Warning Signs of an Attack

  • Grades 9 to 12
  • Lesson Duration: One class period
  • Theme: Antecedents of 9/11

Essential Question: How did intelligence agencies track Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda’s activity prior to 9/11?

Learning Goals

Students will learn about the activities of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda prior to 9/11.

Students will examine how intelligence agencies communicated prior to the 9/11 attacks and how the process changed in the aftermath.


al-Qaeda: This international Islamist extremist terrorist network is responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Al-Qaeda is responsible for multiple terrorist attacks since its founding in the 1980s by Osama bin Laden and others who were involved in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Their aim has been to overthrow governments in the Middle East, and elsewhere in the Muslim world, which do not strictly enforce a narrow, fundamentalist version of Islam.

Islam: This is the world’s second-largest religion, founded by the Prophet Muhammad more than 1,400 years ago. Islam’s beliefs and practices center around two key sources: the Qur’an and the Hadith. An adherent of Islam is a Muslim.

Islamist extremism: “Islamists” see Islam as a guiding ideology for politics and the organization of society. They believe that strict adherence to religious law should be the sole basis for a country’s law, as well as its cultural and social life. While some Muslims believe this, many do not. Islamist extremists believe violence is acceptable to achieve these ends. Al-Qaeda is one of many Islamist extremist groups.

Jihad: A religiously-sanctioned war.

Terrorism: This is when people use violence for political ends.


1.  Direct students to the section overview below and discuss the following questions:

  • Who was Osama bin Laden?
  • Why was al-Qaeda formed?
  • Why did bin Laden target the United States?

Osama bin Laden, a wealthy Saudi, founded the terrorist organization al-Qaeda in 1988 to mobilize Arab fighters on the Afghan side of the Soviet-Afghan War (1979–1989). Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, bin Laden sought to establish al-Qaeda’s military role in the Middle East. When American troops were deployed to Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War (1990–1991), bin Laden saw an opportunity. He denounced Western influence, particularly American influence, in Muslim-majority countries. In 1996, bin Laden declared a jihad, a religiously sanctioned war, against the United States, leading to violent al-Qaeda attacks on American interests overseas. Ultimately, bin Laden believed a devastating strike on American soil would convince the U.S. to withdraw from the Muslim world.

U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies had been monitoring bin Laden and al-Qaeda during the 1990s, warning senior government officials of a growing threat. Even so, most senior U.S. policymakers did not consider al-Qaeda a priority.

2.  Review student answers and share that al-Qaeda carried out several attacks against the United States before 9/11. Share with students that they will now investigate those attacks. 

3.  Direct students to read An Escalating Threat to answer the following questions:

  • What locations were targeted by al-Qaeda prior to 9/11? Why were they important? 
  • How did the U.S. government respond to terrorist threats before 9/11? 

4.  Review student answers and show the video below. Revealed outlines initial U.S. investigations of bin Laden and discusses communication (or lack thereof) between the agencies conducting these investigations. As students watch, ask them to pay attention to the different agencies the speakers represent and what each says about inter-agency communication.


01-Revealed-AD warning signs

5.  After viewing the clip, ask students to share in small groups what they learned about communication between agencies tasked with monitoring bin Laden and al-Qaeda before 9/11. How do they think these practices affected access to information about bin Laden and al-Qaeda before 9/11? Have groups share their findings. 

6.  Conclude by asking students how communication between agencies changed after the 9/11 attacks. Why do they think 9/11 caused such a large shift in the way agencies communicated?