Police and Counter-Terrorism: A Sociological Theory of International Cooperation

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in Emerging Transnational (In)security Governance: A Statist-Transnationalist Approach, edited by Ersel Aydinli. London: Routledge, 2010. 
Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2010. “Police and Counter-Terrorism: A Sociological Theory of International Cooperation.” Pp. 163-172 in Emerging Transnational (In)security Governance: A Statist-Transnationalist Approach, edited by Ersel Aydinli. London: Routledge.


I develop a model on the policing of terrorism that is theoretically grounded in the sociology of social control and aimed at an analysis of international cooperation in the policing of terrorism. Specifically, I outline the bureaucratization theory of policing as the foundation of the sociological analysis of the criminal law enforcement dimensions of counter-terrorism in a variety of organizational contexts. Because contemporary issues surrounding the perceived threat of terrorism essentially cross the boundaries of national states, special attention goes to the international dimensions of counter-terrorism policing. The bureaucratization theory of counter-terrorism policing is situated in recent sociological advances in the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism in order to elucidate relevant theoretical and empirical dimensions of policing of terrorism in relation to important ongoing debates on democracy, justice, and global security. Empirical examples include counter-terrorism efforts by the international police organizations Interpol and Europol.


Sociological work in the area of terrorism and counter-terrorism cannot count on a long-standing tradition but is instead a very recent development, which needed the momentous events of September 11, 2001 to be set in motion. Since then, terrorism has moved to the center of public attention and has become an important subject matter in politics, law, policing, and many other social institutions. As a result, terrorism and counter-terrorism have become central topics of research across a multitude of disciplines, including the social sciences and sociology. These new paths of sociological inquiry are potentially very promising, but, in order to ensure more than fleeting interest for the sociology of terrorism and terrorism-related phenomena, they need to proceed on the basis of proven disciplinary insights in theoretical, methodological, and thematic respects.

Focusing on the policing of terrorism, this chapter relies on advances in the sociology of social control to contribute to the burgeoning area of sociological studies on terrorism and counter-terrorism in the form of a sociological model of international police cooperation. Specifically, I outline the bureaucratization theory of policing as the foundation of the sociological analysis of the criminal law enforcement dimensions of counter-terrorism in a variety of organizational contexts. Because contemporary issues surrounding the perceived threat of terrorism essentially cross the boundaries of national states, special attention goes to the international dimensions of counter-terrorism policing, including the distinct focus on the international dimensions of terrorism by local and national police organizations across the world as well as the dynamics of counter-terrorism at the level of international police organizations.

Terrorism and Counter-Terrorism

Within the broad multidisciplinary field of terrorism studies, the dimensions of counter-terrorism have generally been much less addressed than the behaviors associated with terrorist groups and individuals. Strikingly, however, sociologists have more readily contributed to the study of terrorism by means of inquiries of counter-terrorism and focused on a variety of institutional dimensions of counter-terrorism. Among the counter-terrorism mechanisms and strategies sociologists have begun to analyze are various political, military, and legal aspects of counter-terrorism, such as the passing of new legislation in the wake of 9/11 (Wong 2006), the dynamics of terrorism trials (Shields, Smith, and Damphousse 2006), the role of the military and the connections between terrorism and warfare (Griffith 2005), the declaration of emergency powers and the use of torture (Hooks and Mosher 2005). Turning to the cultural dimension, sociological work has explored the role of the media in the creation of a culture of fear and collective sense of insecurity that contributed to manufacture a not always metaphorical ‘war on terror’ (Altheide 2004). Relatedly, the role of emotions has been explored in bringing popular sentiments in line with government conduct (Burkitt 2005).

At least two observations are important on the growing sociological literature on counter-terrorism. One, counter-terrorism is not a monolithic entity but, instead, a field that is composed of various players and institutions, diverse strategies and plans, which may not necessarily be, and often are not, in tune with one another. Each of these dimensions, I therefore argue, has to be researched carefully before more general pronouncements can be made about the broad field of ongoing developments of counter-terrorism. The present study is situated in the sociology of social control to focus on selected aspects of the police aspects of counter-terrorism. Two, building on theoretical developments in the sociology of social control, the sociological focus on the policing dimensions of counter-terrorism can and should be conducted irrespective of any conceptual ties to terrorism, i.e., the policing of terrorism is treated as an aspect of social control as a dependent variable without conceiving of terrorism as one of its necessary independent variables. Based on recent insights in the sociology of social control, the treatment of the processes and institutions of social control as constituting a reality sui generis is at the heart of the present investigation to focus on selected dimensions in counter-terrorism policing. The specialty area of the sociology of social control focuses on the social institutions and mechanisms that define and respond to deviance and/or crime, including the police (Deflem 2002:7-8). From the viewpoint of the sociology of social control, terrorism and counter-terrorism are approached conceptually as crime or deviance and social control, respectively, and have been explored as such, especially since 9/11, by sociologists of crime and social control and by criminologists e generally (Deflem 2004b).

The Bureaucratization of Policing

Drawing on recent theoretical developments in the sociology of social control, research on the policing of terrorism can theoretically be developed on the basis of the theory of police bureaucratization (Deflem 2002, 2004a). Conceptually informed by the work of Max Weber (1922), the bureaucratization theory of policing holds that counter-terrorist efforts at the level of police institutions rest on a formal-rational conception of the means and objectives of counter-terrorism. This process of bureaucratization of the police function takes place across national institutions as well as at the international level even though ideological and political sentiments on terrorism can be 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 presently at an unprecedented high level, police agencies can be expected to better resist (re-)politicization attempts to continue counter-terrorism activities on the basis of an efficiency-driven treatment and depoliticized understanding of terrorism. The autonomy of police to specify the means and objectives of counter-terrorism policing is at the heart of the present study.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 in current debates, the theory predicts that national and, more broadly, regional persistence marks counter-terrorism policing efforts, even when those efforts explicitly involve international cooperation with police from multiple nations. In the following pages, the theory will first be clarified in general terms and subsequently applied to counter-terrorism policing.

Police as Bureaucracy
Derived from the French term ‘bureau’, meaning desk or office, and the Greek word ‘kratos,’ meaning power or rule, bureaucracy in general refers to the power of administrative offices. The term was originally introduced in 18th-century France with a distinctly negative connotation to refer to the rigid manner in which administrative units could make decisions irrespective of their original objectives. A certain negative quality often remains associated with bureaucratization, but the concept is currently also used in a strict analytical meaning to refer to a particular mode of organization. The work of the German sociologist Max Weber has been most influential to introduce this concept and the theories that are derived from it in the area of state and market institutions, including police organizations. Among the principles that guide bureaucratic activity, Weber specified most centrally that the modern bureaucracy operates on the basis of a formal rationality to use the most efficient means given certain specified objectives. Weber conceived of formal or purposive rationalization as the most fundamental process characterizing modern societies. Analyzing the consequences of bureaucratization, Weber devoted most attention to the trend among bureaucratic organizations to achieve a position of autonomy so that the bureaucracy can operate independently from political oversight and popular control. In modern societies, bureaucratization processes have been observed across a wide range of organizations. The consequences of bureaucratization have extended far beyond the organizations themselves and have also affected the nature of governance and of social life in general.

Applied to policing, it can be observed that modern police organizations are, as bureaucracies, hierarchically ordered with a vertical structure of a rigid chain of command. Police agencies handle cases on the basis of general rules of evidence collecting and processing without regard to the person and in sole view of the stated objectives of crime control and order maintenance. Police work is also routinized on the basis of standardized methods of investigation, often strongly influenced by scientific principles of police technique, such as technically advanced methods of criminal identification and computerized databases. Special problems are involved with police bureaucratization in terms of the tensions that can exist between the efficiency and the legitimacy of police work.

The Autonomy of Policing
As I have outlined elsewhere in more detail (Deflem 2002), the bureaucratization theory differentiates between the structural conditions and operational motives of policing. The structural condition of police bureaucratization refers to a position of relative independence from governmental control that police institutions must achieve in order to define police work in professional rather than political terms. When this structural condition of formal bureaucratic autonomy is met, police institutions must additionally define an area of expertise in order for formal autonomy to become operational as well. Operational bureaucratic autonomy is attained when knowledge systems are created and applied in terms of the function of policing as crime control and order maintenance.

Historically, the conditions of police to achieve bureaucratic autonomy have ironically grown out of an expansion of police powers for political purposes. Especially in the context of autocratic states in Europe, police institutions were originally set up to further the political goals of governments. Early efforts to organize international police cooperation in Europe in the 19th century, for instance, were politically motivated and oriented at tracking down the opponents of autocratic regimes (Deflem 2002:45-65, 2005a). From these political efforts, police gradually developed more autonomously conceived cooperation efforts on the basis of professional expertise. Following Weber’s rationalization theory, I maintain that police institutions gained such a position of relative independence because and when the execution of their duties became guided by formal criteria of efficiency and an impersonal calculation of means, a trend towards instrumental rationalization which Weber equated with modernity itself. The reliance on technologically sophisticated means of criminal investigation is the most concrete expression of this development among police institutions.

Under conditions of formal bureaucratic autonomy, police agencies can develop expert systems of knowledge, which delineate the police function in function of crime control and order maintenance. Police bureaucratization then leads police institutions to become independent in operational respects as well to determine the means as well as a specification of the objectives of their tasks. It is the professionalization of the police function, therefore, that most fundamentally drives international cooperation. Police cooperation is therefore also most often advanced by informal networks of police professionals rather than by formal structures of cooperation. Concretely, operational autonomy is achieved when police institutions have garnered knowledge (official information) about the state and development of crime on the basis of its implementation of the proper means for its control (expertise). Historically, it can be observed that such developments have been successfully accomplished across many nations that have achieved a modicum of peace and that, typically, are industrialized and democratically organized. Because of the cross-cultural spread of police bureaucratization, moreover, the process has special implication in matters of cooperation. International cooperation among police, indeed, can be accomplished when police of different nations are formally autonomous to recognize one another as professional institutions. Then knowledge systems can be developed concerning international crime, including crimes that in their execution traverse the boundaries of national jurisdictions, as well as criminal developments that affect several countries at once, such as the influence of economic modernization on criminal conditions across the world.

The extent of control by governments on their respective police forces is variable under specified societal conditions. This condition cross-culturally distinguishes police institutions from various nations, such as those where military and police functions are more clearly differentiated and those where these functions are more closely intertwined. Historically, moreover, the autonomy police can attain relative to governmental control is variable. In particular, periods of societal upheaval are seen to affect the institutional autonomy of police institutions in functional and organizational respects.

International Police Cooperation

The theory of police bureaucratization accounts for the development of policing at both the (intra)national and international level, a dual focus that should be particularly valuable in research on the police dimensions of counter-terrorism because of the conception of terrorism as having both domestic and foreign components. Because of an increasing trend towards bureaucratization across the world, also, police organizations of different nations have been able to find a common ground to cooperate with one another. International cooperation among police takes on the form of limited collaboration surrounding specific cases, such as the international rendition of fugitives from justice, but has also been organized on a permanent basis in formally structured international police organizations.

Under conditions of increased interconnections across states and otherwise confined localities (globalization), the rationalization of policing has unique implications. For not only are police institutions that have attained a degree of bureaucratization more likely to work internationally and engage in various forms of cooperation, international police activities are characterized by a persistence of nationality, with respect to enforcement goals and police methods, in at least three ways (Deflem 2002:215-219, 2004a:87-89). First, police institutions will prefer to engage in unilaterally enacted transnational activities, most typically through a system of international liaisons stationed in foreign countries. Unilaterally planned international operations are not always possible because police agencies may lack necessary personnel and means. The police institutions of more powerful nations are at a considerable advantage in this respect. Second, international cooperation among police will typically take place in a bilateral form, between the police of two nations, especially between agencies close in social distance, and will be maintained only on a temporary basis for a specific inquiry or investigation, rather than permanently structured. Third, and finally, even in the case of the formation of cooperation initiatives with wide multilateral appeal, such as Interpol, national persistence in international police work is revealed in the fact that multilateral cooperation among police is of a collaborative nature that does not involve the formation of a supranational police force. The idea of a supranational police force clashes with conceptions of state sovereignty and police autonomy, whereas a collaborative network among police of different nations can bring about the advantages of international cooperation. International police organizations therefore establish a system of collaboration to facilitate communication and information exchange among the police of various nations by a variety of means, such as regular meetings, systems of communication, and other institutions of cooperation, such as a central headquarters through which information can be routed. The police agencies of national states are thereby affirmed as the partners of cooperation.

In consequence of this national 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 can also be observed with respect to the functions and practices of police at other concentrically expanding levels of jurisdiction (e.g., local, state, federal, and international), thus also affecting inter-agency cooperation in functional and jurisdictional respects.

Case Studies: Interpol and Europol

By means of illustration, the value of the above theoretical model of police cooperation can be demonstrated on the basis of research on the policing of terrorism by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and the European Police Office (Europol) (see, in more detail, Deflem 2006a, 2006b).

In existence since 1923, the international police organization now known as Interpol passed resolutions to combat —at first implicitly, then explicitly— terrorism and terrorist-related activities. These policies developed in a piecemeal fashion from resolutions focusing in criminal acts against international civil aviation and the holding of hostages in the 1970s to a full-fledged Declaration Against Terrorism that passed in 1998. Following the events of 9/11, Interpol undertook major new initiatives. A General Secretariat Command and Co-ordination Center was set up and is operational 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And at the Cameroon meeting of 2002, a new global communications project was announced as Interpol’s highest priority. This project involves the launching of a new internet-based Global Communications System, called ‘I-24/7,’ to provide for a rapid and secure exchange of data among Interpol’s member agencies. The I-24/7 system allows for the searching and cross-checking of data submitted to Interpol by the organization’s members over a virtual private network system that transmits encrypted information over the internet.

The terrorist attacks of 9-11 fell under the authority of Interpol because, as Secretary General Ronald Noble said, the attacks were global. Noble not only referred to the fact that citizens from over 80 countries were among the casualties, but also that the terrorist attacks were aimed at the entire world by virtue of it occurring at the World Trade Center, which “thus represented the world by name” (Noble 2001). Interpol operates under an article of its constitution that explicitly prohibits the policing of political crimes. However, terrorist incidents are broken down into their constituent parts, the criminal elements of which can then be subjected to police investigations. Likewise indicating a de-politicized understanding of terrorism, Interpol also pays special attention to the financing of terrorist activities since it is assumed that the frequency and seriousness of terrorist attacks are often proportionate to the amount of financing terrorists receive.

Interpol serves as a network of police from various nations and places emphasis on a smooth coordination of and direct contacts among the participating police agencies. Yet, evincing the preference for police to work on a more limited (bilateral) scale, some member agencies have lamented the relative sluggishness of the Interpol structures. Terrorism has also mostly remained a matter regulated, policed, and prosecuted at the national level or on a more limited multilateral scale. This accounts for the development of international anti-terrorist initiatives independent from Interpol. In Europe, for instance, counter-terrorism is organized by the Task Force Terrorism in the European Police Office (Europol). Likewise, police agencies at the national level have expanded their antiterrorism work. Expanded options have been taken, however, to forge cooperation. In November 2001, for example, Interpol signed an agreement with Europol to foster cooperation in the policing of terrorism and other international crimes (see below).

The focus on foreign terrorist groups rather than domestic groups has led to an emphasis in anti-terrorist activities on citizens of certain countries. Thus, since recently, sources in Arabic are always listed first on the pages of Interpol website and all official documents since September 11. The prominence now accorded to the language clearly shows that international police organizations and cooperative arrangements such as Interpol reflect the various characteristics of national police agencies, their relative weight on the international scene, and the focus on terrorist groups from Arab nations.

Interpol pays special and most attention to establishing direct international police communications that can be used efficiently. But efficiency does not necessarily equate to effectiveness in results. Until recently, the circulation of Red Notices occurred by regular mail. It could take weeks, even months before the Red Notices would reach their destination. Changes were made after September 11. Now, during the first 10 months of 2002, about half of all (968) Red Notices were transmitted electronically, albeit it to only 42 member agencies.

A central advantage is that Interpol has managed to attract cooperation from police agencies representing nations that are ideologically very diverse and not always on friendly terms politically. For example, shortly after the war in Iraq, authorities from France and the United States agreed to cooperate towards the development of biometric techniques to prevent the forgery of passports as part of their efforts against terrorism, despite these countries’ profound disagreements over the Iraqi conflict. Thus, although ideological and political sentiments on terrorism can be very divided in the world of politics and diplomacy, international efforts at the level of police agencies and organizations can be based on a common ground surrounding terrorism through its treatment as a de-politicized crime.

In full operation since 1999, Europol is associated with the European Union as the result of a decision by the political and legislative bodies of the Union. Europol’s activities are legally framed and bound to certain areas of investigation. Yet, Europol is nonetheless characterized by a degree of autonomy to determine the specific means and objectives of its policing and counter-terrorist programs and is oriented at an efficient sharing of information among police on the basis of professional standards of policing.

Although Europol is formally mandated by the European Union and overseen by the regulatory bodies of the EU, the organization is also dependent in its activities on the police agencies of EU states and these agencies are highly bureaucratized in respect of the knowledge and know-how of their enforcement duties. Europol relies on the participation of existing police institutions in the EU for the staffing of the headquarters and the Europol National Units in the 25 member states. Europol operates within the context of an existing professional culture of policing that is highly bureaucratized. Europol is guided by a formal set of documents that lays out the organization’s functions, but the political decision-making process in the EU can be relatively ineffective in fostering police cooperation. However, while counter-terrorism cooperation at the political level sometimes remains an expression of goodwill with little consequences, police and security agencies can achieve cooperation in practical matters. Also, Europol maintains relations with countries outside the European Union, such as Switzerland, Turkey, Colombia, and the United States, and with other international police organizations. As such Europol can effectively broaden its mandate beyond the restraints of formal political decision-making.

In November 2001, a specialized counter-terrorism unit, the Counter-Terrorism Task Force was instituted at the Europol headquarters. A year later, the Task Force was incorporated into Europol’s Serious Crime Department, but after the terrorist bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004, it was re-established as a separate entity. Europol’s policing and counter-terrorism operations are organized in the rationalized terms of an efficient control of crime. Besides the creation of the Counter-Terrorism Task Force as a specialized unit and the development of functional programs to combat terrorism, the relevance of instrumental rationality in Europol can also be observed in the organization’s emphasis on efficiency in operations. An emphasis is placed in Europol’s crime-fighting activities on establishing swift methods of communication and information exchange among the participating agencies. The agencies participating in Europol need not contact one another directly but can route information via The Hague by means of an ‘Information Exchange System’ (INFO-EX) that enables encrypted electronic messages. Similarly, Europol’s liaison agreements with the police and intelligence services of non-EU nations functions to ease international cooperation across the boundaries of the European Union.


International police cooperation has historically primarily involved the institution of mechanisms to ensure information exchange directly among police of different nations. The centrality of establishing swift methods of exchange has been confirmed throughout the history of international policing until the present era. Among the important shifts have been a turn away from the policing of political violations towards the enforcement of distinctly criminal activities and a move towards the establishment of large multilateral police organizations through which cooperation can be permanently instituted. The development of international police organizations, such as Interpol and Europol, however, has not meant that informal developments have diminished in importance. On the contrary, every formal structure of cooperation relies on personal police contacts to be realized into concrete practices of exchange.

Importantly, furthermore, the events of 9/11 have implied an intensification of international policing in the area of counter-terrorism as well as with respect to other enforcement assignments. Not only has international police work expanded in scale, it has also been more clearly recognized as an important police function in the light of the expansion of transnational criminal activities. In the area of terrorism, it is presently important to contemplate whether or not this intensification of international cooperation might also involve an increase in cooperation among agencies in the police, military, and the world of intelligence. Such a cross-functional cooperation would make sense given the specific nature of terrorism, but it is not easily accomplished given that enforcement and intelligence agencies tend to cooperate only with functionally similar agencies. The development of cooperation across functionally differentiated organizations involved with counter-terrorism would signal an important shift in international cooperation, greatly impacting the future conditions of cooperation and counter-terrorism on a global scale.

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See other writings on the policing of terrorism.