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Terrorism: Terrorist, Freedom Fighter, or Something in Between?
Lesson Snapshot

Learning objectives
Students will understand that history can characterize actions differently from how they were perceived when initially undertaken. They will learn that terrorist groups exist within a political, cultural, and historical context, and students will be able to explain that many interrelated factors (religion, political power, human rights, and others) play a role in motivating a group to action.

Grade level



NCSS standards

Time estimate
Three 45-minute class periods, with homework

  • Part 1: Introduction, selection of group and position, homework assignment
  • Part 2: Presentation and discussion of African National Congress (ANC)
  • Part 3: Presentation and discussion of Hamas. Comparison and wrap-up

What you'll need (see Resources for links)

  • Computer with access to the Internet and/or library resources

Lesson Plan

Part 1

There is not always an unambiguous definition of a terrorist. To explore what makes a terrorist and how history views terrorism, students will research two groups -- South Africa's ANC and Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement) -- to explore the question "Terrorist, Freedom Fighter, or Something in Between?"

  • Divide students into four teams, and have each team choose one of the following positions.

    • The ANC was a terrorist group.

    • The ANC was not a terrorist group.

    • Hamas is a terrorist group.

    • Hamas is not a terrorist group.

  • Each group should research its position using the questions below and be prepared to defend it. Some resources with which they may begin are listed in the Resources section.

    • When was the group established?

    • What are the stated goals of the group?

    • Who is the group's declared enemy?

    • Has the group pursued its goals in other, nonmilitant ways, and with what progress or success? If there were other avenues for pursuing objectives, why have these groups gravitated to militant rather than diplomatic or other nonviolent means of pursuing them?

    • Is there one leader or many? Who is the leader or among the prominent leaders?

    • Who are its members? How does the group recruit new members? What is the appeal of the group to its members?

    • Where is its base of operations?

    • What and whom does the group target?

    • What strategies or weapons does it use against its enemy?

    • What acts have been attributed to the group? What acts has it claimed responsibility for?

    • Has the group sought publicity for its acts?

    • What reasons has the group given to justify its actions, choice of targets, and strategy? Is religion or another ideology an important part of its justification?

    • Is the group attempting to frighten its enemy into acting in a particular way? Is its strategy successful?

    • What is the response of its target enemy?

Parts 2 and 3

  • Enact a tribunal for each group, with students defending the group's position as to whether it deserves the terrorist label. For example, the students who researched Hamas will serve as the judges for the two ANC groups, and vice versa. The "judges" will pose some or all of the questions above to each group, and students must then present evidence that supports the accusation or refutes it. The following considerations may also be useful in making a determination as to whether the group should be considered terrorist:

    Terrorism includes violence, but what about threats of violence? Kidnapping? Arson? Rape? What if no one is harmed -- is it still terrorism?

    Who carries out terrorism? Is terrorism always carried out by organized opposition groups? Can states be terrorists? Can individuals? Consider issues of inspiration, planning, provision of weapons, military assistance.

    Does terrorism target only civilians? Could an attack on a military target be terrorism? How do you decide what a civilian is? What about off-duty military personnel? Colonial occupiers? What about assassination of a head of state, one of whose roles is commander in chief? For an act of violence to qualify as terrorism, must its perpetrators deliberately target civilians, or simply be reckless as to whether civilians as well as military targets might be harmed? Are all attacks on civilians terrorism? Is the target of terrorism always human, or can acts of sabotage against property also be considered terrorism?

    Is the motive behind an act important in deciding if it is terrorism, or should only the act itself be considered? What is the objective of terrorism? Is terrorism "violence for an audience" -- an act committed to inspire fear in the public and therefore force policy changes? Or does a terrorist act have specific strategic objectives? Does it make any difference if the perpetrators consider themselves a martyr for a religious or political cause?

    Point of view
    If a cause is considered legitimate, are any means to achieve its goals legitimate? How does one distinguish between a terrorist and a freedom fighter? What is the difference between terrorism and guerrilla warfare? Is terrorism "the weapon of the weak"? Are illegitimate acts against an enemy in war terrorism, war crimes, or is there a difference? Does history change the definition of terrorism? If a group achieves independence using tactics called terrorist by their previous occupier or sovereign, making their "rebellion" into a "war of independence," are they justified by their eventual success in becoming a state?

    Note: The National Issues Forums offers resources for teachers on how to begin holding issues forums. (

  • The judges will then make a determination regarding the validity of terming the group a terrorist organization.

  • After the tribunals, lead a full class discussion on the commonalities and differences between the two groups. What comparisons can be made regarding membership, goals, methods, perceived alternatives, and the role of religion in their respective causes? Are there similar conditions that give rise to behaviors such as those these groups have exhibited? How do students expect history to treat both groups -- will there be a difference? Why or why not?

  • You may ask each student or team to submit a short paper outlining its findings.


  • How well can the student articulate the methods and motives of the group researched?

  • How well can the student defend the terrorist/nonterrorist stance of the group?


  • The National Issues Forum Web Site
    The National Issues Forums offers resources for teachers on how to begin holding issues forums.

  • Global Connections Essays:

    Internet Resources:

    Related Video:

    Print Resources:

    • Hoffman, Bruce. Inside Terrorism.
      New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1998.

    • Mishal, Shaul, and Avraham Sela. The Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence, and Coexistence.
      New York, NY: Columbia Univeristy Press, 2000.

    Related Activities:

    Extension activities

    • Have students write a diary entry from the point of view of a young South African or Palestinian -- a supporter of independence for his or her people -- who has been approached by members of either the ANC or Hamas (student may choose a different but similar scenario if he or she wishes). How would the student react to someone attempting to recruit him or her into a violent militant nationalist group?

    NCSS standards

    Time, continuity, and change

    • Demonstrate that historical knowledge and the concept of time are socially influenced constructions that lead historians to be selective in the questions they seek to answer and the evidence they use.

    • Systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and reinterpret the past such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality.

    • Investigate, interpret, and analyze multiple historical and contemporary viewpoints within and across cultures related to important events, recurring dilemmas, and persistent issues, while employing empathy, skepticism, and critical judgment.

    Individual development and identity

    • Examine the interactions of ethnic, national, or cultural influences in specific situations or events.

    • Analyze the role of perceptions, attitudes, values, and beliefs in the development of personal identity.

    Power, authority, and governance

    • Examine persistent issues involving the rights, roles, and status of the individual in relation to the general welfare.

    For more information, see the National Standards for Social Studies Teachers, Volume I.

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