Terrorism

Mathieu Deflem
www.mathieudeflem.net

This is an online copy of a publication in 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook, edited by J. Mitchell Miller. Sage Publications, 2009.

Also available in print-friendly pdf format.

Cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2009. "Terrorism." Pp. 533-540 in 21st Century Criminology: A Reference Handbook, edited by J. Mitchell Miller. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.


From the viewpoint of criminology, terrorism is a fascinating subject matter that presents a challenging opportunity for scholarly reflection on a range of theoretical, empirical, and practical issues. The field of terrorism studies broadly encompasses both terrorism, as a particular activity involving the infliction of harm for specified purposes, and counter-terrorism, involving practices and institutions concerned with defining and responding to terrorism. It is the unique province of criminology to focus on terrorism as a form of criminal and/or deviant behavior and on counter-terrorism as social control. Criminological analyses also focus on the dynamic interplay between terrorism and counter-terrorism to offer a unique perspective in the wider field of studies examining terrorism and terrorism-related phenomena. The study of these phenomena is itself part of the historical unfolding of terrorism and counter-terrorism in the context of societal development.

This chapter reviews the central criminological aspects of terrorism and counter-terrorism. It first offers a description of the major types, strategies, and characteristics of terrorism and provides a brief review of terrorist activity throughout history. Next, attention goes to the mechanisms and agencies involved with counter-terrorism to define and respond to terrorism. Subsequently, the major part of this chapter discusses the manner in which criminologists theoretically and empirically approach terrorism and counter-terrorism as elements of their field of study. Criminology analyzes terrorism as crime or deviance and investigates counter-terrorism as social control. The unique contributions of criminology make it a valuable addition to the wider field of terrorism studies.

Definition, Types, and Strategies of Terrorism

Terrorism is undeservingly notorious for its presumed difficulty to be clearly defined. In actuality, the search for an adequate definition of terrorism is difficult because various institutions compete for the most appropriate approach. Thus, terrorism is defined from the variable viewpoints of law, politics, culture and public opinion, and the sciences. In any one discipline of the sciences, moreover, a plurality of definitions are developed from a multitude of theoretical perspectives. Underlying these approaches, however, are certain reoccurring elements that can be forwarded to develop a minimal definition of terrorism.

Terrorism involves the use of illegitimate means, typically involving the exercise of violence oriented at civilians, for political-ideological purposes. Terrorism thus has both an instrumental component, referring to its means, and a goal-oriented component, referring to its objectives. Differences in the extant definitions of terrorism revolve around the differential emphasis that is placed on either the means or the objectives of terrorism. From the viewpoint of a national state, for example, an official definition of terrorism as it is articulated in a formal legal system typically emphasizes the means of terrorism as involving some unlawful methods, such as the (violent) tactics that are used by a certain type of actors (unlawful combatants). Other definitions, by contrast, focus on the aims of terrorism in seeking to destabilize the social order and endangering the security of a state or population. From a strict analytical viewpoint, it is useful to incorporate more, rather than less, dimensions of the acts of violence conceived as terrorism, so that both means and aims should be considered.

Because terrorism typically involves violent tactics employed on a relatively massive scale, it shares certain characteristics with warfare. Yet, terrorism is different from warfare in that it exists outside, and purposely operates against, the principles from war as they are regulated by the international community of nations. Unlike warfare, terrorist acts are often oriented at civilian populations or indiscriminate in their infliction of violence. Whereas war operates on the basis of standards of international law, involving legally recognized methods and actors (soldiers), terrorist activities are conducted by individuals and groups who do not enjoy any legally recognized status. Strategically, the means of terrorism involve methods oriented at the power of governments, including the kidnapping or killing of government officials, economic strategies, such as sabotage and property damage, and other criminal activities, such as drug trafficking and robberies to finance terrorist activities.

Acts of terrorism are politically oriented and ideologically motivated, ranging from specific goals formulated in terms of the might of political nation-states to more general aims related to the plight of certain peoples and groups. Thus, terrorism can result from demands made by ethnic groups to receive representation in an existing political community or have its own state be formed, while terrorism can also be part of ideological fights for the acknowledgment of underrepresented and oppressed expressions of ideas and ways of life. Because of the intrinsically political-ideological objectives of terrorism, the underlying ideas of terrorism are important to consider as the motivating forces that fuel terrorist groups and individuals. Strategically, moreover, the instilling of fear is an important immediate objective of terrorism.

Specific forms of terrorism can be distinguished on the basis of a variety of typologies differentiating more precisely between various means and aims of terrorist activity. From a historical viewpoint, for example, the distinction between revolutionary, nationalist, and religious terrorism can usefully bring out important shifts in terrorist activity over the ages. Revolutionary terrorism is associated with attempts to violently seize political power in the context of nation states. Nationalist terrorism involves the violent quest by certain groups, who define themselves mostly on the basis of ethnicity as a nation, to gain autonomy and establish a new state. Religious terrorism is ideologically rooted in strands of various religious traditions that typically oppose secularization processes in society. Historically, terrorism was mostly associated with revolutionary movements involved with seeking to overthrow political regimes. As the establishment of national states took on a more permanent hold, nationalist terrorism increased to secure the rights of specific ethnically defined minority groups, such as the Irish in the United Kingdom, the Basques in Spain, and Zionists in the former British Mandate of Palestine. In most recent times, religious terrorism has proportionally increased the most, especially on an international level. The most conspicuous examples are al-Qaeda, which is held responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001, and other extremist groups with connections to Islam.

Historically, the term terrorism originated during the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the French National Assembly in 1793 decreed a mass mobilization of all able-bodied men in order to secure the republic and thwart off both internal and external enemies of the revolution. During the resulting ‘Reign of Terror,’ several tens of thousands of people, most of them ordinary workers and peasants, were massacred as purported enemies of the people. Other important historical precursors of terrorism can be traced back to the strengthening of conservative political regimes. In the late 19th century, for instance, anarchist terrorism involving various violent means, such as bombings and assassinations, spread across various national states. In 1886, the so-called Haymarket Riot erupted in Chicago, Illinois, when a bomb was thrown at police who were overseeing a rally in support of a strike, resulting in the deaths of several police and civilians. Eight anarchists were tried for murder and four received the death sentence. Although the Haymarket incident was relatively isolated, anarchist violence took on a more systematic character in Europe. In the late 19th century, numerous violent attacks took place that were motivated by anarchist ideas aimed at overthrowing established conservative regimes.

The invention of dynamite, the favorite tool of the 19th-century bomb-throwing anarchist, has been argued to signal the beginning of terrorism from a technological point of view. Today, the means employed by terrorist organizations and individuals are more varied than ever, involving both legitimate as well as illegitimate activities and political as well as non-political crimes. Next to engaging in bombings of civilian populations in hostile lands, modern terrorist groups can branch out into the legitimate world of human affairs by organizing social welfare provisions in friendly territories. Terrorist activity today, furthermore, can involve routine criminal enterprises, such as drugs trafficking and money laundering, in order to facilitate other, violent activities that are politically motivated. An additional characteristic of contemporary terrorism is the increasingly high degree of technological sophistication that marks terrorist organizations and their methods of operation. Aided by newly developed means of transportation and communication, a relatively high degree of internationalism and cross-border cooperation characterizes many contemporary terrorist groups. The methods of personnel recruitment, training, and intelligence gathering have likewise modernized to high levels of expertise. Modern-day terrorism is also feared to involve the use, or at least the deliberate pursuit, of lethal means of unprecedented proportion (e.g., so-called weapons of mass destruction) and has occasionally taken on a more organized character, involving globally organized terrorist networks. The contemporary world of terrorism is also more complex, involving both multiple domestic and international forms as well as a growing number of causes, as varied as the environment, white supremacy, and abortion, and state-sponsored or state terrorism in addition to terrorism committed by a host of non-state actors.

Dimensions of Counter-Terrorism

Because terrorism is a highly complex phenomenon, a wide range of counter-terrorism strategies have been developed to deal with the causes and consequences of terrorist activity at the national and international level. Politically, counter-terrorism involves various measures taken by the governments of national states as well as by international governing bodies in which nation-states are represented. Such (inter)governmental responses to terrorism are historically most developed, dating back to at least the middle and latter half of the 19th century when governments in Europe sought to disrupt activities of political dissent that were aimed at overthrowing established regimes. In particular, surveillance systems were then set up to oversee and suppress politically suspect ideas, and international legal agreements were reached by intergovernmental accords. In 1898, for example, in the wake of the assassination of the Austrian Empress Elisabeth by an Italian anarchist, the governments of 21 countries agreed upon an international protocol to suppress the spread of anarchist violence. Although the protocol failed to be ratified by the participating states, similar initiatives would from time to time be taken. A first intergovernmental treaty specifically dealing with terrorism was drafted in 1937 in the form of an international convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism that was arranged by the League of Nations, the precursor of the United Nations. Yet, although the convention had been signed by twenty-four nations, it was ratified only by India.

During the 20th century, intergovernmental counter-terrorism measures would develop in a piecemeal fashion to focus, not on terrorism as such, but on selected issues commonly associated with terrorist activity, such as hijackings and bombings. For example, the United Nations drafted various conventions to fight elements of terrorism, such as the International Convention against the Taking of Hostages (1979), the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (1997), and the International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism (1999). Other international governing bodies, such as the Organization of American States and the Council of Europe, have likewise drafted international protocols to prevent and punish terrorist activity.

International agreements against terrorism have been complemented by similar legislative efforts at the level of individual nation states. Especially in nations where terrorism has been a longstanding concern, such policies have been developed for a long time. Various nations in Europe, for instance, drafted counter-terrorist legislation throughout the 1970s, when extremist political organizations threatened to destabilize the political order. In the United States, the Act to Combat International Terrorism and the Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act were passed during the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Subsequently, the terrorist incidents that hit the United States in the 1990s, specifically the World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995, led to passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act during the Bill Clinton Presidency.

In the United States as well as in many other nations of the world, no historical event has had as much of an impact in steering the course of counter-terrorism policies as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when members of al-Qaeda deliberately crashed hijacked airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon building in Washington, DC, with a fourth plane crashing into a field in the state of Pennsylvania. In the United States, a comprehensive USA PATRIOT Act (the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act) was passed to intensify surveillance against terrorist activity. A new Department of Homeland Security was created, and exceptional measures to detain and try terrorist suspects in military tribunals were instituted that lack many of the due process protections afforded in criminal courts. Policies against terrorism also extended to military operations when the governments of the United States and other NATO countries decided to undertake armed operations against the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The international impact of the events of 9/11 took hold on the legal front as well. Many nations across the world have since 2001 considerably strengthened and expanded their measures against terrorism by means of formal legislative efforts. The focus on terrorism as a matter affecting the national security of states is additionally prevalent at the international level by means of various intergovernmental treaties oriented at fostering more effective methods of cooperation. International agreements against terrorism remain often difficult to enforce, however, because of the differences that exist among the legal systems of the world’s nations and the different conceptions that exist on terrorism and counter-terrorism.

The political and legal measures against terrorism do not stand alone in the complex reality of counter-terrorism. On the contrary, counter-terrorist measures involve a wide range of practices and institutions, including governmental bodies, military and intelligence forces, legal institutions, public security agencies, economic organizations, and cultural groups. Besides policy and law, therefore, counter-terrorism involves such varied actions as the efforts taken by businesses to thwart terrorist threats against private enterprise, the promotion of democratic ideas and peaceful means of protest, the actions taken by civil-liberty groups to ensure an adequate balance between maintaining security and protecting rights, and the law enforcement efforts by national and international police organizations. The policing of terrorism is an element of counter-terrorism that, as a matter of social control, belongs very distinctly to the province of criminology, closely related to the criminological analysis of terrorism in terms of crime and deviance.

Criminology, Terrorism, and Counter-Terrorism

In the social sciences, terrorism and counter-terrorism have not always enjoyed an undisputed reputation as topics of scholarly reflection. The primary impediment against taking terrorism seriously in the social sciences has been the difficulty presumed to be involved in studying social realities that are often highly divisive in political and ideological terms. Yet, some social-science disciplines have traditionally been more readily engaged in the study of terrorism and terrorism-related phenomena. Scholars of political science, international studies, and law, in particular, have examined important dimensions of terrorism, including, respectively, the political and ideological dimensions of (counter-)terrorism, the causes and effects of terrorism in the international community of nation-states, and the legal aspects posed by terrorism and counter-terrorism policies from the viewpoint of criminal and international law. Other fields of social science have been more hesitant to study terrorism and counter-terrorism except in a sporadic fashion in connection with other, more long-standing areas of investigation, such as religion, war, law, and social movements.

As important as the intellectual considerations that preoccupy the various social sciences, the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism has also waxed and waned relative to the changing societal context, specifically the extent to which societies have experienced terrorist attacks. Terrorism studies have generally developed better in Europe than in the United States because of the relatively longer history of terrorism on the European continent. In Europe, terrorist incidents were already receiving much attention throughout the 1970s, when a variety of extremist political groups (for instance, the Red Brigades in Italy, the Action directe in France, and the Red Army Faction in Germany) resorted to violent tactics. In even more specific contexts, such as the state of Israel, the occurrence of and responses to terrorism can be of an even more enduring nature, consequently also fostering the development of terrorism studies.

On a global scale, the study of terrorism began to proliferate during the 1990s, when several high-profile incidents took place that moved terrorism to the world stage. Among these incidents were especially those involving the United States, as the sole surviving world power after the cold war, such as the World Trade Center bombing in New York in 1993, the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the suicide bombing attack against the USS Cole naval ship in 2000. No singular event in history, however, has influenced the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism in a more drastic and enduring manner than the terrorist attacks of September 11. The events of 9/11 have also contributed sharply to the development of criminological analyses of terrorism and counter-terrorism.

Criminology incorporates the social-scientific study of crime and deviance as well as the practices and institutions of social control, broadly defined as the definition of and response to crime or deviance. The distinction between crime and deviance corresponds to the theoretical demarcation between perspectives that contemplate the causes of criminal behavior and crime rates and those that differentiate between deviance as behavior and crime as the labeling of such behavior. Social control, in turn, is theoretically conceived as a consequence of crime, oriented at restoring social integration and harmony, or as a process of criminalization whereby deviance is treated as crime, most clearly through the development and application of criminal law and measures of enforcement. Social control can be informal, such as in the case of gossip and peer pressure, or formal, as in the case of law enforcement. In criminological discourse, the term criminal justice is often used to refer to the formal means of social control, including the institutions of police, courts, and corrections. At the most general level of criminological analysis, then, terrorism and counter-terrorism can be conceived as crime and social control, respectively. It is from within this general framework that more specific criminological perspectives unfold that can meaningfully contribute to the broader area of terrorism studies.

Terrorism as Crime or Deviance

Criminologists have not always been favorable to incorporate terrorism into their field of study because of the political dimensions of terrorism which were argued to prevent scientific analysis. This argument can be contested, however, because all acts of crime are subject to definitions and responses by a variety of institutions, such as law and police, besides their analytical treatment in the sciences. More recently, indeed, criminological models have been forwarded that conceive of terrorism in terms of crime and deviance. From the viewpoint of crime causation perspectives concerned with the etiology of criminal behavior, terrorism can be conceived as a form of violence, the causes of which can be analyzed at the micro and macro level. From the micro viewpoint that focuses on the individual characteristics of terrorist perpetrators, criminological research concentrates on the people who are more likely to become terrorists or join, or be recruited by, a terrorist organization. From this viewpoint, for instance, social learning theory can unravel the learning processes whereby somebody is initiated into the techniques and values associated with terrorist activities as a specific form of violence. At the macro level, criminological analysis of terrorism as crime concentrate on the fluctuations of terrorism in function of other societal developments, such as periods of political strive, economic conditions, and cultural-ideological conflicts. For example, strain theorists can examine the socio-structural determinants under which terrorism, as a form of rebellion, will be more or less likely as a mode of adaptation under conditions of blocked opportunities to legitimate means for voicing grievances.

Criminologists examining the causes of crime as a specific form of violent behavior do not take on the task of criminalistics or forensic science to investigate criminal evidence (in order to ‘solve’ a crime), but instead describe and explain the structures and processes of terrorist crimes on the basis of various theoretical models (in order to analyze crime). Like other acts of crime, terrorist violence involves a perpetrator intent on achieving certain aims with particular means. In applying various crime causation theories to terrorism, criminologists view the political and ideological objectives of terrorism as one goal among many others, much like non-terrorist acts of violence will also be guided towards achieving a variety of aims, such as retribution or control. As to the consequences of terrorism, criminologists pay attention to the victimization that is brought about. Much as is the case with other forms of criminal conduct, the victims of terrorism involve the direct casualties and fatalities of a terrorist attack but also relate to the wider impact on the population and their sense of security. Its is from the latter form of victimization from which the expression terrorism is derived as referring to its primary purpose to terrorize or instill fear.

Among the best developed explanatory theories that focus on terrorism in function of macro-theoretical conditions is the perspective of pure sociology. From this viewpoint, terrorism is conceived as behavior that is oriented at unilaterally handling a grievance (crime as a form of social control) whereby organized civilians covertly inflict mass violence on other civilians. Terrorist behavior is deliberately oriented at injuring and killing numerous individuals that are associated with a particular collectivity, such as a race or ethnic group, a nationality, or a religious group, that is defined as hostile. Like warfare, terrorism is very violent. Yet, unlike warfare, terrorism is not bilateral, involving two opposing factions openly engaged in military actions, but unilateral and covertly planned and executed. In terrorist conduct there is a high degree of relational and cultural distance between the perpetrators and the victims, often crossing the boundaries of entire nations. Terrorism is also often upward in direction, oriented at superiors who cannot be reached through non-violent means such as law or political debate. Especially because of technological developments, terrorism is a largely modern phenomenon that is more typical of advanced societies.

The pure-sociological perspective can be broadened to contemplate on both the moralistic and non-moralistic elements of terrorist violence. To the extent that terrorist activity is oriented at addressing grievances, it is moralistic. Yet, inasmuch as terrorism is not provoked by the victim, not even from the offender’s viewpoint, it is predatory. As such, terrorist behavior is both warlike and criminal. Its societal conditions relate primarily to the balance between the institutional powers in society. In the case of contemporary terrorism, the institutional balance has tipped in favor of free-market capitalism, democratic polities, and cultural traditions of secularism and other Western values. Therefore, terrorism is more likely from groups who feel economically, politically, and culturally deprived. Institutional imbalances in the contemporary world help explain the rise of religious and ethnic terrorism in both domestic and international contexts. By means of example, some Palestinian groups have resorted to terrorist tactics, such as suicide bombings and indiscriminate rocket attacks, because of the deprivation of political rights they experience by the state of Israel. Likewise, al-Qaeda militants can be explained to be engaged in terrorism because of the repression from Western powers that is felt among certain Muslim communities, even in their own homelands.

From the viewpoint of crime construction theories that examine terrorism as a form of deviance, criminologists focus on at least two interrelated questions. On the one hand, research attention goes to the processes and motives that can be interpreted as meaningfully contributing to the occurrence of terrorist activity as a form of deviance. Based on hermeneutic strategies of analysis that are interested in uncovering the meanings an act or event has for the people who are involved, deviance theorists will be particularly interested in the motives of terrorist conduct. On the other hand, crime construction theorists will also interpret the societal context in which such acts of deviance are formally labeled as (the crime of) terrorism. This criminalization process minimally involves the definition of certain acts as terrorism, for instance by means of a legal description of certain acts as terrorism, and the subsequent application of such a description to concrete instances of terrorist conduct through the enforcement of laws.

Importantly, crime constructionists do not conceive of terrorism in essentialist terms as a kind of behavior (for which the term deviance is reserved) but as the result of a labeling process applied to certain kinds of conduct. What this theoretical focus can bring out are the differential conditions under which certain acts are, or are not, defined as terrorism and when and how certain people and groups are similarly seen and treated as terrorists or not. Typically, the focus of this approach is such that the criminalization of certain kinds of deviance, and not others, as terrorism will be conceived as problematic inasmuch as the criminalization of terrorism will be seen as a function of authoritative people and institutions who have the power to label some acts as terrorism. From this viewpoint, therefore, an analytically useful criminological expression can be given to the otherwise tired slogan that a terrorist in one person’s eyes can be a freedom fighter in the eyes of another. Further, a crime construction perspective can also lead to broaden the scope of terrorism studies by focusing on violent acts of a terrorist nature that are perpetrated by state actors in the course of their official duties. Thus the notion of state terrorism can be introduced.

Crime construction theories are often conducted at an interactional level, involving the dynamic interplay between rule-violator and rule-enforcer, yet they can also be broadened to an institutional level that is situated in the wider socio-historical context of society. Among the central mechanisms of crime construction in the case of terrorism, criminological research has devoted special attention to the process of a moral panic that surrounds suspected offenders of actual and potential terrorist activities, for instance since the events of September 11. As the 9/11 attacks originated from certain extremist elements in the Islamic religious community, an immediate response to the events involved anti-Muslim and, more broadly, anti-foreign sentiments. Soon following the attacks there were many reports, across the United States, of acts of violence inflicted on people of Muslim or Middle-Eastern origin who were held responsible by association. The very labeling of the acts of terrorism on September 11 as ‘Islamic’ terrorism brought about a general distrust towards the Muslim religion, despite the best of efforts to divorce the religion from the terrorist violence. Further contributing to the equation of Islam and terrorism was the notion that terrorist cells loosely connected with the al-Qaeda network were globally organized and thus thought to represent a threat to all of civilization, including many predominantly Muslim nations. Moreover, the increasing globalization of the contemporary world, which has brought physically distant parts closer together than ever before, also meant that immigration could be redefined as a security concern rather than a mere administrative issue. As such, the contemporary age of terrorism has brought about a criminalization of immigration.

Among the primary mechanisms of the moral panic of terrorism are political propaganda and media reports. Propaganda derives its impact from the authority of the messenger, be they powerful government officials or civic leaders. The role of the media cannot be divorced from propaganda articulating the official state-sponsored perspective of terrorism. Via the media, the rhetoric of politics, as much as of entertainment and sensationalist ‘reality’ reporting, can connect with and mold the concerns of the public at large to form a widespread vision of terrorism as a growing menace, irrespective of objective conditions. At the same time, such descriptions of the problem of terrorism will also help to pave the way to inform policies against terrorism and have them accepted as the necessary and valid responses.

Counter-Terrorism as Social Control

Although criminology has traditionally focused most attention on crime and criminality, contemporary criminological perspectives have been broadened to also study the definition of and responses to crime or deviance under the heading of social control. It is from this perspective that counter-terrorism can be criminologically analyzed to focus on the mechanisms and institutions that are involved in treating terrorism in function of crime and deviance. Counter-terrorism has generally received less scholarly attention than has terrorism, which is no doubt a result of a differential analytical concern that is closely related to the power and authority of the subject matter. Criminologists know much more about criminals and crime than they do about policing and police. Most terrorism studies that have focused on counter-terrorism have examined formal government policies and accompanying pieces of legislation on terrorism that have been enacted at the national and international levels of multiple governing bodies. This orientation towards policy and law harmonizes with the interests of political science and legal scholarship. Yet, a dimension that has been of growing concern, especially among criminologists, is the role played by criminal justice agencies and police institutions in counter-terrorism practices. Because security and police organizations are inevitably targeted at the criminal components of terrorist incidents, their activities in terrorism-related activities are ideally suited for criminological analysis.

Whether social control is conceived in response to terrorism as a crime or as a component in the criminalization of terrorism as deviance, the role of police in counter-terrorism has undeniably been of growing importance. What criminological research has found, especially in the aftermath of highly visible terrorist incidents, is that policing powers are generally strengthened and coordinated among various (local and federal) levels. For example, after the events of 9/11, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stepped up its efforts and personnel involved with terrorism investigations. Local U.S. law enforcement agencies likewise began to devote more attention to terrorism-related operations, even when such concerns appeared rather peripheral to local conditions. Other federal agencies that are mainly concerned with administrative issues have likewise reoriented their tasks in terms of the new security situation. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, for instance, has been abolished in favor of the creation of two new agencies, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, of which the latter is concerned with immigration as a security issue. Similar developments to those in the United States have also taken place in many other countries, where police powers have likewise expanded after the events of September 11 and terrorism has become a security priority, even when there were no indications of a concrete terrorist threat.

The various security efforts and other components involved with counter-terrorism have been subject to an intensified coordination at the policy level of government as well as at the organizational level of law enforcement. At the level of policy, the policing and security dimensions of counter-terrorism have been subject to increased efforts at supervision and coordination by the governments of states. Police and security measures against terrorism are thereby attempted to be aligned with other counter-terrorism measures in the intelligence community and at the military, political, and legal level. In the United States, most famously, a new Department of Homeland Security was established to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks by coordinating various counter-terrorism functions. The idea for such a department was not newly developed after September 11, but originated from a number of proposals that were drafted in 1999, 2000, and early 2001 by committees that had been commissioned by U.S. Congress and the Department of Defense. Each proposal called for a coordinated and unified national counter-terrorism program, and two proposals suggested the creation of a new federal agency to oversee such a program. None of the plans were implemented until the events of September 11, when an Office of Homeland Security was established within the executive branch of the U.S. government in October 2001. The Office turned into the new Department of Homeland Security by the passage of the Homeland Security Act of November 25, 2002. The Department oversees a large number of agencies, offices, and councils involved with various terrorism-related tasks, including health affairs, intelligence and analysis, security, customs and border protection, and immigration.

Internationally, there are also political efforts directed at coordinating the response against terrorism. The United Nations, most notably, has developed a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy that appeals to the nations of the world to unify and unite in their respective efforts against terrorism. The Strategy calls for the condemnation of all acts of terrorism, irrespective of purpose, as constituting serious threats to international peace and security, and it urges nations to adopt all necessary measures to prevent and combat terrorism. As part of its counter-terrorism programs, the United Nations also promotes peaceful methods of conflict resolution, economic development programs across the world, and measures of international cooperation and assistance. Similar international initiatives as the ones developed by the United Nations have also been developed by various international organizations at regional levels, such as the Organization of American States, the Commonwealth of Independent States, the League of Arab States, and the European Union.

On the organizational level of law enforcement, it is important to note that police and security agencies have also developed their own, independently created coordination mechanisms aimed at harmonizing counter-terrorism efforts by law enforcement at both the national and international level. In the United States, the FBI works with other federal agencies as well as state and local law enforcement in cooperation efforts through so-called Joint Terrorism Task Forces. At the international level, counter-terrorist police cooperation is secured through various bilateral and multilateral partnerships. Bilateral police cooperation in counter-terrorism can be conducted on a temporary case-by-case basis, for instance to facilitate the transformation of information in view of the arrest of a fugitive from justice, or it can be of a more permanent nature through the establishment of joint investigative task forces. Multilateral counter-terrorism cooperation is ensured through international police organizations such as the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and the European Police Office (Europol). Importantly, these multilateral police organizations are of a collaborative character by establishing direct systems of information exchange among the police of various nations, for the transmission of criminal data as well as the transfer of police technologies, without the creation of a supranational force.

Among the mechanisms of counter-terrorist policing, research has uncovered that while there are undeniable political efforts to bring police institutions in line with the ‘war on terror,’ police institutions are able to resist such political pressures to remain relatively independent in determining the means and specifying the objectives of counter-terrorism enforcement tasks. Organizationally, police agencies can oftentimes secure an independent position, remote from governmental control. In the United States, for instance, it is striking that the FBI, the primary enforcement agency for counter-terrorism, is not part of the Department of Homeland Security. As terrorism is in many nations also a law enforcement concern, rather than exclusively an intelligence or military matter, counter-terrorism efforts at the level of policing are an element of criminal justice rather than national security or foreign affairs. With respect to the means of counter-terrorist policing, technological advances are observed to form a primary driving force in determining the police strategies that are used in terrorism investigations. Exemplary of the technological focus are advanced methods of information exchange among police, for instance encrypted internet-based communications systems, and the focus on the technical dimensions of terrorism operations, such as the weaponry involved and the methods of communication used by terrorist networks. With respect to the objectives of counter-terrorism policing, terrorism is among law enforcement agencies conceived in terms of distinctly criminal components, irrespective of any political dimension or ideological motivation. Police institutions of different nations can on the basis of a shared understanding of terrorism as a crime even accomplish cooperation when they originate from nations that are ideologically and politically diverse. As such, the counter-terrorism efforts of police are central in the criminalization of terrorism, both domestically as well as internationally.

Summary and Conclusion

Terrorism and counter-terrorism have historically evolved in various forms. Terrorism has increasingly diversified in terms of the objectives that are pursued, and counter-terrorism efforts have likewise proliferated across a range of institutions. Criminologists have contributed to the study of terrorism and terrorism-related phenomena by focusing on terrorism as crime or deviance and counter-terrorism as social control. The incorporation of terrorism and counter-terrorism as distinctly criminological topics of research serves to bring important dimensions to terrorism studies that other disciplines will not focus on. The criminological study of terrorism and counter-terrorism also has the added benefit of broadening the scope of existing criminological theories beyond their traditional areas of application.

Terrorism and counter-terrorism present important intellectual challenges for criminological theory and research and are likely to remain important for many years to come. Studying the causes and motives of terrorism, criminologists can unravel many of the complexities in the development and proliferation of terrorist activities across the world. The most critical contribution of criminology thereby is the study not merely of crimes or acts of deviance associated with terrorism, but of terrorism itself as crime or as deviance. Developing theory and undertaking research in this area, criminologists can expand social-scientific knowledge and contribute to build a counter-terrorism policy that is effective and just in tackling terrorist violence.

Studying counter-terrorism as a form of social control and, more specifically, a component of criminal justice, criminological research can bring out the security dimensions of social control that are not of a military or political character. Much of the contemporary public discourse on terrorism, especially in the popular media, typically focuses on counter-terrorism in the world of politics and in relation to war, but criminologists can reveal the manner in which institutions of social control, particularly law enforcement agencies, conceive of and respond to terrorism as a criminal matter. The targets of counter-terrorism are thereby treated as suspects, who are given certain rights of due process on the basis of publicly presented evidence in courts, and who, upon a determination of guilt, can receive punishment. Military counter-terrorism operations, by contrast, are oriented at enemies, not suspects, who can be apprehended or killed in combat. Captured enemies are detained to be released when a cessation of hostilities has been declared. The respective logics of criminal justice policy and military counter-terrorism actions, then, are very different, although they factually co-exist in the wider constellation of counter-terrorism today. Bringing out the essentially multi-dimensional nature of counter-terrorism is among criminology’s most exciting challenges.

Cross References: Police; Racial Profiling; Social Construction of Crime; Strain Theories of Crime

References and Further Readings
  • Altheide, D.L. (2006). Terrorism and the politics of fear. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press.
  • Black, D. (2004). The geometry of terrorism. Sociological Theory, 22, 14-25.
  • Clarke, R.V., & Newman, G.R. (2006). Outsmarting the terrorists. Westport, CT: Praeger Security International.
  • Deflem, M. (Ed.). (2004). Terrorism and counter-terrorism: Criminological perspectives. Amsterdam: Elsevier/JAI Press.
  • Deflem, M. (2004). Social control and the policing of terrorism: Foundations for a sociology of counter-terrorism. The American Sociologist, 35, 75-92.
  • Deflem, M. (2006). Global rule of law or global rule of law enforcement? International police cooperation and counter-terrorism. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 603, 240-251.
  • Deflem, M. (2006). Europol and the policing of international terrorism: Counter-terrorism in a global perspective. Justice Quarterly, 23, 336-359.
  • Hamm, M.S. (2007). Terrorism as crime: From Oklahoma City to Al-Qaeda and beyond. New York: New York University Press.
  • Heymann, P.B. (2003). Terrorism, freedom, and security: Winning without war. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Hoffman, B. (2006). Inside terrorism. Revised and expanded edition. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • LaFree, G., & Hendrickson, J. (2007). Build a criminal justice policy for terrorism. Criminology and Public Policy, 6, 781-790.
  • Marks, D.E., & Sun, I.Y. (2007). The impact of 9/11 on organizational development among state and local law enforcement agencies. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice, 23, 159-173.
  • Martin, G. 2006. Understanding terrorism: Challenges, perspectives, and issues. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Mythen, G., & Walklate, S. (2006). Criminology and terrorism: Which thesis? Risk society or governmentality? British Journal of Criminology, 46, 379-398.
  • Pious, R.M. (2006). The war on terrorism and the rule of law. Los Angeles, CA: Roxbury.
  • Rosenfeld, R. (2002). Why criminologists should study terrorism. The Criminologist, 27, 1, 3-4.
  • Savelsberg, J.J. (2006). Underused potentials for criminology: Applying the sociology of knowledge to terrorism. Crime, Law and Social Change, 46, 35-50.
  • Shelley, L.I., & Picarelli, J.T. (2002). Methods not motives: Implications of the convergence of international organized crime and terrorism. Police Practice and Research, 3, 305-318.
  • Smith, B.L., Damphousse, K.R., Jackson, F., & Sellers, A. (2002). The prosecution and punishment of international terrorists in federal courts: 1980-1998. Criminology & Public Policy, 1, 311-388.
  • Townshend, C. (2002). Terrorism: A very short introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Ventura, H.E., Miller, J.M., & Deflem, M. (2005). Governmentality and the war on terror: FBI Project Carnivore and the diffusion of disciplinary power. Critical Criminology, 13, 55-70.
  • Welch, M. (2006). Scapegoats of September 11th: Hate crimes & state crimes in the war on terror. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
  • White, J.R. (2006). Terrorism and homeland security. Fifth edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson.

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