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HIST1109 Terrorists, Tyrants and Technology: America’s “War on Terror”

Module Overview

9/11; jihad; al-Qaeda; War on Terror; Osama bin Laden; Afghanistan; the Taliban; the Bush Doctrine; Iraq; WMDs; waterboarding; targeted killing and drones. America’s War on Terror, launched as a response to the terrorist attacks of September, 11, 2001 has created some of the most important and controversial themes in foreign policy in the twenty-first century thus far. This module tracks 9/11 back to its Cold War origins, answers the frequently asked question “why do they hate us?”, and explores the policies introduced by the Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama administrations in their efforts to counter the ever-evolving terrorist threat.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• To examine the historical background of the War on Terror. • To examine the development of US foreign policy, in particular national security policies, during the course of the War on Terror. • To evaluate the frames used and the explanations offered by scholars for the policies pursued during the War on Terror. • To critically assess the challenges facing the historian when working with source material from the very recent past, such as political bias and partial documentation.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • The causes of and contexts for the declaration and prosecution of the War on Terror, from the Reagan administration’s support for the Mujahideen to 9/11 and the G.W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq.
  • Scholarly debates about recent US foreign policy.
  • The challenges facing historians when engaging with contemporary historical issues.
  • Key primary sources and literature that provide evidence of the objectives and effectiveness of US policies in the War on Terror.
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Organise and structure material to write and present confidently.
  • Conduct primary research through digital archives and government websites.
  • Analyse critically primary and secondary material.
  • Participate actively in group discussions and debate.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Discuss the historical background of the War on Terror from its Cold War origins.
  • Express familiarity with official US government documents such as National Security Strategies.
  • Apply frames discussed by scholars for the pursuit of specific foreign policies.
  • Critically analyse contemporary source material.


This module will explore the historical background to the terrorist attacks which occurred in the United States of America on September 11, 2001, and the foreign policy response referred to as the War on Terror. In order to contextualise the attacks, this module will cover the role played by the Reagan and G.W.H. Bush administrations (1981-1993) in Afghanistan, in particular the funding, training and equipping of Mujahideen fighters. It will also explore the emergence of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda network, the reasons behind his declaration of jihad against the United States, and the policies pursued by the Clinton administration (1993- 2001) to counter this threat. The module will then critically analyse the G.W. Bush administration’s response to the 9/11 attacks, and the scholarly arguments that surrounded the launching and prosecution of the War on Terror. Students will be given the opportunity to work from primary documents such as National Security Strategies and key presidential speeches, as well as critically analysing the arguments put forward by a variety of scholars for and against the policies of the War on Terror. Throughout the module, students will be expected to consider the challenges that face them as historians when dealing with the recent past. They will learn to identify political bias, recognise the ideological underpinnings of scholarly arguments, and show an awareness of wider agendas in both the primary and secondary material used.

Special Features

• Students will be introduced to the databases of information released by George Washington University’s National Security Archive. • Students will be given access to key primary documents (National Security Strategies, Executive Orders, budget sheets, speeches, diplomatic cables, memos etc.) via Blackboard. By the end of the module, they will have an extensive collection of primary documents to support the secondary materials on the reading list. • Lectures will make use of interactive zappers and TurningPoint software to frequently poll and test students, and to gather feedback on teaching and learning throughout the course.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include: • A weekly two-hour class incorporating lecture and seminar elements • Lecturer-led examination and discussion of sources Learning activities include: • Preparatory reading before each seminar • Participation in group and class discussion • Independent reading of the sources provided and of related secondary works • Short oral presentations on primary sources • Independent research of additional information and source materials Lecture elements will provide you with general knowledge and understanding about chronology, sources and key concepts. This will be consolidated through readings and seminar discussions of primary and secondary source material. Discussion in seminars will help you to develop your own ideas about a topic, to analyse a range of source material and to articulate a critical argument.

Independent Study126
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

George Washington University National Security Archive - The Torture Archive.

Fraser Cameron (2005). US Foreign Policy After the Cold War: Global Hegemon or Reluctant Sheriff?. 

Helen Duffy (2005). The ‘War on Terror’ and the Framework of International Law. 

John Dumbrell (2010). Clinton’s Foreign Policy: Between the Bush’s, 1992 – 2000. 

National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (9/11 Commission).

Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay (2005). America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. 

Timothy J. Lynch and Robert Singh (2008). After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy. 

G. John Ikenberry (2006). Liberal Order and Imperial Ambition. 

Archives of documents released by key think tanks including - The Progressive Policy Institute.

Alvin Z. Rubinstein, Albina Shayevich, Boris Zlotnikov (2000). The Clinton Foreign Policy Reader: Presidential Speeches with Commentary. 

George Washington University National Security Archive - The September 11th Sourcebooks.

Zbigniew Brzezinski (2007). Second Chance: Three Presidents and the Crisis of American Superpower. 

Philip Auerswald, Christian Duttweiler, John Garofano (eds.) (2003). Clinton’s Foreign Policy : A Documentary Record. 

Robert Kagan and William Kristol (eds.) (2000). Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy. 

John Lewis Gaddis (2004). Surprise, Security, and the American Experience. 

Simon Coll (2004). Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001. 

Archives of documents released by key think tanks including - Project for the New American Century.

Archives of documents released by key think tanks including - Center for American Progress.

Michael Cox and Doug Stokes (eds) (2008). US Foreign Policy. 

George Washington University National Security Archive - The Iraq War Pt I – III.

John W. Dietrich (ed.) (2005). The George W. Bush Foreign Policy Reader: Presidential Speeches with Commentary. 

Francis Fukuyama (2006). After the Neocons: America at the Crossroads. 

Bob Woodward (2010). Bush at War; Plan of Attack; State of Denial; The War Within; Obama’s Wars. 


Assessment Strategy

Assessments designed to provide informal feedback: • You will engage in small group exercises, focusing on specific formative tasks, which will be reviewed in class • You will be encouraged to discuss preparation for your formal assessment with your tutor • You will have the opportunity to seek individual advice on your work in progress from your tutor • Guidance and advice in class on preparation, completion and presentation of assignments will be available to you The formal assessments will promote skills of analysis and critical thinking. They will also reinforce organisational, planning and writing skills.


MethodPercentage contribution
Commentary exercise  (1000 words) 20%
Essay  (2000 words) 40%
Examination  (1 hours) 40%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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