DBQ: What Fuels Terrorism?

November 7, 2011

A document-based question exercise has students examine differing views on what motivates terrorism by Islamic fundamentalists.

While organized for a student Document-Based Question exercise (DBQ), the reading might also serve for student discussion. See the suggestion following the last item.



Read each paragraph, and answer the question following it. After you have read all of the paragraphs, write an essay in response to item H.


Americans are asking, why do they [those responsible for 9/11] 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 stand against us because we stand in their way.

—President Bush, speech before Congress, 9/20/01

Question: According to the president, what are two reasons why Islamic terrorists hate the U.S.?


American direct intervention in the Muslim world has paradoxically elevated the stature of, and support for, radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single digits in some Arab societies. 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.

—Report of the Defense Science Board on Strategic Communications, a 40-member taskforce advising the Pentagon, 9/04

Question: In what two ways does the Pentagon taskforce think that American policy has increased support for radical Islamists?


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.

"Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States," a National Intelligence Estimate approved by John Negroponte, director of national intelligence ( New York Times, 9/24/06)

Question: According to the National Intelligence Estimate, what is one reason why most Muslims view the U.S. unfavorably?


The terrorists don't hate what we do as much as who we are, so there is no safe place to retreat to. And retreat from battling the Islamists in the Middle East would only make it easier for them to take the battle to us at home, as they did yesterday in London [when dozens were killed in subway bombings].

—Wall Street Journal editorial, 7/7/05

Question: According to this editorial, why would it be a mistake for the U.S. and its allies to stop fighting Muslim terrorists in the Middle East?


That the hostility of the Islamists may have links with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially the Anglo-American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, is consistently denied, despite the explicit video testimony to the contrary by both al-Zawahiri [number two to Osama bin Laden] and Mohammad Sidique Khan, one of the London bombers...

Bin Laden, in his numerous communiqués, has always been explicit about this. As he laconically remarked in his broadcast timed to coincide with the last U.S. election, "if it was freedom they were against, al-Qaeda would have attacked Sweden."

—William Dalrymple, The New York Review, 12/1/05

Question: What do al-Qaeda leaders say is the reason for their hostility to the U.S.?


Using information from the documents and your knowledge of U.S. relations with Arab and Muslim countries, write a well-organized essay that includes an introduction, several paragraphs, and a conclusion in which you:

  • compare and contrast viewpoints about what motivates Islamic terrorists
  • discuss your own viewpoint and the reasons for it

For discussion

1. Have students read each item in the DBQ, then answer the question in writing in a sentence or two. Discuss with class.

2. Organize groups of four to six students to discuss their response to item F. Assign one student in each group to summarize its discussion for the class.

3. After reporters offer their summaries, invite class discussion of them. Can the class reach consensus in their response to item F?

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