Policing International Terrorism

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID

Samantha Hauptmann

This is a copy of a chapter in Globalisation and the Challenge to Criminology, edited by Francis Pakes. London: Routledge, 2013.

Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu and Samantha Hauptman. 2013. "Policing International Terrorism." Pp. 64-72 in Globalisation and the Challenge to Criminology, edited by Francis Pakes. London: Routledge.


Propelled by the tragic events of September 11, terrorism has become a central driving force in international police work, both in the form of unilateral international police activities abroad as in the form of enhanced systems of international cooperation. This chapter reviews the main trends of the policing of international terrorism that have emerged across national jurisdictions and at the level of international police organizations. It is reviewed how the dynamics of the policing of international terrorism can be accounted for on the basis of the increasing bureaucratization of modern police institutions and their difficult co-existence with political attempts to take control of counterterrorism as matters of national security.


The field of international criminal justice and criminology has progressed exponentially over the past few decades for reasons that relate to both the development of relevant scholarship and the continual globalization of society. Among the most noteworthy developments have been issues related to terrorism and counterterrorism. Since the events of September 11 2001, the criminological study of relevant structures and processes has also accelerated investigations of the policing of terrorism, especially at an international level. The most important aspects and dynamics of the international policing of terrorism form the center piece of this chapter.

Theoretically informed by the bureaucratization perspective of policing (Deflem 2002, 2010), this review will bring out the central characteristics of the policing of international terrorism in selected nations and at the level of international police organizations. It will be shown, most critically, that the international activities and objectives of the policing of terrorism are not aimed at fighting a (military) war on terror but are instead focused on terrorism as a matter of crime and criminal justice. The crime-control functions of counterterrorism policing are thereby framed in terms of efficiency considerations rather than political concerns or related legal and military objectives defined in terms of national security. Police agencies are relatively autonomous in determining the technically most advanced methods of criminal investigation in counterterrorism, including cooperation efforts among police from different nations.

Examining the essential components of the policing of international terrorism within relevant legal and political contexts will reveal the extent to which the objectives of international cooperation of counterterrorism since 9/11 have been realized. Exploring the most important aspects of counterterrorism policing in the United States and selected nations across the globe as well as major international organizations involved in coordinating global policing efforts will elucidate the state and development of the international policing of terrorism in the context of other international counterterrorism efforts. Appropriate lessons can be drawn from this analysis both for our understanding of counterterrorism in the world today and in the near future and for criminological theorizing and research in these areas.

International Counterterrorism by US Law Enforcement

It is not only in view of the centrality of 9/11 that this chapter begins with an analysis of international counterterrorism policing by agencies from the United States, for U.S. law enforcement had long before taken a lead in international police activities (Nadelmann 1993; Deflem 2004). The events of September 11 accelerated this so-called ‘Americanization’ of international policing at various levels. Among the most central agencies, thereby, are the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the Justice Department, selected enforcement agencies in the newly formed Department of Homeland Security, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in the Department of State (Deflem 2010).


Within the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI is the primary federal U.S. law enforcement agency, responsible for a variety of criminal offenses, including terrorism. Among its chief international investigative mechanisms, the FBI has just over 1% of its 12,590 force (a total of 165 agents) permanently stationed overseas as legal attachés at U.S. embassies across the world. An increasing number of federal regulations involving terrorism, most notably President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Directive 30 of 1982, led the FBI to expand its counterterrorism operations which resulted in their lead-agency status in all matters of counterterrorism. With an increasing number of attacks on Americans abroad occurring during the 1980s, the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division established a Specialized Terrorism Section that focused on both domestic and international terrorism.

In the 1990s, terrorism incidents such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and the 1998 US embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya further stepped up the FBI’s counterterrorism efforts. An FBI Counterterrorism Division was newly established, while foreign counterintelligence responsibilities were assigned to the National Security Division, a detachment of the US Department of Justice. In 1995, then President Bill Clinton reaffirmed the FBI’s counterterrorism role with Presidential Directive 39 which affirmed the lead investigative agency role of the FBI in acts of terrorism both in the United States and overseas. Counterterrorism had become one of the FBI’s principal missions by the late 1990s and shortly after the events on 9/11, the counterterrorism enforcement role, as stated by then Attorney General John Ashcroft, had become the “FBI’s central mission of preventing the commission of terrorist acts against the United States and its people” (IGnet 2002).

Within this framework the Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) are arguably the most significant counterterrorism tool at the police level in the United States. Overseen by the FBI, these task forces are composed of emergency personnel and law enforcement agents from multiple levels of government. Thus, acting as force-multipliers, the JTTFs act as the chief counterterrorism mechanism for specific terrorism-related investigations. At present, more than 100 such JTTFs are coordinated through a National Joint Terrorism Task Force that is headquartered in Washington, D.C.

With more attention devoted to terrorism in the post-9/11 era, the FBI diverted agents from other investigative branches into counterterrorism as the number of both intelligence analysts and linguists have doubled and tripled, respectively. The increase in surveillance and the use of National Security Letters have both resulted in enhanced intelligence capabilities. In addition to the Counterterrorism Division, a new Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force was established to promote cooperation between other federal agencies, such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of Defense, as a new specialized FBI program dealing with terrorism intelligence.

Homeland Security

Following the events of September 11, the newly created Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was conceived to specify and coordinate counterterrorism efforts and to clearly stipulate dedicated agencies for each counterterrorism task. As a result, the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was divided into separate agencies serving both administrative and enforcement functions. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services now handle all the administrative facets of immigration while the enforcement aspect is handled by two new agencies. The two new agencies divide their immigration responsibilities among Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), specializing in investigation and enforcement and customs, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), taking on all security responsibilities related to the U.S. borders.

Given that all 19 hijackers involved in the 9/11 attacks entered the country legally (Shutt and Deflem 2005), the concern over the security of the U.S. immigration system after September 11 was palpable. Yet, continuing to allow the large numbers of legitimate immigrants and visitors entry into the U.S. required immediate and expanded efforts to ferret out potential terrorists. As the primary investigative branch of DHS and the federal immigration enforcement branch, ICE is therefore responsible for the enforcement of immigration and customs laws in the United States.

With the center of operations in Washington, DC and as the largest DHS investigative force ICE consists of several specialized branches, including intelligence, investigations, detention and removal, and international affairs. In addition to the 27 domestic offices, ICE also maintains 50 international field offices in 39 countries around the world. Each external detachment serves as an attaché, developing partnerships and assisting with the training of foreign affiliates. Since its inception in 2003, ICE has been involved in a very wide variety of international enforcement operations, including cases involving smuggling and illegal immigration. Also established in 2003 as a direct result of the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act of 2002 (Salter 2004), the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) is monitored by ICE. The system is used to supervise and approve foreign students in partnership with educational institutions.

Given its border-related objectives, ICE created Border Enforcement Security Task Forces in cooperation with several other law enforcement agencies. ICE also oversees the Law Enforcement Support Center, a cooperative operations facility that serves as the DHS’s national point of contact for law enforcement agencies seeking immigration status and identification information on crimes of suspected, arrested, or convicted aliens. Finally, Project Shield America is an organization designed to “prevent the export of sensitive U.S. munitions and strategic technology to terrorists, criminal organizations, and foreign adversaries” (Deflem 2010: 50).

With the principal assignment of border protection, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) comprises the U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Border Patrol, the INS, and the enforcement divisions of the Department of Agriculture. The agency’s main focus is therefore on the protection from terrorists and on safeguarding lawful trade with and travel to the United States. With more than 500 million people visiting the U.S. each year, managing immigration and protecting the U.S. borders is a formidable task. Consequently, the responsibility of CBP is divided into three functionally distinct divisions, including field operations, border patrol, and alien smuggling, and several specialized programs designed to accomplish its law numerous enforcement duties. With federal programs such as the Secure Borders Initiative and the Secure Fence Act of 2006, CBP strives to not only control the U.S. border but also to promote temporary worker programs, strengthen interior enforcement and infrastructure while changing their traditional practice of ‘catch and release’ of non-Mexican illegal aliens, to redirecting the their efforts to temporary detention. There is also a heightened focus on controlling the cross-border trafficking of goods and humans by prospective terrorist and criminal organizations. With respect to interior enforcement, the investigation of illegal alien workers and consequent reprimanding for hiring, along with promoting legal temporary worker programs to reduce and gain control over illegal employment is targeted.

Shortly after the September 11 attacks, the Container Security Initiative (CSI) was implemented to detect potential risks of terrorism at foreign ports through the investigation and inspection of containers before cargo arrives in the United States (Shutt and Deflem 2005). CBP and ICE officers in a partnership with 58 overseas port officials therefore monitor approximately 86% of all containers traveling to the United States from foreign ports. In addition, Canadian and Mexican border forces have partnered with CBP to create initiatives such as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (with 6,500 businesses involved) and a Canadian/U.S. venture that targets cross-border terrorist activities the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams. CBP also serves as the executive agency for the Export Control and Related Border Security program in the prevention of the international distribution of nuclear, chemical, biological, and other weapons.

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security

Housed under the Department of the State, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is the chief security and law enforcement arm that conducts investigations of immigration document fraud, technology security, protection of U.S. interests abroad (including citizens, property and information) and international terrorism (Bayer 2005; Deflem 2010). DS also aids in the protection of U.S. embassies, personnel stationed abroad, and a several other operations involving security and counterterrorism.

Beginning in the 1970s, the State Department’s Office of Security reacted to the increasing terrorist threats against U.S. citizens abroad by initiating an assessment of the threat level against U.S. interests abroad and subsequently, advised U.S. personnel who were based overseas. Since the inception of the Diplomatic Security Service branch in November of 1984, DS has continued to expand its security missions, especially abroad, making it the largest law enforcement force for the rendition of U.S. fugitives from foreign countries. First acquiring its antiterrorism directive on the basis of the 1986 Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act and since 1992, DS has supervised the Rewards for Justice Program which offers monetary rewards to individuals that provide information deemed useful in solving acts of terrorism against the U.S. and its assets.

In counterterrorism efforts, DS oversees the Antiterrorism Assistance Program, which trains foreign nationals in security affairs, and the Office of Investigations and Counterintelligence, which counters foreign intelligence acts against the Department of the State’s operations abroad. Recent DS counterterrorism investigations have resulted in some high-profile successes, such as the capture of World Trade Center mastermind Ramzi Yousef through the Rewards for Justice Program. However, the success of the DS was tarnished with the resignation of agency head Richard Griffin in 2007, due to the then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s newly imposed measures in the management of private security contractors in Iraq. Rice’s ruling came after the DS investigation into the killings of 17 Iraqi civilians was taken over by the FBI due to the DS granting immunity waivers to Blackwater guards that were under criminal investigation. Since 2007, stricter rules require that all convoys and security activities of Blackwater be overseen by DS agents.

Counterterrorism Policing Across the Globe

Like the United States, many other nations have also accelerated counterterrorism capacities among their respective police forces. However, not all nations respond to terrorism in like manner, as political and legal conditions differ, with all due consequences for the role of counterterrorism policing (Beckman 2007; Deflem 2008, 2010; Zimmerman & Wenger 2007) Global Counterterrorism Policy and Law

At the political level, the governments of national states rely on a wide assortment of tools to counter the threat of terrorism as a matter of national security. These efforts range from a domestically organized coordination of counterterrorism activities and the organization of intelligence operations to diplomatic initiatives and military interventions. National governments have implemented various measures and established specialized institutions that seek to organize and streamline various counterterrorism functions. In order to ensure a proper coordination of counterterrorism and related security policies, several nations have since 9/11 developed new specialized branches of government. Mirroring the Department of Homeland Security in the United States, for instance, is Public Safety Canada. Other nations seek to streamline their various counterterrorism activities through existing departments, such as the Counterterrorism Strategy in the British Home Office.

Intelligence activities against terrorism are enacted by national governments both at home as well as abroad. In some nations (such as in the United Kingdom and France), domestic intelligence services exist next to foreign intelligence agencies, whereas in other nations (such as in the United States) domestic intelligence functions are not assigned to a specialized agency but part of broader law enforcement or intelligence functions.

At the military level, states also engage in armed interventions against terrorist targets, either by direct strikes against certain terrorist groups and their facilities or by subversive activities, such as by means of espionage and sabotage, to undermine the potential or reality of terrorism taking hold in certain areas or among certain groups. The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 is the most critical example of such a military strategy based on considerations of counterterrorism.

Through international diplomacy, governments seek to attain counterterrorism objectives by the peaceful means of negotiation. These efforts are coordinated through various government representatives of national states (ambassadors, ministers of foreign affairs) and through meetings and conventions organized by international governing bodies, such as the European Union and the United Nations.

From a legal viewpoint, it can be noted that many nations have developed laws that seek to specifically prevent and respond to terrorism. Many of the implications of such laws extend their reach across the boundaries of the jurisdictions in which they are passed to also control extra-national developments. Among the examples are laws concerning migration, asylum, border control, and international terrorism. Some countries have a long history of specialized counterterrorism laws (i.e., Syria, Egypt, Spain, and Turkey), while others, such as Canada and the Netherlands, have a much shorter record that has only recently been modified. The Netherlands, by example, was among the European nations that historically had virtually no experience with terrorism and therefore had not established any significant counterterrorism strategies. It was not until the 9/11 attacks that the Dutch government implemented the ‘Action Plan on Counterterrorism and Security’ which provoked a strengthening of border-control activities by the Dutch Royal Military Constabulary. In contrast to the Dutch experience, other nations, such as Spain and Israel, have a long history with terrorism. In Israel, counterterrorism is dominated by the conflicts with the country’s surrounding Arab nations and are controlled by a strongly interconnected system of police, intelligence, and military. In Spain, the central terrorism concern is locally dominated by the Basque separatist group ETA, which from 1959 until at least 2003 has engaged in violent protests that caused hundreds of fatalities. Interestingly, the 9/11 attacks led Spain to further enhance its terrorism legislation, while the railway bombings in Madrid on March 11, 2004 did not lead to any additional legislative measures.

Global Counterterrorism Policing

Historically, the policing of international terrorism across the world can be traced back to developments in 19th-century Europe whereby the governments of autocratic states directed police institutions to track down the international movement of political opponents, including social democrats and anarchists (Deflem 2002). From these early political efforts gradually developed cooperative efforts to focus on non-political criminal violations, which have remained in existence, albeit in refashioned and considerably expanded form, until this day. Although vast political differences between countries practicing liberal democratic, mixed, or autocratic rule exist, certain aspects of counterterrorism do not differ greatly among many customarily dissimilar countries. This isomorphism can be attributed to the fact that in the implementation of counterterrorism policies and laws, similar law enforcement and security strategies are manifested. Despite the existence of global trends in counterterrorism policing, there are also variations in the application of national counterterrorism policies by each of the individual country’s police agencies (Deflem 2010).

In most Western democracies, concerns over civil liberties and personal freedoms influence the appropriate framework for counterterrorism police practices. These counterterrorism practices, as they exist in countries such as the United States, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom, are in stark contrast with the oppressive and uncompromising counterterrorism principles of non-democratic governments, such as Russia, Turkey, and many of the Arab states. Therefore, in battling the war on terror, the method of implementation that each individual police and security agency utilizes, functions differently and is accordingly shaped by each country’s unique political and legal objectives.

Depending on the nature of a nation’s political system, the level of bureaucratization of its police agencies will influence counterterrorism policing practices, ranging from highly politicized and militaristic to more autonomously driven by a criminal-justice orientation. Western democratic counterterrorism policing approaches and goals are generally in line with bureaucratized institutions. Typical for continental Europe, by example, Spain’s National Police Force (Grupos Especiales de Operaciones) and Guardia Civil (Undades Antiterroristas Rurales) serve as the primary special counterterrorism forces. But other countries are greatly influenced and regulated by political mandates (i.e., in Russia, Turkey, and some Arab countries), where the head of state dictates counterterrorism practices which are often used as a tool of political repression. In highly centralized and autocratic regimes, counterterrorism is much more integrated throughout the military, intelligence, and police agencies. In Russia, most notably, counterterrorism practices are extremely repressive, and policing and security operations are controlled top-down in a highly politicized and centralized structure.

As to the organization of policing, an additional difference exists in the relation between intelligence and law enforcement, where a divergence exists in both function and organization. Variance in intelligence and law enforcement function takes place both amid democratic states as well as between different types of regimes, i.e., between democratic and autocratic governments. Some nations even place counterterrorism functions under the supervision of military intelligence, due to its national security implications. Irrespective of a country’s designated configuration, separating domestic intelligence entirely allows intelligence and law enforcement duties to have much more well-defined boundaries. However, due to the methods needed to combat terrorism, both components must also work in concert whether or not they are housed in separate agencies.

International Police Organizations

At least since the early 20th century, police agencies across the world have collaborated with one another in the form of international organizations. While ad hoc cooperation efforts occur in the case of specific investigations on a need basis, such organizations provide a permanent structure to foster cooperation in police matters. Again the events of September 11 are to be noted for having accelerated these collaboration efforts. At least two organizations deserve special attention: the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), which seeks to provide police cooperation on a global scale, and the European Police Office (Europol), which has been established in the European Union.


Rather than being an international police force with investigative responsibilities, Interpol has continually, since its formation in 1923 as the International Criminal Police Commission, been conceived as a collaborative organization that supports international assistance in law enforcement functions amongst police agencies (Anderson 1997; Deflem 2002). Through its central headquarters in Lyon, France, Interpol’s participating agencies are linked together through specialized units in each country, called National Central Bureaus (NCBs).

The primary method of communication between the NCBs and the central office is via a color-coded notification system, using six colors that represent specific requests. There are two frequent requests: Red Notices, signifying the request of a wanted person’s arrest with a view towards extradition, and Blue Notices, which are requests to seek information about a person’s identity or illegal activities related to a crime. In 2005, the addition of an Interpol-United Nations Special Notice was implemented to handle requests concerning groups or individuals that were subject to United Nations sanctions against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. A 1996 agreement also granted Interpol and the United Nations observer status in sessions of their corresponding assemblies, thus allowing the organizations to collaborate on the Special Notice program. Similarly, Interpol has formed cooperative arrangements with other agencies, such as Europol and the International Criminal Court.

Interpol has passed several counterterrorism resolutions in order to effectively combat terrorism and terrorism related issues. In 1985, a resolution was designed to both enhance and coordinate the fight against international terrorism, the initiative led to the creation of the sub-directorate Public Safety and Terrorism. In the 1990s, the rise of terrorism resulted in the 1998 ‘Declaration Against Terrorism’ that was reached at the General Assembly meeting in Egypt, which further solidified Interpol’s pledge to combating international terrorism.

The 9/11 attacks influenced Interpol to make significant changes to its existing counterterrorism operations, both as a matter of policy and with respect to the organization’s structure. Shortly after September 11, the Interpol General Assembly in Budapest, Hungary, drafted Resolution AG-2001-RES-05 which condemned the attacks as “murderous attacks against the world’s citizens” and an abhorrent violation of law and of the standards of human decency…a crime against humanity” (Interpol 2001). As a result, it was decided that in order for Interpol and its affiliates to more effectively deal with terrorism and organized crime, priority would be given to Red Notices for terrorists connected to the attacks.

To enhance Interpol’s counterterrorism efforts, specialized programs have been established, specifically an Incident Response Team, providing member agencies with investigative and analytical support, and a Fusion Task Force, established in 2002 to assist in identifying members, gathering intelligence, and providing analytical support on terrorists. Given that the finances and funds available to terrorist organizations often dictates the rate and magnitude of terrorist attacks, special attention is given to the financing of terrorist activities. Since 2005, Interpol also began to direct more attention to internet usage by terrorist groups and individuals, encouraging more cooperation in international police investigations on terrorism-related websites and by 2006, encouraging a similar emphasis on increased police cooperation on al-Qaeda groups and individuals motivated by Al-Qaeda at the international level.

After the September 11 attacks, many of Interpol’s members were involved in the global investigations that ensued. Interpol and member agencies responded to the strikes through its international communication networks and by posting Red Notices on the organization’s website, which would ensure the widest possible distribution. Immediately after the September 11 attacks, 55 Red Notices for suspects thought to be involved in the strikes were disseminated by Interpol. Blue Notices were also circulated, concerning the 19 hijackers that executed the attacks. Following the creation of a ‘11 September Task Force’ at Interpol’s headquarters, several other post-9/11 organizational changes have been made, including the creation of a permanent General Secretariat Command and Co-ordination Center and the establishment of an encrypted internet-based communications system called I-24/7.


The nations of Europe have long been involved in the organization of international police efforts to control terrorism (Bures 2008; Deflem 2010). As early as 1975, Terrorism, Radicalism, Extremism, and International Violence group (or the TREVI group) was formed as a partnership of several European police agencies, promoting the exchange of information and support in terrorism and associated international crimes. Other European police agency partnerships that provided assistance in terrorism investigations included the Police Working Group on Terrorism and the Counter Terrorist Group (or ‘Club of Berne’).

Europol is an international association of police organizations, mandated and regulated by the EU, to coordinate existing EU member-state police and security agencies in matters of serious international crime, including terrorism. Although initiated as part of the political union of the EU, Europol employs a criminal-justice model with efficiency in policing and counterterrorism as the central objective. Europol’s primary task in crime fighting, therefore, is to facilitate the rapid communication and information exchange among participating agencies. Despite the diversity among member states’ legal systems, Europol and its cooperatives are able to come to a consensus on the scope of terrorism related activities (Tak 2000). Especially since 9/11, Europol and its participating agencies have thus been able to establish cooperation on the basis of a shared understanding of terrorism across European and other international police.

The attacks on September 11 aided in prompting Europol into creating new counterterrorism programs. The Counterterrorism Task Force (also briefly known as the Task Force Terrorism), a specialized counterterrorism unit, was set up at Europol’s headquarters shortly after the 9/11 strikes. A year later, Europol incorporated the Task Force into the Serious Crimes Department. However, after the Madrid terrorist bombings on March 11, 2004, the unit regained its status as an independent entity. More recently, it has yet again been reassigned as the Counter Terrorism Unit, housed under Europol’s Serious Crime Department.

The 9/11 attacks had a profound effect on the EU’s formal counterterrorism policy. Some of the most important policy changes include the framework decisions on terrorism, confirmed in June 2002 by the Council of the European Union, and involving such issues as joint investigation teams and mutual legal assistance. In its framework decisions, the Council defines offences by terrorists as “criminal activities, or the threat to commit them, aimed at seriously intimidating a population, unduly compelling a government or international organization from performing or abstaining from any act, and/or seriously destabilizing or destroying the fundamental structures of a country or of and international organization” (Deflem 2010: 131). Further, the EU framework decisions require member states to improve cooperative counterterrorism unit’s efforts in police matters. As a result, two or more member states can organize security forces as a joint investigation team for a specific purpose and limited time, providing that the leader of the team is native to one of the EU countries and that the team abides by the prevailing law of the member state concerned. To this end, the direct handing over of wanted persons under judicial authority between EU member states can be accomplished through the new European Arrest Warrant initiative. Another one of the EU’s 2002 framework decisions was to expand the counterterrorism mandates of Europol and the related cooperative activities. Thus, Europol was granted approval to formally maintain relationships with agencies (especially Interpol) and police and security forces in non-EU countries, such as Canada, the United States, and Russia.

The Criminological Relevance of Counterterrorism Policing

Reviewing the most important patterns of the policing of international terrorism in the post-9/11 era, certain trends emerge that raise important questions for the criminological study of relevant developments related to globalization and terrorism. At least two issues are of note: first, the bureaucratization of policing is unevenly accomplished across the globe and has, even in democratic regimes, been confronted with renewed attempts of politicization; and, second, there are distinct trends to be noted of a globalization of counterterrorism policing because of the impact of the momentous events of September 11, 2001.

The possibility of a renewed politicization of law enforcement is more than real during times of social upheaval, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11. In the United States, in particular, the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act were distinct politically directed attempts to manage the policing of counterterrorism and to lead the law enforcement community to accept and comply with the political goals associated with the fight against terrorism. Yet, the PATRIOT Act and related policies can also be observed to have reaffirmed the role of law enforcement in counterterrorism activities, rather than transfer those functions to the military or intelligence communities. The FBI has retained and expanded its lead-agency status in counterterrorism activities, while law enforcement roles have also increased for other federal agencies, such as ICE, CBP, and DS. Counterterrorism police agencies have also added a distinct intelligence component to their mission and they rely heavily on technology and advanced communication systems to achieve its intelligence and investigative tasks. The objectives of counterterrorism are thereby defined in distinctly criminal terms (terrorism as crime) rather than as matters of national security (counterterrorism as war).

Related to the emphasis on efficiency, interagency partnerships and cooperation through an efficient system of information exchange are essential components of counterterrorism. Given the extra-jurisdictional demands of international counterterrorism policing, U.S. federal law enforcement agencies are better able to fulfill organizational tasks by operating unilaterally, thus leading to those agencies in a better position, in terms of technology, personnel, and budget, to carry out counterterrorism efforts independently. The prevalence of federal agencies operating unilaterally is accomplished through foreign field offices, the so-called legal attaché (legat) offices, which have permanent agents from federal U.S. law enforcement stationed abroad. Besides such unilaterally enacted international mechanisms, collaborative counterterrorism initiatives are typically limited in scope, restricted to organizations in close proximity (in both location and function), employed only for the duration of an investigation, and limited in the number or participating agencies. Therefore, close functional proximity as opposed to remote operations are preferred, as are bilateral as opposed to multilateral operations. These operational norms aid in explaining U.S. federal agencies’ cooperation and need for permanent foreign attachés, functioning as locales and typically forming bilateral partnerships. Counterterrorism activities abroad are similarly conducted, with proximity as a chief consideration among police organizations. Generally, U.S. federal law enforcement cooperatives operate directly with international police agencies, through personal contacts or local attachés. It is crucial that international partnerships operate irrespective of the political, legal, and ideological outlooks of the participating organizations. As participating police agencies are motivated to appreciate the nature of crime and crime control, national boundaries are therefore transcended in favor of operational efficiency.

Due to their comparative strength, both the course and agenda of international counterterrorism operations are greatly influenced by U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, though formally all partners in cooperation are considered to be equal. For example, in border and migration issues, the responsibilities of U.S. agencies ICE and CBP vastly exceed the contributions from Canadian and, even more so, Mexican counterparts. Further contributing to the dissemination of American counterterrorism policing ideas and techniques on an international scale, is the training programs that are organized by U.S. federal agencies. In addition, an “Americanization” of law enforcement and counterterrorism will occur when and that to the extent that more attention is devoted to terrorism issues that concern the U.S. law enforcement community (Nadelmann 1993). Generally, with a preference for unilateral and bilateral cooperatives in counterterrorism and other international police functions, U.S. federal law enforcement agencies are less willing to take advantage of multilateral cooperation efforts such as Interpol.

As in the United States, many nations across the world have stepped up their counterterrorism efforts, including those initiated by police agencies, albeit it in sometimes different ways. Yet, even with the considerable differences that exist in the configuration of different countries’ approaches to counterterrorism, it is also to be noted that the September 11 attacks induced a near-global increase in international cooperation as well as an upgrade in political, legislative, and police efforts in the global fight against terrorism. In fact, most nations of the world have approved new counterterrorism policies and statutes or, at a minimum, adjusted existing laws following the events of 9/11. Countries also reorganized counterterrorism police practices by expanding their police agencies’ investigative powers in terrorism-related cases and making counterterrorism a priority in their law enforcement and security organizations. Also uniting many countries in the war on terrorism is the shift in focus toward jihadist extremism, including several largely Muslim countries in the Middle East. Consequently, there exists a global counterterrorism network that comprises many nations as an international constellation.

Changes that have been made to counterterrorism legislation can be observed to be dependent upon each individual country’s historical experiences with terrorism, which in turn determines the degree to which counterterrorism measures are implemented. However, even as countries such as Spain and the United Kingdom have had their own high-profile terrorist attacks (in 2004 and 2005, respectively), it was nonetheless September 11 that had global ramifications and served as the most influential factor in shaping many nations’ counterterrorism responses.

In counterterrorism policing activities, collaboration and information exchange are vital, both intra-nationally and internationally. Within nations, cooperation includes efforts between intelligence and police organizations and associated policy and legal institutions. With coordinating institutions existing at both the governmental and inter-agency levels, synchronizing cooperative counterterrorism activities are again dependent on the degree of centrality various national governments maintain as well as the extent to which they are democratically organized.

Although several levels of cooperation are enacted to foster international counterterrorism, any attempts to create a truly global and unified administration of counterterrorism have not been successful. Even with the drafting of international counterterrorism policies by the United Nations, a shift towards standardizing international counterterrorism laws and regulating counterterrorism police activities has also not materialized. As international counterterrorism policing efforts are based upon the establishment of relevant strategies that are drafted independently by law enforcement, any formal international regulations will remain inconsequential to the global police community.


There is no doubt that the September 11 terrorist attacks have greatly altered counterterrorism measures throughout the world. Regardless of political, legal, cultural and other societal characteristics that mark the world’s nations, terrorism has thereby served as a powerful catalyst to strengthen and expand counterterrorist strategies in many nations. International plans and operations in matters of counterterrorism can be observed to take place at multiple institutional levels and in a variety of forms. Among the primary institutions engaged in counterterrorism are political bodies, legal instruments, and police agencies. The forms of counterterrorism cooperation range from unilaterally enacted international initiatives to bilateral and broader multilateral collaborative efforts. It is a sign of our present era of globalization that all forms of international counterterrorism cooperation have expanded at all institutional levels.

Yet, while recent events concerning the global and local terrorism threat have implied that counterterrorism efforts have stepped up at all levels, it should not be concluded that such developments are undertaken effortlessly and without discord. In fact, counterterrorism measures consist of a multitude of practices and institutions that are often not in tune with one another. There is presently no harmonization or standardization of structures and practices across the various institutional domains and the forms that are involved. At the political level, cooperation may exist only as an expression of goodwill while ideological divisive sentiments over the causes and patterns of terrorism preclude effective cooperation. Yet, the police agencies of countries across the world, even when these countries are politically hostile to one another, can often cooperate more smoothly on the basis of a common professional understanding of terrorism as a crime. This professional police understanding of terrorism enables international activities by police agencies from across a variety of nations and additionally affects international organizations of police, such as Interpol and Europol.

The organization of counterterrorism by police institutions does not harmonize well with other counterterrorism efforts, especially those that are tightly related, politically, legally and military, to the war on terror. Contradictions in counterterrorism are thereby most distinctly revealed in the duality of terrorism at the military and policing levels. For whereas military operations target terrorists and terrorist groups as enemies, police activities center on the targets of their investigations as criminal suspects. Factually co-existing in the world of counterterrorism cooperation, then, are the disparate structures and processes of multiple counterterrorism models in the worlds of politics, law, and policing. It is the distinct province of criminological research to analyze the unique contribution of police agencies in counterterrorism relative to the efforts undertaken by other institutions, both at the national and international level.


Anderson, M. (1997) ‘Interpol and the developing system of international police cooperation’, in W.F. McDonald (ed.) Crime and Law Enforcement in the Global Village, Cincinnati, OH: Anderson.

Bayer, M. (2005) ‘Operation global pursuit: in pursuit of the world’s most dangerous fugitives and terrorists’, The Police Chief, 72(8): 32-37.

Beckman, J. (2007) Comparative legal approaches to homeland security and antiterrorism, Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Bures, O. (2008) ‘Europol’s fledgling counterterrorism role’, Terrorism and Political Violence, 20(4): 498-517.

Deflem, M. (2002) Policing world society: historical foundations of international police cooperation, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Deflem, M. (2004) ‘The boundaries of international cooperation: problems and prospects of U.S.-Mexican police relations’ in M. Amir and S. Einstein (eds.) Police Corruption: Challenges for Developed Countries, Huntsville, TX: Office of International Criminal Justice.

Deflem, M. (2008) ‘Terrorism: counterterrorism approaches’, in V.N. Parrillo (ed.) Encyclopedia of Social Problems, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Deflem, M. (2010) The policing of terrorism: organizational and global perspectives, New York: Routledge.

IGnet (2002) The Attorney General’s Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations. Online. Available HTTP: (accessed 25 September 2011).

Interpol (2001) September 11, 2001: Attack on America. (26 September 2001) Online. Available HTTP: (accessed 25 September 2011).

Nadelmann, E. A. (1993) Cops across borders: the internationalization of U.S. criminal law enforcement, University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Salter, M. B. (2004) ‘Passports, mobility, and security: how smart can the border be?’, International Studies Perspectives, 5(1): 71-91.

Shutt, J. E. and Deflem, M. (2005) ‘Whose Face at the Border? Homeland Security and Border Policing Since 9/11’, Journal of Social and Ecological Boundaries, 1(2): 81-105.

Tak, P. J. P. (2000) ‘Bottlenecks in international police and judicial cooperation in the EU’, European Journal of Crime Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, 8(4): 343-360.

Zimmermann, D. and A. Wenger (eds) (2007) How states fight terrorism: policy dynamics in the west, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner. 

See other writings on the policing of terrorism.