Social Control and the Policing of Terrorism: Foundations for a Sociology of Counter-Terrorism

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in The American Sociologist 35(2):75-92, 2004.
Also available in PDF format.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2004. “Social Control and the Policing of Terrorism: Foundations for a Sociology of Counter-Terrorism.” The American Sociologist 35(2):75-92.


Sociologists have by and large neglected the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism. The continued relevance that terrorism may be expected to have in our era should stimulate the development of new sociological ideas. I propose a sociological perspective of the policing of terrorism that is conceptually informed by a neo-Weberian bureaucratization theory of police. The theory holds that anti-terrorist efforts at the level of police rest on a formal-rational conception of the means and objectives of counter-terrorism, although ideological and political sentiments on terrorism are very intense and divisive within and across national states. Social control and counter-terrorism are complex realities, comprised of a multitude of dimensions which are not necessarily in tune with one another. High-profile terrorist incidents, such as the events of 9/11, lead to attempts by national governments and international governing bodies to re-direct police efforts against terrorism in function of political objectives. Yet, because the bureaucratization of modern police institutions is at an unprecedented high level, the theory predicts, police agencies will resist these (re-)politicization attempts to continue counter-terrorism activities that rest on an efficiency-driven treatment and depoliticized understanding of terrorism.


The history of terrorism and counter-terrorism as topics of sociological reflection is straightforward. Until recently, very few scholarly studies of terrorism and related issues had been conducted in the sociological community. Most terrorism-related research was conducted in other social sciences, especially political science, international studies, and law. Political scientists have focused on the relationship between terrorism and political rights and on policies against terrorism in relation to foreign policy (Heymann 2003; Jenkins 2003; Laqueur 2003; Stern 1999). Terrorism has intellectually also connected with the interests of international studies scholars, who have investigated terrorism and counter-terrorism in terms of the manifold interconnections between nations and other localities (Brown 2002; Sterba 2003). Scholars of law, finally, have approached problems of terrorism and counter-terrorism in the specialty areas of international law (Geraghty 2002) and criminal law (Carter 2003). There is no doubt that insights on terrorism in these social-science disciplines are highly relevant, but a distinctive tradition of a sociology of terrorism is sadly missing, despite the occasional exceptions (Gibbs 1989; Juergensmeyer 2000). Fortunately, since the events of September 11, many new terrorism-related works have appeared, also in sociology (Beck 2002; Deflem 2004, forthcoming; Denzin and Lincoln 2003; Etzioni 2002; Sociological Theory 2004; Webb 2002).

Terrorism scholarship also comprises the study of counter-terrorism, defined as the whole of policies and practices responding to terrorism. Counter-terrorism, however, has been relatively much less addressed than terrorism, mirroring a differential concern related to power and authority which sociologists have often noted (Goffman 1961). The existing literature focuses on counter-terrorism mostly as one aspect of a broader focus in terms of national legislation (Heymann 2001; Posner 2002) and international policy (Cole 2003; Peers 2003). But much less discussed have been the practical arrangements and strategies to fight terrorism at the level of police and other bureaucratic institutions, which have usually been treated residually or approached from a management viewpoint (Alexander 2002; Pounder 2002). Whatever its causes, the relative neglect of research on the institutional dimensions of counter-terrorism has de facto led to an important omission in scholarship. This paper will redress this neglect by relying on insights from the sociology of social control to develop a novel theory of counter-terrorism that is particularly applicable to the policing of terrorism.
Social Control and the Policing of Terrorism

Theoretical and substantive contributions in the sociology of social control offer the basic analytical tools for a study of the police dimensions of counter-terrorism. Social control is understood to refer to the social institutions and mechanisms that define and respond to crime and/or deviance. Situated in the social control tradition, especially the perspectives rooted in the work of Michel Foucault (1975) and Max Weber (1922), the sociology of police focuses on one of the most important manifestations of social control in modern societies. Among the most interesting topics from the perspective of this paper is the transformation of the police function in modern industrialized societies towards the enforcement of criminal objectives that are relatively independent from the political goals of national states and the growing internationalization of the police function on the basis thereof (Deflem 2002a, 2002b).

Most existing studies on the policing of terrorism have not been conducted by sociologists. Political scientists and legal scholars pay attention to the activities of police institutions in counter-terrorism, yet they typically conceive of police in connection to formal policy and law (Donohue and Kayyem 2002). Many works on the policing of terrorism, also, are very policy-oriented or of a highly normative nature related to discussions on civil rights (Cohen 2002; Cole 2003). Other studies in the police literature discuss practical matters from the viewpoint of the position of the police professional (Henry 2002; Veness 2001). Still other works focus on selected aspects and, while not always analytically strong, are very informative on a variety of issues, such as anti-terrorist policing in individual countries (Singh 1998), the counter-terrorist programs of specific police institutions (Lavranos 2003), and the police implications of terrorism at the local and international level, especially since 9/11 (Das and Kratcoski 2003; McVey 1997). Many of these studies are informative but lacking in theoretical focus.

The little sociological (and socio-legal) work that exists on the police aspects of counter-terrorism has treated counter-terrorist policing as one element in a broader study or focused on specific police institutions (Deflem 2004; Deflem and Maybin 2005; De Guzman 2002; Kratcoski, Edelbacher, and Das 2002; Smith 2002). Counter-terrorist policing has also been studied in terms of its relation with other important aspects of terrorism such as criminal developments (Shelley and Picarelli 2002) and issues of international cooperation (Deflem 2002c ; Den Boer and Monar 2002).

Sociological investigations of the policing of terrorism should not lose sight of the fact that counter-terrorist activities always comprise a multitude of political, legal, military, economic, and cultural efforts (Martin 2003; Murphy 2003). The best counter-terrorist police literature takes these complex dynamics into account. Thus, it is important that research has brought out that counter-terrorist policing always involves a rethinking of the connection/disconnection between police and military institutions, for as terrorism is conceived as war-like behavior and is responded to by military actions, it brings up the problem of a potential militarization of the police (Kraska 2001; Sievert 2003). Relatedly, given the connections between terrorism and politics, there is in counter-terrorism a delicate relation between police and intelligence activities. Police and intelligence work do not neatly harmonize as policing activities are oriented at suspects of criminal cases, while intelligence involves the routinized collection of information without the necessity of a criminal event. Additionally, the law enforcement community is itself a multi-dimensional complex, with various levels of policing and jurisdictional authorities that cross-cut agencies at the local, state, federal, and international level. Cooperation, in other words, is a key concern in counter-terrorist policing.

Terrorism, Policing, and Bureaucratization

The bureaucratization theory of policing has been developed in the context of comparative-historical work on the internationalization of the police function (Deflem 2002a). Relying on the sociology of Max Weber (1922), I conceive of public police agencies as bureaucracies that are formally sanctioned by states with the task of order maintenance and crime control. Bureaucracies have a tendency towards independence from their political centers on the basis of acquired expertise and knowledge. Although public police bureaucracies always remain related to the governments of national states (on which their legitimacy is based), police institutions achieve institutional autonomy in the means and objectives of their activities because they rely on a purposive-rational logic to employ the technically most efficient means and develop professional systems of knowledge. The theory does not deny that public police agencies are related to state control, but holds that the behavior of police institutions is not wholly determined by reference to their relation to the political center of states and, thus, that police work is not necessarily driven by the ideological dictates of governments. Contrary to political or state-centered perspectives that view police as mere extensions of government power (Huggins 1987), the bureaucratization theory suggests that police practices are fundamentally shaped by organizational developments related to a more general rationalization process (Walker 1977). Bureaucratization is conceived in Weberian-terms as an increasing influence of formal-rational principles of action that affect police institutions to not only determine the most efficient means of policing, but ultimately also the proper and more specific goals given a general mandate. In this respect, it is most crucial that public police institutions gradually abandoned the directives of their governments to police political opponents and instead began to focus on distinctly criminal enforcement tasks framed on the basis of professional conceptions of the nature and extent of crime.

The bureaucratization theory of police also predicts variation in the form which police strategies will typically take, especially under conditions of globalization. Thus, the theory of police bureaucratization accounts for the development of policing at the (intra)national and international level, a dual focus that may be expected to be particularly valuable in research on the police aspects of counter-terrorism because of the conception of terrorism as having both domestic and foreign components. Historically, modern police development has gone in the direction of the creation of a specialized bureaucratic apparatus in functional and organizational respects. Under conditions of increased interconnections across national states and otherwise confined localities (globalization), this rationalization has unique implications.

Police efforts transcending the borders of national states are typically conducted with limited international appeal (unilateral or bilateral), especially among agencies close in social distance (Black 1998), and are initiated for ad hoc purposes rather than permanently structured. If international cooperation structures are set up, they are maintained as collaborative networks that facilitate communication and information exchange among the police of various nations without the creation of a new international force. In consequence of this national or, more broadly, regional persistence, police institutions ensure that international activities are conceived as extensions of the primary function of police to enforce the ‘laws of the land.’ Regional persistence in extra-jurisdictional police work applies not only to (intra)national versus international police work, but also to functions and practices at other concentrically expanding levels of jurisdiction (local, state, federal, and international).

The theory of police bureaucratization accounts for change as well as continuity in the development of police institutions. In prior work, I have applied the theory to investigate the impact of certain periods of momentous societal change that affect the course and outcome of the bureaucratization of police (Deflem 2002a, 2005). Drawing on comparative-historical examples in the context of U.S. and European police systems, for instance, several periods of societal upheaval affected the police bureaucratization process, such as during the rise of the anarchist movements in the 19th century, periods of international warfare, and the spread of communism following the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Such momentous disturbances not only lead to attempts to redirect police work to again play a role in furthering the political goals of national states (politicization), but they ironically take place at the same time when police institutions are solidifying their professional expertise and knowledge, also enabling them to resist any attempts at (re-)politicization.

In sum, the bureaucratization theory predicts a high degree of institutional autonomy of police to determine the means and objectives of its counter-terrorist activities on the basis of professional expertise and knowledge. However, this perspective does not maintain that police is unrelated to politics. Instead, the bureaucratization theory does not fall victim to a simple determinism that would defend the viewpoint that the behavior of police institutions is ultimately residual to the behavior of the governments of national states. Such an overdeterministic perspective is fraught with insurmountable conceptual contradictions to argue that “all policing is political” while also employing a notion of “politicized policing” (Huggins 1987:150). As argued elsewhere (Deflem 2002a:31), such a statement is meaningless on conceptual grounds alone. Because of its Weberian orientation to investigate bureaucratization influences under specified historical conditions, the theory of police bureaucratization is conceptually equipped to take into account the societal contexts of police behavior and the influence of social processes and structures, whether political, legal, economic, or cultural, on police bureaucracies. Then it can be discovered empirically that modern police institutions which are marked by a high degree of institutional autonomy indeed demonstrate that “real authority... rests necessarily and unavoidably in the hands of the bureaucracy” (Weber 1918:320). However, this autonomy has variable implications, depending on social conditions, especially affected by attempts at a politicization of policing during moments of intense societal upheaval.

Policing the “War on Terror”: A Sociological Model

Historical incidents of politicization attempts on policing, such as during the ‘red scare’ in the 1920s and the build-up towards World War II, offer interesting parallels to the momentous events of September 11, 2001 (Deflem 2002a, 2002c). It is appropriate to assume that the function and organization of police, in the United States as well as elsewhere in the world, will have changed in significant ways in response to the terrorist events of 9/11. Among the most important contextual determinants of counter-terrorist policing are political pressures. Expanded and intensified means of formal policy controlling the conduct of police institutions in matters of terrorism may be expected to most concretely articulate such political efforts. But it should also be expected that police institutions will attempt to resist political influences to continue to direct their activities in a manner that is congruent with achieved standards of expertise and knowledge. Moreover, in terms of the international orientation of counter-terrorist police work, which has special significance in this context because international terrorism is of central concern to police institutions, it can be predicted that national and regional persistence marks counter-terrorist police work. An application of the bureaucratization theory to an analysis of the police dimensions of counter-terrorism, then, implies investigation of the following four themes.

1) The Historical Context: Policing Terrorism Before and After September 11

Terrorism has instigated police activities for many years. Generally, terrorism was from the late 1960s onwards much more of concern to police in Europe, Israel, and the Middle East than in the United States. The relative localization of terrorism harmonizes with the fact that most terrorist groups are politically directed at seizing political power in a particular national state. Yet, with the growing internationalization of terrorist groups during the 1980s, terrorist events began to have global effects. Plane hijackings and bombings (e.g., the Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland) steadily stimulated anti-terrorist police powers. The 1990s brought a renewed attention to terrorism because of several high-profile terrorist incidents, such as the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, and the attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and on the USS Cole in 2000. Still, nobody could foresee the impact that would be brought about by the terrorist incidents of September 11, 2001 in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. The September 11 attacks had ripple effects that could be felt across the world and that led to major reorganizations of counter-terrorist police in many countries.

In the United States, among the most striking changes in policing post-9/11 was a rapid expansion of police powers. In the months following September 11, for instance, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) assigned some 4,000 of its 11,500 special agents to counter-terrorist activities. This expansion of U.S. police powers also brought about a refocusing of police powers and a re-alignment of federal, state and local police agencies, as all levels of police now more than ever focus on terrorism. Among the ironic consequences of these adjustments in policing has been that other crimes besides terrorism now receive much less scrutiny from police and, therefore, may be on the rise.

Counter-terrorist policing reorganizations similar to those in the United States have also taken place in many countries across the world, especially in Europe where police powers have also been expanded since September 11. The police agencies directed by the Ministry of Defense in the United Kingdom, for instance, have been given broader powers of investigation and can now arrest civilians that are suspected of terrorist involvement. Again paralleling conditions in the United States, new anti-terrorist agreements and legislation have also been passed abroad. For example, the European Union has passed new anti-terrorism measures, partly justified also by reference to the fact that EU-nationals were among the casualties of September 11. At the international level, then, the September 11 attacks have served as a powerful symbol to step up enforcement in many nations and enhance cooperation, bringing about institutional shifts on a global scale.

2) The Political Context: Political Controls of Counter-Terrorist Policing

The theory of police bureaucratization takes into account relevant societal contexts, among which political influences, including government policies and related legislative initiatives, are most critical. In the decades before September 11, formal government policies and accompanying legislation against terrorism at the national and international levels of government developed only slowly and in piecemeal fashion, focusing on specific manifestations commonly associated with terrorist acts. Internationally, the regulation of terrorism dates back to at least 1937 when a League of Nations conference adopted a convention on the ‘Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism’. But only one country, India, ratified the agreement. From then on, international laws on terrorism have mostly developed piecemeal, focusing on one or two very specific elements that are often associated with terrorism (e.g., plane hijackings, bombings), but not terrorism as such (Bassiouni 2002). Examples of such international conventions are the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons of 1973 and the International Convention against the Taking of Hostages, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979. These conventions were agreed upon by different international bodies with more or less wide appeal, ranging from the United Nations to the Council of Europe, the Organization of American States, and extradition treaties between two countries. During the 1980s and 1990s, more such conventions were signed, such as the U.N. International Convention for the Suppression of the Financing of Terrorism in 1999, and following the events of 9/11, international regulatory bodies have accordingly re-affirmed their commitment to fight terrorism, while additional anti-terrorist legislations have passed in various countries. Despite these various legislative efforts, however, the international fight against terrorism is clearly not governed by a simple common agenda. Instead, international terrorism presents a global field in which many of the nations of the world are at odds.

In the United States, formal policies against terrorism also developed slowly during the 1970s and 1980s, especially in various departments of the executive branch (Wilson 1994). In the State Department, for instance, a counter-terrorist office was set up in 1976. Other developments were even more piecemeal than at the international level, mostly because terrorism was considered a predominantly foreign problem. The Reagan administration was the first to attempt a broader and more permanent anti-terrorism policy, though terrorism would mostly remain a matter distant from home. The 1984 Act to Combat International Terrorism and the 1986 Omnibus Anti-Terrorism Act, which made terrorist acts against Americans abroad a federal crime, both focused on terrorism outside U.S. soil. The former Bush administration typically treated terrorism as a matter of international diplomacy, for instance following the plane explosion over Lockerbie in 1988. Following certain high-profile incidents, such as the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995, the Clinton administration again stepped up anti-terrorist legislative efforts, most distinctly in passing the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.

The U.S. political response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, however, was far beyond what could have been predicted on the basis of developments during the 1990s (Deflem 2002c). To be sure, the military intervention in Afghanistan mirrored the strikes launched against Al-Qaeda during the Clinton administration. But the military effort was now more intensive and resolute, backed by new policies to justify the militarization of criminal justice used against foreign terrorists and new legislation to more effectively enforce existing terrorist laws. About a month after 9/11, the USA PATRIOT Act (the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), a new federal bill to broaden police powers against terrorism, easily received congressional approval, although civil libertarians have widely criticized the act because of the potential abuse of authority and erosion of civil liberties (Carter 2003). On November 13, 2001, President Bush signed an order to allow military trials of foreigners accused of terrorism. To secure a better system of inter-agency coordination, the most important initiative at the executive level was the new Office of Homeland Security, created by President Bush by executive order on October 8, 2001. Placed under the leadership of Tom Ridge, the former governor of Pennsylvania, the Office turned into a full-fledged Department in the executive branch, when President Bush on November 24, 2002 signed the Homeland Security Act of 2002 into law.

The PATRIOT Act is the most distinct way in which counter-terrorist police work has been legally regulated and thus indirectly put under political scrutiny, opening up the possibility that the legal system is used as an instrument to further political goals. The Act gives broad powers to police in an effort to prevent future terrorist attacks but thereby also compelling police agencies to fight terrorism more effectively should any future threat occur. The special focus on international terrorism is remarkable and confirms the political influences, as the international forms of terrorism harmonize with the political conception of terrorism by the present U.S. administration. Relatedly, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been among the most concrete political efforts to take control of the many agencies involved in the ‘war on terror.’ Organized with the express purpose of coordinating all federal and, indirectly, local law enforcement efforts against terrorism, the Department brings together various policing agencies that were previously part of separate departments. DHS consists of four major directorates: Border and Transportation Security; Emergency Preparedness and Response; Science and Technology; and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection. The Border and Transportation Security directorate is most central to policing and incorporates such agencies as the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, the Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Transportation Security Administration.

The political treatment of terrorism as an issue of national security, closely associated with war and involving military interventions, has also brought about a re-coupling of military and police duties and has in this sense attempted to bring police institutions in line with government policy in domestic and international matters. It is in this respect remarkable how close the current re-organizations of policing in the United States (and elsewhere in the world) approximate the politicization attempts and war-time re-organizations that police institutions underwent in past times (Deflem 2002a). As with periods of extreme political upheaval and war, the impact of September 11 on policing implied an expansion of police duties in function of terrorism (e.g., the move of FBI personnel from drug enforcement). Organizationally, police forces have been given new and exceptional police means, such as special equipment, personnel, and budget. And, finally, police institutions also re-aligned with military forces (Byers 2002). Attorney General Ashcroft spoke of a ‘wartime re-organization’ of the Justice Department (Deflem 2002c). Accordingly, FBI special agents have been working closely with military units (special forces) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in overseas operations, while paramilitary anti-terrorist assault teams are also deployed among civilian police forces (Sievert 2003). As was the case with international conflicts in the past (especially World War II), such re-alignments and reorganizations of policing may lead to structural adjustments that will last until long after the more immediate repercussions of 9/11 have faded. In other words, police reorganizations since September 11 demonstrate the validity of the claim defended by political scientists that national crises typically bring about a centralization of power in the executive branch of the government (Baker 2002). Typically, indeed, during periods of warfare, police institutions are drawn closer to the political centers of their respective states to follow the patterns of cooperation or conflict as determined by the (international) political scene. However, unlike the late 1900s and the earlier half of the 20th century, modern police institutions have in the present day attained a level of bureaucratic autonomy that is unprecedented in scale, with a multitude of implications in many areas of policing for a period of more than a century. These considerations can now be spelled out in more detail to form the core of the here proposed theoretical model in view of estimating the impact of 9/11 on the organization of counter-terrorist policing.

3) The Institutional Context: Bureaucratic Autonomy in Counter-Terrorist Policing

While there are definite empirical indications of an ‘imperial presidency’ in the wake of September 11 (Blackburn 2002), it is surely not wise to just assume that this strengthened central political command has effectively been influential across various levels of government and its many bureaucracies. Scholars of policy have often observed that there can be a “wide gulf between the professionals and the White House” (Wilson 1994:187). For instance, it is not because extreme political efforts have been made to coordinate various security agencies in one department (DHS) that it can be assumed that this coordination attempt effectively guides cooperation among those agencies and would affect and dictate their day-to-day activities and organization. On theoretical grounds alone, the degree to which the bureaucratic autonomy of police institutions has been accomplished during long periods of relative stability cannot be assumed to be without consequences for policing today, even during times of extreme upheaval in matters as complex as terrorism. Therefore, on the basis of the bureaucratization theory of policing it is argued that the transformative powers of September 11 implied only in delineated ways a return to a politically directed policing. In most important respects, bureaucratic persistence and resistance against political attempts to redirect police institutions will have prevented anti-terrorist police efforts from being politicized to instead remain subject primarily to professional expertise and knowledge in terms of means as well as objectives. In matters of counter-terrorist police strategies, I argue, accomplished developments in the institutional autonomy of police bureaucracies and the accompanying evolution of a widespread police culture for well over a century now will resist politicization attempts to foster a mode of counter-terrorist policing that continues to rest on police professionalism rather than political purpose.

Importantly, the bureaucratization theory does not imply that politics is not relevant or that governments do not attempt to exert influence on police. Certain aspects in the broad constellation of the ‘war on terror’ are entirely political, most concretely the policies that guide foreign diplomacy and military operations. Other political interventions, also, are clearly directed at overseeing and controlling relevant police work. But by avoiding a naive deterministic conception of policing, the theory of police bureaucratization maintains clear conceptual distinctions to be able to carefully analyze the causal paths of influence among various institutions to bring out the relevance of both politicization and bureaucratization processes.

The bureaucratization theory of policing predicts that police institutions have a high degree of autonomy in determining the means and objectives of its counter-terrorist programs, despite the fact that there are new political pressures put on these agencies to harmonize their practices with government policy. In this respect, it is to be noted that terrorism has been among the tasks of police institutions since well before September 11. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is the lead agency on terrorism, a responsibility that has historical roots dating back to the Presidential directives that authorized the Bureau in the 1930s to investigate activities relating to espionage, sabotage, subversive activities, and violations of American neutrality laws (Deflem 2002a). From the 1970s onwards, the FBI steadily expanded its anti-terrorist programs, both at home and abroad (Nadelmann 1993). The 1990s saw an upswing in the FBI’s mission, especially after the Oklahoma City bombing and the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998.

A similar emphasis on terrorism has also affected police institutions of many other countries and has been influential for international police structures and processes. In Europe, in particular, where the 1970s witnessed various terrorist incidents, terrorism was a prime motive in the unification movement among European police, ever since the creation in 1975 of the so-called TREVI group (‘Terrorism, Radicalism, Extremism, and International Violence’) established to coordinate police work on terrorism (Lavranos 2003). Such historical predecessors of counter-terrorist policing must be taken into account to usefully situate the impact of 9/11 in the context of realized and ongoing developments of police bureaucratization in matters of counter-terrorism. Bureaucratization tendencies are significant in terms of the means and objectives of police work.

With respect to the means of antiterrorist policing, technological developments and concerns of efficiency are observed to be the primary considerations in establishing police arrangements against terrorism. The centrality of technology in counter-terrorist policing mirrors other areas of police work and is driven by an increasing role played by technologies in both criminal activity as well as police work. Counter-terrorist police work employs sophisticated technological methods in response to the use of modern technologies by terrorist groups and individuals, including sophisticated weaponry and technically advanced means of communication, financing, and the execution of attacks. Therefore, also, police work is especially concerned with bio-terrorism, the use of computers, and the financial assets of terrorist groupings. These factors betray an emphasis on the technological means at the disposal of terrorist groups and the likewise technically sophisticated manner in which counter-terrorist police strategies should respond (Deflem 2002b; Ventura, Miller, and Deflem forthcoming). An emphasis on principles of efficiency in anti-terrorist policing is apparent from the police concern with inter-agency communications, linguistic issues, and the use of special investigative techniques such as wire-tapping.

From an organizational viewpoint, efficiency considerations are apparent in the functional division of police work in terms of various investigative matters and management issues. Bureaucratization effects can also be predicted to take place with respect to the ongoing militarization or ‘war-time’ reorganization of policing. For while a militarization of police might imply a politicization of police, at least in certain respects, war-like developments might also ironically lead to strengthen the role of police. Organizationally, police institutions might emerge stronger than before if and when their new powers, acquired during a period of national emergency, will not be relinquished when relative tranquility has again set in. The case of the exponential expansion of the FBI during and after World War II is telling in this respect (Deflem 2002a). Functionally, also, the widening objectives of policing can potentially be applied to police duties that are not related to terrorism but share certain some formal characteristics therewith (e.g., public demonstrations and riots). Also to be investigated are the mechanisms of cooperation between military and police services. From a civil liberties viewpoint, the use of special paramilitary anti-terrorist assault teams in civilian police forces raises serious questions, but the consequences of the merging of military and police duties are far from clear. The increasing acceptance among military circles that the threat of terrorism and post-war reconstructive efforts show the need for police missions to accompany military actions might actually imply a ‘police-cization’ of the military (Dunlap 1999).

The bureaucratic emphasis on technologies in counter-terrorism is also apparent in the relevant policies and legislations that have been passed. Laws and conventions on terrorism have not only developed piecemeal but typically also focus on technical aspects of terrorism, such as its financing and its instruments (bombings, hijackings). Public proclamations of policy, likewise, often emphasize an efficiency in means that harmonizes with the bureaucratic developments of police institutions. For instance, a few days after 9/11, President George Bush sought to step up police efforts against terrorist groups, saying that “we ought to give the FBI the tools necessary to track down terrorists” (cited in Deflem 2002c). In the context of the United States, also, the PATRIOT Act betrays a striking emphasis on an efficiency of means in combating terrorism (rather than a concern to define terrorism). The Act focuses on efficient methods to track down terrorists, on means to ensure effectiveness in cooperation, and on the technological challenges posed for police and intelligence agencies by advances in communications technology. Among the special surveillance tools mentioned in the Act are secret searches and seizures, the tapping of telephones, and the use of detention without charges for seven days.

The emphasis on technology and efficiency in counter-terrorist policing reveals the relevance of formal rationalization processes which have been observed in and beyond many modern bureaucratic institutions (Weber 1922). The fact that such formal-rational logic not only drives bureaucratic work but also affects legislation and other formal policies is indicative of the fact that bureaucratic resistance can effectively assert itself in the political and legislative realm. As such, it is not only useful to know which political and legal bodies at the national and international level have passed laws and regulations on counter-terrorist policing, but also that these formal policies in substance and orientation follow the principles police institutions have developed and applied in their relevant activities, sometimes even before any formal policies were drafted (Deflem 2002a). In this context, also, it is not only important to consider that many political leaders across the world have vowed to conduct a ‘war on terror,’ but also to carefully investigate the foundational principles and actual mechanisms of counter-terrorism at all levels, including police. The politicization of counter-terrorism, as much as its bureaucratization, cannot be speculation, but requires evidence and scientific analysis.

A final aspect of the efficiency in means emphasized in counter-terrorist policing relates to the practices and arrangements of international cooperation and information exchange among police of different nations. Available evidence shows that the fostering of international cooperation primarily takes place by establishing direct means of communication among police. Such police-to-police communications take place in an extra-legal context and occur at international police meetings, visits to foreign police agencies, and through established systems of international police practices and organizations. From the U.S. viewpoint, international policing activities are conducted by stationing agents abroad, especially through the FBI’s system of legal attachés stationed in foreign countries, and by participation in international police organizations. Among the international organizations, the role of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) is in this respect most interesting because the organization has the widest international appeal, has a long history dating back to the organization’s founding in 1923, and has been focusing on terrorism issues since the 1970s (Deflem and Maybin 2005). Interpol has established various systems for communications and information exchange among its presently 181 members and a central headquarters in Lyons, France. The very structure of Interpol, in other words, is a manifestation of the police emphasis on a formal rationalitization in means. Demonstrating the emphasis on technology in Interpol’s counter-terrorism mission is the technologically driven infrastructure, including a specialized anti-terrorist command and coordination center, expanded computerized databases, and a new global communications system since September 11.

With respect to the objectives of counter-terrorist policing, the bureaucratization of police work involves most clearly a de-politicization of the target of police activities to focus on the distinctly criminal aspects of terrorist activities. From the police point of view, domestic and international crimes —even when they involve explicit political or otherwise moral motives on the part of the perpetrator— form the basis of systems of knowledge that are beyond political and ideological considerations and that therefore can also be shared among police of different nations to foster international cooperation efforts. At least two strategies are used by police to accomplish an effective criminalization of terrorism. First, terrorism is from the police viewpoint defined in vague and general terms. The FBI, for instance, defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a Government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives” (in Kapitan and Schulte 2002). While the definition contains references to the motives and goals of terrorism, it is only the quality of the means (‘unlawful use’) that can justify a police response. Strikingly, those means are in no way specified and therefore precisely useful to police. Questions on the morality of terrorism are abandoned in favor of a generalized focus that becomes a basis to police criminal conduct, whether it be terrorist or not. An Interpol resolution after September 11 condemned the terrorist attacks as “an abhorrent violation of law and of the standards of human decency” (in Deflem and Maybin 2005). The criminalization by police has total aspirations. The net of social control is wide, its mesh thin (Cohen 1985). Legal and moral considerations aside, a vague conception of terrorism becomes a powerful and highly consequential basis for police work.

A second strategy in the criminalization of terrorism is to disentangle terrorist activities into its various constituent parts, only the criminal elements of which become the target of police work. In the context of the United States, the PATRIOT Act does not define terrorism but refers to Section 213 of the Immigration and Nationality Act on terrorist organizations. That Act, however, does not offer a definition of terrorism but provides a list of certain criminal activities, such as hijackings, assassinations, and bombings, that are commonly associated with terrorism, but which would otherwise also be criminal. The separation of criminal elements from terrorism also explains the piecemeal fashion in which international conventions related to terrorism have been formulated (e.g., on financing) and the relative ineffectiveness of broader conventions. For example, although a United Nations General Assembly Resolution of 1983 unconditionally condemned “all acts, methods and practices of terrorism,” the only instrument of enforcement adopted by 1988 was the more restricted International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings (Travalio 2000). Similarly, the resolutions on terrorism adopted by Interpol acknowledge that terrorists themselves refer in their actions explicitly to ideological, political, or religious motivations, but those elements Interpol disregards in case there are also criminal elements that predominate in the totality of the act. Thus, while ideological sentiments, political responses, and formal laws on terrorism can be very diverse in the world, the target of terrorism at the level of police bureaucracy is defined in a language that can be shared among police institutions across the world. As a political, legal, or moral issue, terrorism is not likely to be able to function as a basis for domestic or international police work. Yet, from the police viewpoint, terrorism is a crime and to be responded to accordingly. For police, the ‘war on terror’ is no war at all.

4) The Globalization Context: Regional Persistence in the Policing of Terrorism

Both domestic as well as international forms of terrorism are subject to the activities of police institutions, opening up the relevance of both intra-national and inter-national counter-terrorist police strategies. But historically globalization tendencies can be observed to impact nations and other localities and their institutions in a differential manner (Robertson 1992). Therefore, while the bureaucratization of the police function has taken on global proportions, however unevenly, the trend towards a common police culture that has gradually driven international police cooperation on a wider international level has not prevented that national and, more broadly, regional police objectives remain of paramount concern in planning and executing counter-terrorist police activities. Based on a theoretical model developed on the internationalization of the police function (Deflem 2002a) and extended to extra-jurisdictional activities and multi-agency cooperation, the persistence of regionalism in the case of counter-terrorist policing takes on at least three forms.

First, police agencies will prefer to work unilaterally to conceive and fulfill their respective mission. This applies both to federal or national police organizations whose jurisdiction extends to countries as well as to local (municipal or state) agencies whose jurisdictional spaces are less extensive. This principle has various manifestations in counter-terrorist policing, mostly relating to domestic versus international terrorism issues and the differential concerns across the globe over the nature of international terrorism. In the context of the United States, terrorism will be perceived differently by police in parts of the country where domestic terrorist groups are more prevalent than in larger metropolitan centers and border regions or points of entry with large ports or airports where international terrorism will be of more concern. The municipal police of a small mid-western town, for instance, will be more likely to focus on domestic terrorist groups, whereas the FBI Field Office of a large city in the East Coast may concentrate on the possibility of another attack from abroad. At this level of regional persistence, differential conceptions of terrorism are important inasmuch as agencies have to work together. The FBI, in particular, has since the 1980s set up multi-agency structures, the so-called Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTF), that are comprised of Bureau special agents as well as officers from local and state police agencies.

Abroad, counter-terrorist work by the FBI also betrays a preference for unilateral work, which is made possible through the Bureau’s system of legal attachés (legats). Overseen by the International Operations at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C., the FBI presently has legat offices in 52 countries. The considerable international presence of U.S. agents contributes to an ‘Americanization’ of law enforcement and counter-terrorism inasmuch as terrorism issues of concern to the United States will, all other conditions being equal, receive more attention than regional terrorism issues elsewhere in the world (Nadelman 1993). The PATRIOT Act also places special emphasis on foreign investigative work and the investigation of aliens engaged in terrorist activities. Yet, resentment and distrust on the part of the world’s police agencies, whose agenda’s are similarly of regional importance, may bring about difficulties in cooperation, ironically further supporting the view that unilateral work is needed.

Second, counter-terrorist forms of police cooperation will typically be limited in function or scope, initiated either for a specific purpose without the formation of a permanently available structure, or on an only limited international scale, involving as few as possible partners and preferably those of closer social distance. Thus bilateral cooperation will be preferred over multilateral initiatives, and cooperation among agencies that are socially close will be preferred over cooperation between agencies that are socially remote. These principles help explain that the predominant form of cooperation within the United States as being predominantly de-centralized in municipalities. This regional persistence is not only a function of the fact that the U.S. does not have a true national police, but that federal agencies too are organizationally decentralized across the territory of the country. These various points of decentralized field offices and outposts function as the locales where multi-agency partnerships, such as the JTTF’s organized by the FBI, are established.

Abroad, too, the counter-terrorist cooperation activities among police institutions are determined by the same forces of social distance. Thus, international cooperation with U.S. participation typically takes place on a bilateral level, for instance through the FBI legat system, rather than by participation in a multilateral structure. The international activities of the U.S. representative of Interpol, the U.S. National Central Bureau in Washington, DC, are truly dwarfed by the enormous global U.S. counter-terrorism activities done by the FBI and other institutions with foreign presence. In effect, for a foreign police agency wishing to contact the FBI it will be futile to route a request via Interpol or even, for a police from the European Union, via the European Police Office liaison office in Washington, DC, because the FBI relies almost exclusively on its legat system for bilateral cooperation.

Third, even when multilateral cooperation initiatives are established among police, regional persistence is nonetheless shown because such cooperation will be collaborative in nature, bringing police agencies together without the formation of a supranational force. The prototypical case in this respect is Interpol, for the organization is not a not an international police force but a collaborative network of police from various nations (Deflem and Maybin 2005). The collaborative structure of Interpol also brings about that the variable characteristics of the participating police institutions will be reflected in the organization. Thus, it is no surprise to observe that U.S. law enforcement agencies have gradually begun to play a leading role in multilateral anti-terrorist efforts (Nadelmann 1993). U.S. police agencies influenced Interpol to become a more effective organization and promote U.S. law enforcement concerns on terrorism (and drug trafficking). The perspectives on international terrorism held by police agencies from the United States and other parts of the western industrialized world, especially Europe, are seen to influence Interpol’s counter-terrorist programs, as can be seen from the attention paid by the organization to fundamentalist Islamic groups. On the other hand, because of Interpol’s collaborative structure with wide international participation, the organization may not be very effective, because major police powers from the United States and elsewhere will not only need the organization, but also not trust many of its members. Therefore, also, more limited regional police cooperation efforts emerge, such as among police in Arab nations and in Europe. At the European level, recent developments in the European unification process. European police institutions have a long-standing interest in counter-terrorism, dating back to the TREVI group, and presently centralized in the European Police Office (Europol), the new police organization under the jurisdiction of the European Union (Lavranos 2003).


Terrorism and counter-terrorism are relatively neglected themes in the sociological discipline. The events of September 11 have caught sociologists by surprise in more ways than one. The enduring relevance of terrorism in the present era requires that sociologists take terrorism-related matters seriously. Sociologists interested in the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism cannot just jump on a populist bandwagon of self-proclaimed terrorism experts or rely on emotion rather than intellect. Instead, we should build on our proven disciplinary insights to offer a distinct contribution from which other social scientists can learn as much as sociologists can learn from them.

Based on insights from the sociology of social control and globalization, this paper developed a sociological model of the policing of terrorism control under conditions of societal rationalization. Extending from the bureaucratization theory of policing, the forwarded model suggests that counter-terrorism is a complex constellation in which police institutions that have gained a high degree of institutional independence and professional autonomy are now once again confronted with renewed attempts by the political centers of national states to gain control over policing activities. From the viewpoint of the bureaucratization theory of social control, the key question of 9/11 concerns the course and outcome of the clash between attempts to politicize police institutions, on the one hand, and the bureaucratic resistance those institutions can offer, on the other. Theoretical insights and empirical research of current developments suggest that a re-politicization of counter-terrorist policing may not be easily accomplished and that, instead, police institutions will continue to claim and gain effective expertise in the control of terrorism.

The relevance of police bureaucratization in matters of terrorism is considerable. From a theoretical viewpoint, the anticipated impact of bureaucratic autonomy should lead to strengthen the notion that the policing of terrorism presents a critical research domain for sociology. Related to the extra-jurisdictional aspects of counter-terrorist police work, the here proposed model also offers support to the insight that the behavior of institutions in modern society cannot be confined to local developments, but must be situated in a wider field of patterns and dynamics.

Furthermore, to the extent that ongoing research will find a persistent bureaucratization of counter-terrorism policing, a critical potential would be revealed for police agencies to emphasize efficiency in anti-terrorist police work at the expense of concerns of legality and justice. Counter-terrorist police strategies may then fall short in terms of requirements of due process and human rights, inasmuch as police practices are driven by technological considerations of efficiency that lack democratic oversight and legal control. The criminalization of terrorism by police, also, might lead to resentment among other constituencies of society, be it political decision-makers or grass-roots popular movements, as they experience the resonance of terrorism in ways that are moral rather than professional. Factors associated with the regional persistence of counter-terrorism policing, finally, may likewise produce tensions, as different conceptions of persons and groups pursued as terrorists (as criminals, enemies, and freedom-fighters) will not always harmonize with the perspectives used by police institutions. Bringing out the dynamics and interrelations of the various institutions associated with terrorism and counter-terrorism from a broad societal viewpoint should be at the center of sociological studies.

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See other writings on (counter-)terrorism.