War on Terror

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID
Stephen Chicoine 

This is a copy of a paper published in Encyclopedia of White-Collar and Corporate Crime, Second Edition, edited by Lawrence M. Salinger. Sage Publications, 2013. 
Also available as pdf file

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu and Stephen Chicoine. 2013. "War on Terror." Pp. 987-990 in Encyclopedia of White-Collar and Corporate Crime, Second Edition, edited by Lawrence M. Salinger. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

The war on terror refers to a series of counterterrorism measures authorized and enacted by the U.S. government following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Occasionally also capitalized as War on Terror and sometimes referred to as the War on Terrorism and the Global War on Terror (GLOT), the expression is sometimes used and understood more generally to refer to a relatively broad range of counterterrorism measures and has sometimes also been adopted, in various meanings, by non-U.S. governments and agencies. In its origins, however, the term is distinctly tied to certain counterterrorism policies that began during the Presidency of George W. Bush and that since then have been continued, albeit it in occasionally altered form, following the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States. The war on terror is only one, albeit an extremely important, component in the broader reality of counterterrorism.

September 11 and the Primacy of the Military

As a program initiated by U.S. authorities in the wake of the events of 9/11, the war on terror originated in the special address then-President George Bush delivered before a joint session of U.S. Congress on September 20, 2011. In his speech, Bush introduced military terminology by referring to the perpetrators of 9/11 as enemies who would have to be brought to justice because they had committed, in Bush’s (2001) words, an “act of war against our country.” The adequate response, Bush argued, would have to be a “war on terror” against al Qaeda, its leader Osama Bin Laden, its allies, as well as the countries and governments that offer aid to these groups. This war would have to be extended globally wherever terrorist groups were hiding and would also involve a lengthy campaign rather than a confined series of attacks with a distinct moment of victory. In that respect, the use of the term ‘terror’ rather than ‘terrorism’ is not coincidental inasmuch as terror denotes a general condition requiring constant vigilance, whereas terrorism implies a more identifiable activity that can be terminated at a specific point in time.

As introduced by President Bush and subsequently enacted by the various branches of his administration, the war on terror was not a metaphorical expression but instead involved various strategies of a military nature and, additionally, implied the notion that other counterterrorism measures would be directed by, and thus secondarily placed to, military operations under U.S. command. Attributing the attacks of 9/11 to al-Qaeda was readily accomplished because of the group’s prior involvement in the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the attack against the USS Cole navy ship in 2000. Specifying counterterrorism actions against al-Qaeda in terms of actual warfare was primarily enabled by connecting the terrorist organization to certain nations and governments that were seen to harbor affiliated groups and individuals. The first military action in the war on terror was the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that began on October 7, 2001. As the central part of Operation Enduring Freedom (which also involves other regions, such as the Philippines and the Horn of Africa), the invasion of Afghanistan was justified by the fact that al-Qaeda had been using the country as a base and training ground. The invasion was also a continuation of military operations authorized during the presidency of Bill Clinton, who had ordered cruise missile strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan (and Sudan) shortly after the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa in 1998.

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003 was less clearly connected to the war on terror but was nonetheless justified as an essential part of it. Again, the Bush administration to some extent mimicked prior actions of President Bill Clinton, who had authorized military strikes against Iraq’s Ba’athist government in December 1998. Additionally, the inability to track down Osama Bin Laden as the infamous leader of al-Qaeda in the months after 9/11 led to a shift of attention towards the then-President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, whose brutal regime demonstrated an evil similar to that of bin Laden. Additionally, members of the Bush administration and other Western leaders had made allegations of operational ties between al-Qaeda and the Ba’athist regime. Such ties were never demonstrated and eventually also denied, even by President Bush.

Concrete execution of the war on terror was greatly enabled by the congressional passage, a mere week after the events of 9/11, of the Authorization for Use of Military Force which allowed the President of the United States to use all necessary and appropriate force against nations, organizations, and individuals involved with the attacks of September 11 or any nation or group harboring the same. This Authorization not only enabled the planning and implementation of a whole series of military and emergency measures, but also to sometimes do so without judicial approval or Congressional oversight. The specific programs of the U.S. war on terror included the detention of terrorist suspects in Guantanamo Bay, the suspension of the Geneva Convention for captured terrorists, the use of so-called enhanced interrogation techniques, and the use of military tribunals without the protection of due-process guarantees granted in civilian courts.

Within the territory of the United States, the war on terror involved various efforts as well, including legally approved surveillance measures as well as secret domestic spying operations in the form of the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program. Conducted by the National Security Agency, this program involved the interception, without formal court approval, of communications involving an overseas and a domestic party whereby one of the two parties was suspected of being associated with al-Qaeda or related terrorist groupings. The program had been secretly ordered by President Bush who, once the program was revealed in 2005, justified it as critical to national security and legal under the provisions of the congressionally approved Authorization for Use of Military Force. Critics argued that the surveillance program violated the Fourth-Amendment protection against illegal search and seizures.

Counterterrorism: Policy, Law, and Police

The war on terror is only one dimension of counterterrorism, which entails a very broad range of legal, policy, and security measures and strategies. Historically, counterterrorism measures have relied primarily on international agreements between governments to develop appropriate laws and policies. Dating back to the League of Nations and its successor, the United Nations, such international accords have traditionally suffered from a lack of enforceability.

Within nations, legal measures and related policies against terrorism have developed as well, typically in the form of measures oriented at terrorist-related behavior, such as bombings, and gradually entailing more comprehensive antiterrorism laws. Prototypical for the latter case in the United States, for example, are the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and the Patriot Act of 2001. Related policies have primarily involved attempts by national governments to coordinate and centralize the multiple activities of counterterrorism agencies. Following the events of 9/11, the United States government again took the lead in this respect by establishing the Department of Homeland Security with the primary mission of coordinating and strengthening various counterterrorism strategies and related security measures such as customs and immigration control.

Besides military, legal, and policy measures, counterterrorism is also carried out by police or law enforcement agencies. Importantly, the police approach to the problem of terrorism follows a logic quite distinct from that of the military and related programs in the war on terror. Most critically, police institutions in modern democratic states are oriented at fighting crime on the basis of the professional standards of police expertise. To the extent that such efficiency standards are shared among police agencies of different nations, they can also cooperate internationally, an important advantage given the oftentimes international nature of contemporary terrorism.

As a result of the emphasis on efficiency in dealing with terrorism, police institutions have developed special capabilities to target the financial assets of terrorist organizations and various white-collar crimes associated with terrorism, most notably money-laundering. For example, the Federal Bureau of Investigation oversees a specialized Terrorism Financing Operations Section to undercut the monetary support of terrorist groupings. Similarly, at the international level, the international police organization Interpol also oversees a specialized monetary crimes office, the Financial and High Tech Crimes Sub-Directorate, and has since 9/11 paid particular attention to money-laundering crimes and the financing of terrorism.

In confrontation with the war on terror, police officials have argued that they fulfill a valuable counterterrorism role that has certain advantages over the military approach. Police agencies are argued to be better placed to collect information from local communities and can more readily share information among agencies across the world. Irrespective of the relative advantages and disadvantages of military and police in counterterrorism, several differences can be observed between the war on terrors and the police model of counterterrorism. Whereas police institutions conceive of terrorists as criminal suspects who have to be brought to trial, military forces target terrorist groups and individuals as enemies. And while enemies of war can be killed without trial for the duration of war, suspects need to be found guilty in a court of law before they can be punished. Because of the differences between the military and police models of counterterrorism, police officials generally avoid the expression ‘war on terror’. Interestingly, military officials have at times also voiced concerns over the rhetoric because it places military forces in charge of security tasks they are not always trained or equipped to take on as well as they can deal with traditional military objectives. The killing of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEAL forces in May 2011 could therefore be hailed as a great military success because of its exceptional and unique merits.

When Barack Obama took office as President of the United States in January 2009, there were some indications that the Obama Presidency would turn more towards law enforcement rather than military in its counterterrorism policies. The Obama administration was even reported to seek to abandon the expression ‘war on terror’ in favor of ‘Overseas Contingency Operations.’ Yet, over the years, President Obama has continued to use the military-laden term in public speeches. The Obama Presidency also had to renege on its plan to bring terrorist suspects to trial in civilian courts, specifically in the case against 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-conspirators whom U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in 2010 announced would be trialed in a District Court in New York but who were a year later returned to a military court in Guantanamo Bay. Most infamously, also, President Obama did not fulfill his campaign promise to end the detention of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay.

Moreover, while withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq, the Obama administration has stepped up U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, a military operation United States forces have been engaged in for a longer period of time than any other war. During the Obama Presidency, further, U.S. forces have engaged more intensely in drone attacks against members of al-Qaeda, a practice justified on the basis of the Authorization for Use of Military Force that passed under Bush. Domestically, moreover, the Obama administration has continued many of the counterterrorism policies initiated during the Bush Presidency, including several re-authorizations of the Patriot Act.

There is no indication, at the present time, that the Obama administration can or would be inclined to abandon the war on terror in favor of a counterterrorism approach based on police activities and other counterterrorism measures such as diplomacy, law, and cultural and economic cooperation. Many governments and organizations around the world, likewise, continue to apply the expression ‘war on terror’ in variable meanings to suit their specific counterterrorism objectives. Yet, at the same time, the past decade has witnessed a proliferation of multiple counterterrorism measures of a non-military nature, involving policy, law, police and other security organizations. For better or for worse, it is to be expected that these multiple components of counterterrorism will continue to co-exist in some relative measure of cooperation and tension.

Further Readings

Bayer, Michael D. The Blue Planet: Informal International Police Networks and National Intelligence. Washington, DC: NDIC Press, 2010.

Bush, George W. “Address to a Joint Session of Congress and the American People.” September 20, 2001. http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010920-8.html (Accessed September 2012).

Deflem, Mathieu. The Policing of Terrorism: Organizational and Global Perspectives. New York: Routledge, 2010.

Heymann, Philip B. Terrorism, Freedom, and Security: Winning Without War. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Hodges, Adam. The “War on Terror” Narrative: Discourse and Intertextuality in the Construction and Contestation of Sociopolitical Reality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Pious, Richard M. The War on Terrorism and the Rule of Law. Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2006.

See other writings on (counter-)terrorism.