a devastating attack on Gaza in response to rocket attacks
  • the U.S. slowly reduced the number of troops in Iraq

Two Analyses of bin Laden's appeal

Lawrence Wright, in his book The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11:
"From Iraq to Morocco, Arab governments had stifled freedom and signally failed to create wealth….Radicalism usually prospers in the gap between rising expectations and declining opportunities. This is especially true where the population is young, idle, and bored; where the art is impoverished; where entertainment-movies theater, music-is policed or absent altogether, and where young men are set apart from the consoling and socializing presence of women. Adult illiteracy remained the norm in many Arab countries. Unemployment was among the highest in the developing world. Anger, resentment and humiliation spurred young Arabs to search for dramatic remedies.Martyrdom promised such young men an ideal alternative to a life that we so sparing in its rewards….[This is what] created the death cult that would one day form the core of al-Qaeda."

Steve Coll, "Threats," New Yorker, 1/18/10 (Coll won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005 for Ghost Wars, a book about the C.I.Z. and Afghanistan):
"Many of bin Laden's declared goals, such as the removal of American soldiers from Muslim lands, still resonate in Islamic societies. Yet, in polls conducted across the Muslim world, large majorities repudiate Al Qaeda, and particularly its tactic of murdering civilians. It is common to observe that bin Laden's poll ratings have collapsed in recent years because his violence has taken the lives of Muslims as well as infidels. Actually, polling shows that citizens of Islamic countries, as elsewhere, overwhelmingly disapprove of any indiscriminate killing, whatever the victims' religious beliefs, and no matter the cause."


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Years have passed since President Bush's comments. What knowledge and evidence do you have to support, add to, amend, or oppose his explanation for terrorist acts? Why might jihadists want to overthrow certain Muslim governments? Drive Israel out of the Middle East? If you don't know how might you find out?

3. Even more years have passed since Bin Laden's harsh critique of the United States. What knowledge and evidence do you have to support, add to, amend, or oppose that critique.

4. According to Wright, what has led young men in Arab countries to find martyrdom attractive?

5. According to polling in Muslim countries, how popular is Al Qaeda? Why?

Student Reading 3:

A few more explanations

After President Bush's address to Congress on September 20, 2001, government agencies within his administration contradicted his explanation for "why they hate us."The Defense Science Board on Strategic Communications, a Pentagon advisory group, declared:

"Muslims do not 'hate our freedom," but rather, they hate our policies. The overwhelming majority voice their objections to what they see as one-sided support in favor of Israel and against Palestinian rights, and the longstanding, even increasing, support for what Muslims collectively see as tyrannies, most notably Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Pakistan, and the Gulf States. Thus, when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy." (9/04)

Two years later the government's National Intelligence Estimate stated: "Four underlying factors are fueling the spread of the jihadist movement: 1) entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness; 2) the Iraq jihad; 3) the slow pace of real and sustained economic social and political reforms in many Muslim majority nations; and 4) pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment among most Muslims—all of which jihadists exploit." (9/06)

Following his collection of data on 71 terrorists who carried out suicide attacks sponsored by Osama bin Laden's network, Robert Pape, a professor of political science at Chicago University, concluded that Al Qaeda has "a simple strategic goal: to compel the United States and its Western allies to withdraw combat forces from the Arabian Peninsula and other Muslim countries." ("Al Qaeda's Smart Bombs," The New York Times, 7/9/05)

What motivated Hasan and AbdulMutallab?

Hasan, who opened fire at Ft. Hood, and AbdulMutallab, who attempted to ignite explosives on a U.S.plane, both had a connection with Muslim cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen. According to al-Awlaki's website, he was the imam of mosques in such places as Denver, San Diego and Falls Church, Virginia, before he left the United States in 2002 for Yemen. AP reported that Major Hasan attended the Falls Church mosque while al-Awlaki was there, as did two of the 9/11 hijackers. Al-Awlaki is currently being sought by the Yemen government.

Hasan, the son of Palestinian immigrants, was openly critical of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was conflicted about his Muslim religious obligations and the military actions of his country in Muslim nations.

US intelligence intercepted at least 18 emails between Hasan and al-Awlaki from December 2008 to June 2009. After Hasan's killings at Ft. Hood, al-Awlaki praised what Hasan had done, declaring on his website, "The U.S. is leading the war against terrorism which in reality is a war against Islam. Its army is directly invading two Muslim countries and indirectly occupying the rest through its stooges. Nidal [Hasan] opened fire on soldiers who were on their way to be deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. How can there be any dispute about the virtue of what he has done?"

The U.K. Sunday Times established that Abdulmutallab met al-Awlaki in 2005 in Yemen while he was studying Arabic. During that time Abdulmutallab attended lectures by al-Awlaki. Students and administrators at the Arabic institute said that Abdulmutallab was very clear about his sympathy for the Palestinians and angry about Israel's war on Gaza, AP reported.

The Muslim view on the U.S., Israel & Palestine

Many sources agree on the answer to Helen Thomas's question. Not only terrorists and terrorist wannabes, but most peace-loving Muslims confirm what the Pentagon advisory group, the National Intelligence Estimate, and the Pape study all found: Muslims "hate our policies." Most Muslims are especially angry about the U.S.'s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In Israel's war for independence in 1948, its army "ethnically cleansed" about 750,000 Palestinians, most of them Muslims, ousting them from their homes in what became Israel. Some of these Palestinians and their descendants are still living in refugee camps. Through the decades since then, the U.S. has been Israel's most important supporter, providing it with billions in financial and military aid. The U.S. has also opposed UN resolutions condemning Israel for building settlements on Palestinian land in the West Bank and in Jerusalem (a city that is as sacred to Muslims as it is to Jews).

The 9/11 Commission reported six years ago on the motivations of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who has been regarded as the architect of the 9/11 attacks: "By his own account, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's animus toward the United States stemmed not from his experience there as a student, but rather from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel."

"For most of the last decade, our preference in and out of government has been to deny that U.S. and allied policies had anything to do with jihadist attacks and their ability to recruit and win sympathizers," Daniel Larison wrote in The American Conservative, 1/25/10. "This acknowledgement would be to 'blame the victim,' so that even if it were the correct analysis it was politically incorrect to say it out loud….

"When most Western anti-jihadists hear that bin Laden has tied the Christmas bomber attack to the cause of Palestine and specifically to the treatment of Gaza [in a recent audio tape], the conclusion they draw is not that there was and is something wrong with U.S. and Israeli policies with respect to Palestinians. There is no sudden revelation that the inexcusable blockade of Gaza is politically unwise as well as morally wrong," wrote Larison. (Reprinted at www.warincontext.org, 1/2/10)

The reverse is also true, Larison says: Anything bin Laden says to support the Palestinians seems to Western "anti-jihadists" to support Al Qaeda's goals and is therefore opposed "to Western interests."

Political correctness may or may not have been on President Obama's mind when he prepared his State of the Union address recently. But the fact is that his speech, delivered on January 27, made no mention of efforts to promote a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians or of the suffering of the people of Gaza.


For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What U.S. policies do most Muslims hate and why? If you need more information, how might you find it?

3. Why might acknowledging that U.S. policies have anything to do with jihadist attacks be seen as "politically incorrect" and "blaming the victim"?

4. Despite a year of effort by Obama's special envoy George Mitchell to move the Israelis and Palestinians toward a negotiated two-state solution, there's been no visible progress. Why not? If you need more information, how might you find it?

5. How and why are the people of Gaza suffering? If you need more information, how might you find it?

For note-writing, discussion, and inquiry

Student Assignment:

Prepare in note form a list of major reasons terrorists might want to kill Americans. You do not have to agree with the reasons you list.

After students have completed this assignment, invite their questions about any reasons they have noted. List the questions without comment on the chalkboard, then subject each to analysis.

  • Is the question clear? If not, how might it be clarified?
  • Are there any words in the question requiring definition before an answer to it is possible Which and how?
  • Does the question include any unreasonable assumptions? If so, how might the question be reworded?
  • What kind of information does the question require? Facts? Whose? From what sources? Judgments? Whose? Why?
  • Does the question lead to other questions? What are they?

(See "Thinking Is Questioning" in the high school section of TeachableMoment for suggestions about helping students learn how to analyze questions and to ask good ones.)

Organize the class for independent and small-group inquiries into the questions resulting from the above. (See "The Plagiarism Perplex" in the "Ideas and Essays" section of the same site for an outline approach to student inquiries. See "Thinking Critically About Internet Sources" in the high school section of TeachableMoment for suggestions on helping students develop a wary set of eyes for use with internet sources.)



This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: lmcclure@morningsidecenter.org.