COOL CLASSES: “Introduction to Terrorism Studies”

A political science course surveying the various theories concerning terrorism.

Class name: Introduction to Terrorism Studies

Taught by: Associate Professor of Political Science Barak Mendelsohn


Here’s what Mendelsohn had to say about his class:

The “Introduction to Terrorism Studies” surveys this academic field in an attempt to expose students to different questions scholars are engaging with and the diverse perspectives on these contentious questions. The goal is not to offer definite answers to pressing questions, but to provide students with tools to think in a critical manner about the phenomenon through different theories. I use different levels of analysis, examining both organizations and individuals involved in terrorism. In this way students see that motivations at the organization level may not be the same as the motivation of individuals to join terrorist groups. An organization could be driven by ideology while many of its members join because of family connections or financial needs, to name only two possible reasons. The course examines these questions from social, economic, ideological, organizational and strategic perspectives. In addition, we cover in the course different tactics, such as suicide bombing and lone wolves, and try to understand why people become foreign fighters. The last part of the course deals with disengagement from terrorism.

My hope is that students will understand that terrorism is a complex problem, and one that is not specific to any one religion, and, in fact, to religions and religious people. I believe that students who take this course are better equipped to participate in informed discussions and even dispel some wrong and even harmful ideas about terrorism, its functions, dynamics, and possible solutions. As important as the subject matter is, enhancing students’ analytical and writing skills is at least as significant for me. My students do research throughout the semester that allows them to do in-depth exploration of a subject of their choosing. Beyond satisfying their curiosity, such a project also helps prepare students for doing research on a larger scale later on in their thesis, regardless of the discipline).

I choose to create this course because my research interest is jihadi groups, especially al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. I think about it as one element in a broader program that includes my course on the evolution of the jihadi movement and my new seminar, “Armed Nonstate Actors in International Relations.” And similarly to those other courses, “Intro to Terrorism Studies” is of particular importance because the public debate tends to be so shallow and, in fact, harmful. As alarming and dangerous as terrorism is, the threat has been blown out of proportion. One effect of that is that resources that could have gone to other important social objectives are being wasted on feeding the counter-terrorism beast. But these days I think that this course is needed as a response to dangerous developments. When irresponsible politicians take advantage of peoples’ fears for their cynical reasons, they cause severe harm to our society and, in the process, might actually exacerbate the danger of terrorism. Terrorism is a threat, but misunderstanding it and labeling whole groups as potential terrorists is an even greater threat because it violates our values as a society and threatens to tear its fabric to the detriment of us all.


See what other courses the political science department is offering this semester.

Photo of  the London vigil for Peshawar School victims by Kashif Hague.

Cool Classes is a series that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford experience.