Study Guide

The War on Terror Introduction

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The War on Terror Introduction

September 11th, 2001. It is—like the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack 60 years earlier—a date which will live in infamy.

A truly shocking blow against a nation that entered the new millennium believing itself mostly free from the threat of imminent attack, the Al Qaeda terror strike that morning left the Washington's Pentagon mangled, New York's World Trade Center towers destroyed, and the American people deeply, deeply shaken.

The horrific and sudden violence of that morning struck many as a sudden thunderbolt from out of the blue. And it was.

But it might also be seen as just the most dramatic and heinous plot point in a very long, complicated, and vexing story: the history of America's role in the Middle East.

The attack was planned by Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi Arabian millionaire whose terror organization, Al Qaeda, was based in Afghanistan after previously setting up shop in Yemen and the Sudan. The men who hijacked the planes were mostly Saudi and Yemeni. 

In seeking to justify Al Qaeda's terrorism, Bin Laden blamed past American actions in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, and Lebanon. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the United States launched a War on Terror which quickly led to full-blown wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and arguably a decade later to another war in Libya. 

When Osama Bin Laden was finally found and killed by U.S. Special Forces, it happened in Pakistan. America's uneasy alliances with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf oil emirates became more important than ever, and then more complicated as a wave of Arab pro-democracy protests in 2011 swept the region from Tunisia and Egypt to Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, and the Palestinian-occupied territories of Israel.

In short, September 11th was both a "small story" about one small terrorist organization pulling off the most horrifically effective terror strike in American history, and one part of a "big story" that spans many decades and links the American superpower to most of the countries in the Middle East.

What is The War on Terror About and Why Should I Care?

"I watch CNN but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran."—Alan Jackson, 2001

"You'll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A 'cause we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way."—Toby Keith, 2001

Since September 11th, 2001, the United States has spent about a trillion dollars fighting terror.  But has the money been spent wisely? Are we winning? Do you know enough about the Middle East to judge?

Of course, we've got a bunch of questions to get your wheels turning:

  • What is the difference between Iraq and Iran? (Hey, Alan.)
  • Are they allies?
  • Which gave the world the Ayatollah Khomeini and which gave us Saddam Hussein?
  • What are the differences between Sunnis and Shiites? Are either our allies? Our enemies? Something in between?
  • Why is the United States hated in the Middle East?
  • Does it have anything to do with Israel?
  • Does it have anything to do with oil?
  • Could the United States just walk away from the region? And would we be safer if we did?

A trillion dollars works out to about $3,000 for every American man, woman, and child. In other words, we've spent a lot of money fighting terror. Has it been worth it? We'll leave that up to you to decide.

The War on Terror Resources


Rory McCarthy, Nobody Told Us We Are Defeated: Stories from the New Iraq (2006)
While the Iraq War started in 2003 for the United States, it had already been going on for nearly a decade by the time journalist Rory McCarthy started gathering these haunting personal stories for the people living in a war-torn world.

Walter Dean Myers, Sunrise Over Fallujah (2008)
The companion novel to Myers' Vietnam-era Fallen Angels, this one stars Robin Perry, who joins the army in 2003 at the beginning of the Iraq War. Eventually, he finds himself more and more distanced from people back home.

Riverbend, Baghdad Burning: Girl Blog from Iraq (2005)
In 2003, Riverbend began a blog called Baghdad Burning. Of course, that's a pseudonym, but the young Iraqi woman's blog captured the attention of readers around the world, even winning awards. Her blog posts—which ended in 2007—are compiled here.


"21 Guns" (2009)
Released on Green Day's 21st Century Breakdown album, "21 Guns" was largely claimed as an anti-war song several years into the Iraq War.

"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" (2002)
Inspired by the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks and his father's death (who was a veteran), Toby Keith's country hit highlighted his—and many Americans'—anger.

"B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)" (2000)
Believe it or not, OutKast's "B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)" was released in 2000. Yep, three years before the Iraq War heated up. So, it may not have all that much to do with the Iraq War or the First Gulf War, but listeners can't help associating this song with the War on Terror.


Terrorist Attack

One of the hijacked planes moments before striking the second tower on September 11th, 2001.

Hearing the News

President George W. Bush receives word of the 9/11 attacks while visiting Emma Booker Elementary School.

Anti-Americanism in Iran

Iranian students burn an American flag during the hostage crisis of 1980.

Historic Handshake

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, United States President Jimmy Carter, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shake hands after signing the Camp David Accords.

Historic Handshake II

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, United States President Bill Clinton, and Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat shake hands after agreeing to the Oslo Accords in Washington, D.C.

Bin Laden Meets Brzezinski

Some believe this is U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden when Bin Laden was a mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

Out of Gas

The Arab embargo on oil following the Yom Kippur War led to gasoline shortages in the U.S.


Saddam Hussein shortly after he was found hiding in a cellar in December 2003.

Movies & TV

American Sniper (2014)
This film is based on the true story of United States Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and his memoir of the same name. Kyle served four Iraq War tours and became a legend for his skill and military career before being murdered by a fellow military man struggling with PTSD.

Bush's War (2008)
This two-part documentary series by PBS on the Iraq War goes in depth on Al Qaeda, "weapons of mass destruction," and the big players behind United States foreign policy that led us into the Iraq War.

The Hurt Locker (2008)
This war thriller not only stole the show at the Academy Awards, but also earned Kathryn Bigelow a golden Best Director—the first ever by a woman.


Iraq Conflict

The Global Policy Forum maintains a valuable collection of articles on the Iraq conflict. Written by experts and reduced to manageable excerpts, these materials provide a useful introduction to the complex issues behind this conflict.

Iran on Iran

This site provides useful information on Iran and a particularly strong set of articles on Iran's history. It's sponsored by the Iran Chamber Society, so should be read with that in mind.

Sunnis versus Shiites

National Public Radio has put together a useful five part article-series on the Sunni-Shiite schism. 

War on Terror: Afghanistan

This site, posted by East Carolina University, provides dozens of useful links for studying the war in Afghanistan.

Video & Audio

9/11 Video Timeline
The History Channel provides a short video timeline of the events of September 11th, 2001 here.

Address to the Nation on the Terrorist Attacks
Here you can listen to George W. Bush's September 11th address to the nation regarding the catastrophic terrorist attacks that had happened that day. The Miller Center also provides audio and transcripts for many of Bush's big speeches.

Primary Sources

Colin Powell Makes the Case for War

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s presentation before the United Nations the month before the United States went to war in Iraq.

9/11 Commission Report

The report released by the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, an independent, bipartisan committee established by Congress, is available here.

Bin Laden’s Fatwa

Osama Bin Laden’s 1996 declaration of war against the United States is available here.

Hostage Diary

Robert C. Ode, one of the American hostages held by Iran from 1979 to 1980, kept a diary during his 444 days of captivity, which is available here.

Lessons from the Soviet War in Afghanistan

The National Security Archive has made available several declassified documents from the Soviet war in Afghanistan.

Documents from Camp David

The Carter Library has posted a collection of documents and photographs chronicling the Camp David Accords.

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