Policing Terrorism

Mathieu Deflem
Google Scholar | ResearchGate | ORCID
Stephen Chicoine

This is the manuscript version of a chapter in The Handbook of Social Control, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019. Also available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu, and Stephen Chicoine. 2019. "Policing Terrorism." Pp. 235-248 in The Handbook of Social Control, edited by Mathieu Deflem. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.


The events of September 11, 2001 have led to dramatic changes in social control, especially in the realm of surveillance practices and with respect to the policing of terrorism. This chapter reviews the most important changes in the function and organization of policing with respect to the role of (public) police institutions in counterterrorism operations. While generally still neglected vis-a-vis military, political, and legal measures against terrorism, it can generally be observed that terrorism has moved to the forefront of the field of enforcement concerns among police. These changes have taken place at virtually all levels of the organization of police and across many countries of the world. International police organizations have especially taken on counterterrorism responsibilities because of the international, border-transcending aspects of terrorism. These developments are reviewed in the light of the historical trend among police organizations to become professionalized as relatively independent expert institutions oriented towards an efficient fight against terrorism as a crime.

Keywords: Counterterrorism, terrorism, police, policing, bureaucratization, homeland security, FBI, Interpol, Europol

The 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center established terrorism as one of the most defining issues of the early 21st century. Scholars of crime and social control have consequently approached relevant aspects of terrorism and counterterrorism accordingly (Deflem, 2015). Recently instituted counterterrorism operations involve a variety of military, political, and security measures. Of these measures, the military approach has been prioritized by the war on terror (Deflem, 2008; Deflem & Chicoine, 2013). In addition to the war on terror, however, counterterrorism has also involved a much broader range of other political, legal, intelligence, and law enforcement responses. The unique contribution of police institutions to counterterrorism efforts is the particular focus of this chapter.

The various components and dimensions of the policing of terrorism can be revealed among a number of organizations on the basis of a process of bureaucratization of policing, which brings out both unique objectives of police agencies in their counterterrorism efforts as well as the means that are utilized in pursuit of those goals (Deflem, 2006, 2010). In this respect, it is important to note that modern police institutions approach terrorism as a crime in a depoliticized manner that is not (necessarily) related to matters of national security. The motives of terrorist conduct are separated from its consequences in terms of criminal activities involving the destruction of property and the taking of human life. As such, the policing of terrorism co-exists with other, especially military and political, counterterrorism measures. Oriented towards the fight against terrorism as a crime at both the domestic and the international level, police organizations are driven by considerations to employ the most efficient means irrespective of questions of legitimacy and legality. Of particular interest in the police means against terrorism are consequently predominantly technical methods, such as scientific measures of crime detection, linguistic issues, and technological efforts related to communications devices employed by terrorist groups and individuals. Of special interest among these means of counterterrorism are enhanced cooperation efforts to enable swift communications among police and related security and safety organizations, both within and across (national) jurisdictions. The institution of these methods among police have been developed primarily on the basis of informal networks among police agencies, rather than mandated by law or formal government policies.

Policing activities related to terrorism have a long history, yet counter-terrorism efforts have dramatically changed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The attacks on the World Trade Center have had an impact on the counter-terrorism efforts of many nations and U.S. agencies and policies have significantly influenced these developments. As a result, police institutions in the United States have had a dominant role in policing terrorism, in particular through the efforts of the FBI. In addition to the individual contributions of police agencies from around the world, the development of international police organizations has further contributed to the policing of international terrorism. Even among nations that are politically at odds with each other, it is to be observed, the professional development of police institutions has contributed greatly to the ability for cooperation amongst nations, as this chapter will show.

Counterterrorism Policing USA

While the September 11 attacks have impacted counterterrorism efforts of nations around the world, it has had the most dramatic effect on policing practices and organizations of the United States. These changes have had a further impact globally through the cooperation of US agencies with counterterrorism organizations from other nations. With respect to the policing of terrorism, US law enforcement agencies have made many changes since 9/11 with a particular focus on fostering cooperation and coordination among relevant agencies. Among the US organizations involved in counterterrorism, none are more important than the FBI.

The FBI and Counterterrorism

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the primary investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Justice. It is also the lead investigative agency for acts of terrorism. Specifically, National Security Directive 30, signed by President Ronald Reagan on April 10, 1982, made the FBI the lead-agency for terrorism and terrorism related activities (Deflem, 2010).The FBI is a decentralized organization, with a central headquarters in Washington, DC, 56 field offices located in major cities throughout the US, and more than 400 resident agencies in smaller cities and towns. At least a total of 165 agents, just over 1 percent of its 12,590 workforce, are stationed as legal attach├ęs (or legats) overseas in US embassies, giving the FBI a presence on every continent.

Throughout its history, the FBI has been involved in activities addressing national and international terrorism. During the 1960s and 1970s, the FBI was engaged in activities against antiwar extremist groups, such as the Weather Underground, and domestic reactionary groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan. Federal acts of the 1970s targeted air transportation and hijacking, and further influenced the role of the FBI in counterterrorism efforts, albeit indirectly. The Bureau shifted its efforts from domestic subversive groups to organized crime in the late 1970s, due to criticisms of COINTELPRO. This lasted until the mid 1980s, when an increasing number of American victims of terrorist attacks abroad reestablished terrorism as a major concern for the FBI. As a result of several high profile terrorist attacks, both domestic and abroad, the Bureau’s counterterrorism activities would dramatically increase. In 1994 the FBI established the Counterterrorism Division, and in 1995 President Bill Clinton would issue Presidential Directive 39, which would declare the FBI the lead investigative agency for domestic and international terrorist attacks involving American citizens. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 would further expand the authority of the Bureau to investigate the activities of international terrorist groups within the US as well as international acts of terrorism (Deflem, 2010).

The 1990s cemented counterterrorism as one of the Bureau’s central law enforcement tasks. However, after the 9/11 attacks, then Attorney General John Ashcroft declared the prevention of terrorist attacks to be the central mission of the FBI (Deflem & Hauptman, 2013). Agents from other criminal divisions in the FBI were accordingly re-assigned to counterterrorism responsibilities. The number of linguists and intelligence analysts employed by the Bureau has tripled and doubled, respectively. The intelligence capabilities of the Bureau have been bolstered, primarily through the use of National Security Letters and increased surveillance operations, with all due criticisms it has brought about in terms of civil rights (Kamali, 2017). In addition, several specialized programs have been incorporated alongside the Counterterrorism Division, including the FBI Terrorism Financing Operations Section, a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate, and the Terrorist Screening Center which maintains the U.S. Government’s Consolidated Terrorist Watchlist. In addition to internal developments in the FBI, several programs have been developed to foster inter-agency cooperation, including the Foreign Terrorist Tracking Task Force, which coordinates with the CIA, ICE, and Department of Defense, and the National Counterterrorism Center, established in 2004 to integrate terrorism-related intelligence (Deflem, 2010).

Among the investigative counterterrorism tools developed by the FBI, the most important is the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF). These task forces are managed by the Bureau to be the lead instrument in terrorism investigations, but they are composed of agents from a variety of law enforcement and first responder organizations from all levels of government. Coordinate through the National Joint Terrorism Task Force based in Washington, DC, there are over 100 local JTTFs across the US, with 65 being created after the 9/11 attacks (Deflem, 2010). The purpose of JTTFs is to investigate terrorist activity by following leads, gathering evidence, collecting intelligence, and making arrests. In addition, JTTFs provide security to special events and conduct training on occasion.

Other Federal Agencies

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was established after the events of 9/11 to coordinate counterterrorism efforts, identify the necessary functions of counterrorism, and to establish specialized agencies to fulfill each function. As a result, by example, the administrative and enforcement functions of the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) have divided into new, more specialized agencies. While the administrative aspects of immigration are now handled by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the enforcement functions of the former INS are now split between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which specializes in immigration-related investigations and enforcement, and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which specializes in border-related security tasks (Deflem, 2010). These new enforcement agencies have expanded organizationally and operationally since their establishment, and play an important role in U.S. counterterrorism.

Increasing the security of immigration into the United States was an essential counterterrorism task in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. All 19 hijackers involved in the attacks had legally entered the country (Shutt & Deflem, 2005). In order to continue allowing large numbers of visitors and immigrants into the country required a dedicated agency to investigate and intercept potential terrorists. ICE was established to accomplish this task, and has acted as the primary investigative branch of the DHS. The largest DHS investigative force, ICE is headquartered in Washington, DC, and maintains 27 field offices in the United States as well as 50 international offices across 39 nations. ICE agents operate overseas on the basis of the legat model and are also involved in partnerships with their local counterparts. ICE employs over 17,000 employees operating in various specialized divisions, including investigations, detention and removal, operations, and international affairs, overseeing hundreds of special operations (Deflem & Hauptman, 2013).

Although it has become an essential part counterterrorism efforts in the U.S., ICE has been involved in enforcement activities addressing a wide range of criminal behavior. The agency has been involved in the arrest of gang members, smuggling, deportations, child pornography cases, and the arrests of other fugitives and immigration violators (Deflem, 2010). The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Reform Act of 2002 has enabled ICE to handle immigration issues through the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, established in August 2003 (Salter, 2004). The monitoring of foreign students is accomplished with the cooperation of educational institutions, who must comply in order to accept foreign students. In addition to these responsibilities, ICE oversees several inter-agency task forces. The Border Enforcement Security Task Force involves the sharing of information among agencies to address criminal organizations that are potential threats to the security of the borders.

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has the primary mission of protecting the United States borders, with a particular focus on defense against terrorists and their weapons while maintaining the security of legitimate trade and travel. In pursuit of this purpose, CBP was created out of the former U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Border Patrol, the INS, and the Department of Agriculture’s enforcement divisions. As with ICE, CBP contains several specialized divisions, such as the Office of Field Operations, the Office of Border Patrol, and the Office of Alien Smuggling, as well as various programs to achieve its goals. The Secure Border Initiative is designed to secure the borders, augment interior enforcement, and promote a temporary worker program. The Secure Fence Act of 2006 serves as the basis of the most famous infrastructure element, the fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. CBP is focused particularly on the illegal smuggling of goods and humans across the border by potential terrorist and criminal organizations. In terms of illegal immigration, interior enforcement efforts have targeted those employing illegal aliens, while the temporary worker program attempts to reduce illegal immigration and gain greater control over the border. For non-Mexican illegal aliens crossing the border, the traditional practice of “catch and release”, wherein those arrested at the border were granted parole until their immigration hearing, has been replaced with temporary detention.

As a matter of special concern to address the security of containers entering U.S. ports, the Container Security Initiative (CSI) was established shortly after the 9/11 attacks. The initiative involves identifying and inspecting containers at foreign ports as a potential terrorism risk before they can enter the U.S (Shutt and Deflem, 2005). In pursuit of this goal, teams of CBP and ICE agents work together with their foreign counterparts in order to detect terrorist activity in the ports of host countries. These partnerships effectively cover 86% of all maritime containers bound for the United States through CSI partnerships established at 58 foreign ports. Additionally, CBP engages in joint initiatives with Canadian and Mexican law enforcement organizations in the interest of targeting smuggling and terrorist movements across the borders of these countries. Through the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, CBP partners with the private sector, including some 6,500 companies. Within the U.S., CBP has also established partnerships with ICE and the Departments of State and Defense.

From the viewpoint of the fight against international terrorism in particular, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) is of special interest to chart the U.S. federal security response to terrorism. As the primary security and law enforcement arm of the U.S. Department of State, DS is primarily responsible for the security of the Secretary of State, U.S. embassies and overseas personnel, and foreign dignitaries in the United States, but it also has enforcement responsibilities in matters of visa and passport fraud, international security technology, and, indeed, international terrorism abroad.

The increasing danger to Americans abroad by the threat of terrorism in the 1970s greatly contributed to the development of DS. The Office of Security, established in 1916 by the State Department, had advised Americans abroad in response to the increasing attacks of the 1970s, but terrorist attacks against Americans would continue to increase through the 1980s. In 1985, DS and its subdivision of the Diplomatic Security Service were created, and has since expanded its security operations. The 1986 Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act was the first time DS was directed to develop security measures specifically for protection from terrorist attacks. The Bureau has also maintained the Rewards for Justice Program since 1992 as a financial incentive program to reward individuals that provided information that contributed to solving cases of terrorist attacks targeting the United States. Similar to other agencies, DS has increased its role in counterterrorism, and maintains several programs to this end. For example, the Antiterrorism Assistance Program is designed to provide training to security forces in foreign countries, and the Office of Investigations and Counterintelligence protects Department of State missions from foreign intelligence agencies.

While DS has been instrumental to several high profile cases, its actions have not been without controversy (Deflem, 2010). Most notably, the Rewards for Justice program managed by DS yielded information that directly led to the capture of the mastermind behind the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Ramzi Yousef. However, the reputation of DS was tarnished after the investigation into the murder of 17 Iraqi civilians by employees of private security contractor Blackwater USA was undermined by limited immunity waivers given to Blackwater employees by DS agents. When the statements of Blackwater guards could not be used in court due to the waivers the FBI took over the case. The head of DS, Richard Griffin, would resign in October 2007, and now stricter rules have been imposed on security contractors, including the mandatory presence of DS agents on their convoys.

The Policing of Terrorism Around the World

Although the September 11 attacks targeted the United States, the event has had an impact on counterterrorism legislation, agencies, and cooperation in nations around the world. This section provides a selective overview of national efforts to combat terrorism, illustrating the importance of the unique historical, political, legal, and other factors in the development of counterterrorism measures. This overview demonstrates the importance of police agencies’ variable political and legal contexts, but also highlights the importance of the 9/11 attacks as a global unifying event.

A Comparative Overview

Selectively describing counterterrorism police measures across the world (Deflem, 2010; Deflem & Hauptman, 2013), Canada illustrates the considerable impact of 9/11 on the counterterrorism efforts of nations comparable to its neighbor of the United States. Despite many differences between the United States and Canada, the two nations have indeed had similar political, legal, and law enforcement developments in the area of counterterrorism (Deflem, 2010). Historically, terrorism was not a major issue for Canada, with the exception of the Front de Liberation du Quebec (Front for the Liberation of Quebec) separatist movement during the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, Canada had not developed any major counterterrorism instruments prior to the September 11 attacks. Since then, international terrorism has become central to Canadian security policy. In addition to increased cooperation with the United States, Canada has created a new ministerial department, Public Safety Canada, that resembles the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to complement its Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and the Canada Border Services Agency in counterterrorism activities. Legally, the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001 has provided intelligence and law enforcement services with new surveillance and investigative tools. In addition to these national developments, Canada is also engaged in cooperative efforts with the United States, several multilateral counterterrorism partnerships, and has generally supported diplomatic and military interventions that have broad international support.

In the United Kingdom and France, a unique quality in counterterrorism methods is the existence of a domestic intelligence service in both countries (Deflem, 2010). A distinct organization from law enforcement agencies, foreign intelligence services, and the military, domestic intelligence services are proactive in their efforts against various forms of public unrest, including terrorism. Despite their role in domestic intelligence gathering, these organizations do not have the ability to arrest individuals, and for this they must rely on law enforcement.

The United Kingdom has had a long history of terrorist activity, primarily in the form of the Irish Republican Army and other nationalist groups. However, counterterrorism in the UK shifted towards Muslim extremists in the wake of 9/11, and since then the UK has experienced its own high-profile terrorist attack with the July 7, 2005 bombing of the London underground train system and several other incidents. Despite these attacks, it was the September 11 attacks on the United States that has had the most significant impact on counterterrorism in the UK (Deflem, 2010). The counterterrorism tools previously developed in response to the IRA were dramatically altered and augmented after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act of 2001 expanded the powers of counterterrorism agencies, and these powers have further expanded with additional legal measures, including a 2006 Terrorism Act that created additional terrorism-related offenses in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings of July 7, 2005 in London.

The United Kingdom has not created a new department to handle terrorism, but has taken efforts to streamline and coordinate the counterterrorism activities of agencies involved in counterterrorism (Deflem, 2010; Innes, Roberts, & Lowe, 2017). The primary agency for counterterrorism in the UK is the Security Service (also known as MI5), a domestic intelligence agency, which has expanded the scope of extremist groups and national security threats included in its counterterrorism efforts. Alongside MI5 are the regional police forces of the United Kingdom, the most famous of which is the Metropolitan Police Service based in New Scotland Yard. In the absence of a national police force, the Metropolitan Police Service has established the Counter Terrorism Command which investigates terrorist related activity and proactively engages in intelligence work on extremist and terrorist groups.

France also has a domestic intelligence service that complements the counterterrorism efforts of the police. In contrast to the United Kingdom, France also has a strongly centralized, national law enforcement system. Furthermore, France has a longer history involving Islamic groups due to its colonial involvement with Algiers. This led to a move from reactively responding to terrorist activity towards a preventative strategy during the 1990s as a result of increasing concerns over Islamic fundamentalist groups (Deflem, 2010). New and expanded counterterrorism efforts have been made since the September 11 attacks. Of note, broad surveillance and investigative abilities have been authorized by French law. Within the French domestic intelligence agency, Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), the Central Intelligence Directorate is responsible for terrorism. The agency cooperates with the central commands of the Police Nationale, the major civilian police agency with jurisdiction in urban areas, and the Gendarmerie Nationale, a more military organization with jurisdiction in rural areas. The Anti-Terrorist Fight Coordination Unit coordinates cooperation amongst these agencies, however each agency maintains their own distinct counterterrorism units and operations.

Canada, France, and the United Kingdom demonstrate how counterterrorism measures develop, at least in part, on the basis of local conditions and experiences with terrorism that are unique to each nation. At the same time, globally significant events, most notably of course the attacks of 9/11, have a unifying impact regardless of locally variable conditions. It is no wonder, though highly problematic in its consequences, that 9/11 has made Islamic fundamentalist terrorism a central focus of counterterrorism. Most striking in this respect is that the events of September 11 have also impacted relevant security measures in many countries in the Middle East.

In 1998, the Arab League adopted the Arab Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism, however there remains to be notable differences in the national laws of these countries (Deflem, 2010). Similar to the other nations discussed, the 9/11 attacks impacted the counterterrorism efforts of Arab nations. Although there is some variation between nations, terrorism is defined broadly and law enforcement powers are expanded to combat it, which generally corresponds with the same counterterrorism principles observed in other nations. In contrast to the Western nations, the typically undemocratic nature of Arab states means their anti-terrorism laws are more resolute and less constrained by considerations for individual rights and civil liberties. Despite this, cooperation between the Arab states and Western nations in counterterrorism still occurs, even between U.S. authorities and Syrian security forces, despite Syria being designated by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism. In addition to bilateral cooperation, many Arab states are also represented in multilateral efforts such as Interpol.

To conclude this overview, a final note can be made that the employed means of counterterrorism policing measures can vary significantly depending on the national context, especially with respect to legal restrictions and human rights considerations. The country of Israel is perhaps the clearest case of a national context where terrorism is approached with methods considered too extreme in other comparable nations (Hasisi & Weisburd, 2014; Metcalfe, Wolfe, & Gertz, 2016; Perry & Jonathan-Zamir, 2014). Likewise, the counterterrorism methods of Russia are noteworthy to discus in this respect because they have been shown to be extremely repressive (Deflem, 2010). In Russia, counterterrorism and security practices are orchestrated through a highly centralized political command system directed by the President of the Russian Federation. Yet, despite the manifold unique characteristics of counterterrorism policing across nations, it is striking that cooperation with other nations, both at the bilateral and at the multilateral level, can nonetheless take place among police.

Terrorism as a Global Concern

From the above overview, it can be observed that there is a significant difference in how the fight against terrorism is established in political and legal terms compared to how this fight is carried out by the various counterterrorism agencies of a nation. Moreover, the 9/11 attacks have been significant in the development of counterterrorism efforts since 2001 has been observed in nations around the world, including those that have had previous histories in dealing with a high degree of terrorist activity.

Globally, nations have developed special legislation addressing terrorism, although there are notable differences between nations with longstanding counterterrorism laws and those nations that have only recently adopted counterterrorism policies. Despite these variations, however, terrorism is generally broadly defined by the nations of the world as threats or acts of violence for the purpose of destabilizing the public order (Deflem, 2010). Yet, the implementation of these policies by law enforcement, domestic intelligence, military, and other counterterrorism agencies varies greatly by nation. Considerations for individual freedoms and civil liberties restrict the actions of counterterrorism agencies in democracies. In contrast, actions against terrorist activity in nations less vested with democratic principles are significantly more ruthless and repressive. As such, it can be seen how political and legal goals can be put into a wide variety of practices at the level of counterterrorism agencies. Furthermore, the variations of political structure directly impacts the level of the professional bureaucratization of police agencies, and, as a result, police institutions range from heavily politicized to possessing significant autonomy. In democratic nations, the bureaucratization of the police has flourished, with the consequent rise in police autonomy. Counterterrorism in other nations is heavily politicized, resulting in a more militaristic approach and a greater tendency towards political oppression. This also has the effect of counterterrorism efforts in these states being much more integrated through a centralized system, whereas democratic nations are characterized by multiple counterterrorism organizations that are coordinated only moderately.

The September 11 attacks have been the basis for increasing counterterrorism efforts, not only in the United States but around the world. Many nations have responded to the 9/11 attacks with new or renewed political, legislative, and police efforts to combat terrorist activity in the national and international sphere. These responses include new international counterterrorism agreements, new legislation or the modification of existing laws, the expansion of police powers, and a prioritization of terrorism as law enforcement and security issue. A further unifying factor in international efforts against terrorism has been the dominant focus on jihadist terrorism, however these efforts have not excluded other forms of terrorism.

The importance of a global unifying event such as 9/11 is not insignificant to understanding the development of counterterrorism efforts around the world. The inherent political, moral and ideological basis of terrorism complicates efforts at broad cooperation without a basis for unification. As seen above, police organizations have also de facto unified against terrorism by defining it as a de-politicized crime. The events of September 11 have served a similar function and, remarkably, high-profile terrorist attacks in other nations have not had the same impact as 9/11 had on their own respective counterterrorism responses. As a result, there has been an increased emphasis on cooperation and intelligence sharing in the fight against terrorism, both nationally and internationally. Nationally, these efforts have been in the form of increased coordination among agencies, including the cooperation of law enforcement, the intelligence community, and other legal, policy, and security related institutions. However, due to the differing historical, legal, and political conditions of nations, the nature of their counterterrorism efforts can vary greatly from each other (Beckman, 2007; Cherney & Murphy, 2013; Zimmerman & Wenger, 2007). Internationally, there has been a movement towards a global counterterrorism regime through various legal and political developments, however this has not resulted in the standardization of counterterrorism laws and has had a limited effect on law enforcement’s counterterrorism efforts. International police cooperation remains largely independent of these political considerations, and counterterrorism operations are primarily the result of the strategies developed by law enforcement and security organizations.

International Police Organizations

Although most international police cooperation occurs bilaterally between agencies of different nations on a temporary basis for specific investigations, multilateral police organizations exist as permanent structures to facilitate international cooperation. Efforts to establish international police organizations have a history since the early nineteenth century, however it was only in the early twentieth century that they would experience some success with the creation of the predecessor to today’s Interpol. Two international police organizations are of particular note, the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) and European Police Office (Europol).

The World of International Policing

International policing has a long history that is intricately related to the development of terrorism. In the early nineteenth century European nations directed their police institutions to target political opponents, including democrats, socialists, and anarchists (Deflem, 2006). Based on the notion that these political dissidents were organizing across national borders, police organizations began to operate internationally as well. Early international police efforts involved stationing agents abroad or bilateral cooperation when there was a shared political interest. Importantly, in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century, international police efforts shifted from political objectives towards crime enforcement. Political crimes like anarchism were replaced as the focus of international law enforcement with criminal issues such as the international trafficking of prostitutes. This shift in focus led to various efforts to formally structure international police cooperation, most successfully through the organization today known as Interpol.


The origins of Interpol date back to 1923 when the International Criminal Police Commission was established in Vienna to foster direct cooperation among police from different nations (Deflem, 2006; Deflem & Hauptman, 2013). After World War II, the organization was reformed as the International Criminal Police Organization and later adopted the moniker Interpol. From the beginning, Interpol is not set up as an international law enforcement agency and it does not have investigative responsibilities. Instead, Interpol exists as a collaborative organization in order to provide assistance to law enforcement agencies of member nations. Interpol has its central headquarters in Lyons, France and is linked with its member agencies through specialized units in participating nations, known as National Central Bureaus (NCB) (Deflem, 2006). To coordinate member agencies and facilitate information exchange Interpol primarily utilizes a color-coded notification system. In this system, there are six types of requests represented by different colors. The two most frequent requests are Red Notices, which call for the arrest of a wanted person for the purpose of extradition, and Blue Notices, which request information about a person of interest’s identity and criminal activity (Deflem & Hauptman, 2013).

Interpol’s contribution to counterterrorism policing was historically restricted to the treatment of crimes that are typically associated with terrorist activity, rather than terrorism as such. Reflecting the importance for a de-politicized understanding of terrorism for international police cooperation, a 1951 resolution explicitly stated that Interpol would not involve itself with political, racial, or religious issues. This resolution would later be adopted formally as Article 3 of Interpol’s constitution. This has not prevented Interpol from tackling terrorism as a criminal issue, beginning with resolutions passed during the 1970s regarding crimes related to terrorist activity. In a 1984 resolution, Interpol encouraged counterterrorism efforts in member-states. In 1998, Interpol would officially declare their commitment to international counterterrorism efforts in the ‘Declaration against Terrorism’ after several high profile terrorist attacks, including the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. This declaration is significant, in part, because it focused on the criminal components of terrorism that could be investigated by member agencies (Deflem, 2007).

After the September 11 attacks, Interpol’s counterterrorism efforts would be significantly altered in terms of policy and organizational structure. The Interpol General Assembly would draft Resolution AG-2001-RES-05 condemning the 9/11 attacks as an attack against the citizens of the world (Deflem & Hauptman, 2013). As a result of this resolution, Red Notices for terrorists involved in the attacks would be prioritized. Specialized programs were also developed to facilitate Interpol’s counterterrorism efforts. The Incident Response Team was established to provide investigative and analytical support to member agencies. In 2002, the Fusion Task Force was created for assisting in the identification of members of terrorist groups, as well as intelligence gathering and analysis. The financial components of terrorism has been of particular focus, since this directly impacts the frequency and magnitude of terrorist campaigns. Other organizational changes include the establishment of the permanent General Secretariat Command and Coordination Center and an internet based encrypted communications system, known as I-24/7, to facilitate rapid and secure information exchange.

Law enforcement agencies that participate in Interpol come from ideologically diverse nations that are not always on good political terms. Despite this impediment, however, Interpol is still able to facilitate coordination and connect the participating law enforcement agencies. The diversity of Interpol’s members does hinder international cooperation at times, and the more powerful nations continue to prefer unilateral operations to participation in the multilateral organization. The de-politicization of terrorism served as the basis for international cooperation, because terrorism was broadly and vaguely defined and because emphasis was placed on the criminal elements of terrorist activity, such as bombings, killings, and kidnappings. In most recent years, however, it is notable that Interpol has de-emphasized its work on terrorism, presumably because the organization has been successful in attracting more and more member agencies that represent nations too diverse to establish effective cooperation. The organization of European police cooperation through Europol is very different in this respect.


International counterterrorism efforts have a long history in Europe (Bures, 2008; Deflem, 2010). In 1975, several European law enforcement agencies formed the Terrorism, Radicalism, Extremism and International Violence (or TREVI) group to facilitate information exchange and cooperation against terrorism and related crimes. In addition to the TREVI group, there were several other partnerships among law enforcement agencies to combat terrorism, including the Police Working Group on Terrorism and the Counter Terrorist Group (known as the ‘Club of Berne’). In 1992, the dominant multilateral police organization of Europe would be established in a limited form as the Europol Drugs Unit. Extending from these historical beginnings, Europol was a direct product of the political and legislative bodies of the European Union (EU). Representatives of the EU supervise Europol’s operations, but, similar to the national police agencies discussed, Europol possesses a degree of institutional autonomy that allows it to define its means and objectives based on professional expertise. Like Interpol, Europol is a network of member agencies based on cooperation and collaboration, and not a supranational law enforcement agency (Deflem, 2007). Additionally, Europol has been able to cooperate on counterterrorism measures by defining terrorism as a criminal issue (Tak, 2000).

Europol exists as a part of the larger political and legislative governing body that is the European Union. Therefore, the counterterrorism policies of the European Union directly inform Europol. After 9/11, the EU would make significant changes to its counterterrorism policies. In June 2002, the Council of the European Union would adopt the framework decisions on terrorism which include the most important counterterrorism policy changes. The Council defined terrorist offenses 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 an international organization” (Deflem, 2010, pp. 131). The framework decisions also required further cooperation among counterterrorism units for the purpose of law enforcement, enabling the formation of joint investigative teams for a specific purpose. As a result, also, Europol expanded its counterterrorism mandate and activities, including enhanced cooperative relationships with other agencies, including Interpol and the counterterrorism forces of non-EU nations. Mirroring their impact on many police organizations across the world, the events of September 11 resulted in the creation of new counterterrorism organizations. A specialized counterterrorism unit, the Counterterrorism Task Force, was established at Europol’s headquarters, and the task force would later be incorporated into the Serious Crimes Department. After the Madrid bombings, the Counterterrorism Task Force would again become an independent unit, but would again incorporated into the Serious Crime Department, this time as the Counter Terrorism Unit (Deflem & Hauptman, 2013).

In contrast to Interpol, Europol was established within a legal framework and is regulated by a political organization. Although the political process of the EU is sometimes ineffective for the purposes of international police cooperation, the highly bureaucratized nature of Europol facilitates the achievement of the organizational goals of law enforcement. Yet, counterterrorism is not handled by police organizations in all EU member states as some countries rely on domestic intelligence agencies to combat terrorism. The different organizational goals of these agencies complicate effective cooperation. Also complicating cooperation against terrorism is the persistence of nationality in international policing, and the focus of counterterrorism by law enforcement agencies continues to be molded by each nation’s distinct relationship to terrorism (Deflem, 2007). Despite these difficulties, Europol has in most recent years been able to keep a resolute focus on its counterterrorism mandate, in sharp contrast to the declining significance thereof in (the much larger organization) Interpol.


A multitude of counterterrorism efforts have historically developed within and between nations based on a constellation of political, legal, and historical considerations. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, counterterrorism practices and policies around the world have experienced dramatic changes. In particular, these changes include an increased level of coordination and cooperation within and between nations, a focus on international jihadist terrorism, and an ‘Americanization’ of counterterrorism. Within the context of these changes, this chapter has focused on the role of law enforcement in counterterrorism. Because of a historical process of bureaucratization of the police function and its organization, the professional expertise of police has produced a unique approach within the broader constellation of counterterrorism measures as they are enacted by other organizations. Most distinctly, police institutions approach terrorism as a crime by means of efficient methods of crime control.

While recent events concerning the global and local terrorism threat have implied that counter-terrorism efforts have stepped up at all levels, it should not be concluded that such developments are undertaken effortlessly and without discord. In fact, counter-terrorism measures consist of a multitude of practices and institutions that are often not in tune with one another. 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 they are politically hostile to one another, can often cooperate more smoothly on the basis of a common professional understanding of terrorism as a crime.

The development of counterterrorism measures among police and other security organizations within nations depends upon the political, legal, and historical circumstances of those nations. Similarly, international cooperation among counterterrorism agencies is heavily influenced by political, legal, and historical characteristics, but the September 11 attacks have served as a unifying symbol for cooperation despite these differences. In terms of national policies and their agencies, international agreements and organizations, and the degree of cooperation and coordination within and between nations, the 9/11 attacks transformed the face of counterterrorism around the world. The September 11 attacks may have had positive impact on international police cooperation, but the events also brought about many other measures, especially of a political and military nature, that pose a threat to the professional autonomy of police agencies. Yet, while dramatic events such as the 9/11 attacks serve as the basis to attempt to re-politicize relevant police work, counterterrorism policing continues to rely on a de-politicized conception of terrorism as criminal behavior. After the successful deployment of police in such high-profile cases as the Boston Marathon bombing of April 15, 2013 or the truck attack in Manhattan on October 31, 2017, police legitimacy can also be enhanced (Lafree & Adamcyk, 2017), though counterterrorism policing practices are often criticized for their presumed negative impact on civil rights (Cherney & Hartley, 2017).

Among the globally shared developments in national and international counterterrorism practices, two major trends can be observed. First, police institutions have generally engaged in an increased emphasis and facilitation of information sharing and coordination. Within nations, policies and organizations have been developed to facilitate the exchange of information and the coordination of operations to combat terrorism more effectively. Some nations have established independent agencies for the primary purpose of coordinating efforts among the various agencies involved in counterterrorism. This development is mirrored in international police organizations, such as Interpol and Europol, which have adopted programs to enhance coordination among police working on counterterrorism.

Second, in addition to the 9/11 attacks serving as a basis for new and renewed counterterrorism efforts, there has been an ‘Americanization’ of counterterrorism. This development is a function of the disproportionate attention given to terrorism issues involving U.S. police and security agencies (Nadelmann 1993). As a result, U.S. agencies contribute a great deal more to international police and terrorism operations than their foreign counterparts, and further influence counterterrorism efforts globally through the dissemination of American law enforcement approaches and techniques through international training programs.

In the fight against terrorism, police have cooperated on the basis of a principle of efficient crime control rooted in professional expertise. However, this focus results in police operations potentially conflicting with other approaches to counterterrorism, particularly those military operations that are part of the war on terror. Whereas military institutions define terrorists as enemy combatants, police agencies focus on terrorists as criminal suspects. Similarly, the efforts of law enforcement and intelligence agencies do not always harmonize due to different institutional objectives. Police agencies focus on investigations for the purposes of criminal charges, whereas intelligence agencies are involved in a broad collection of evidence irrespective of criminal conduct (Deflem, 2008). Such distinctions and variations in approach illustrate the complex nature of counterterrorism efforts from a multitude of relevant organizations that are involved. Factually co-existing in the world of counter-terrorism cooperation, then, are the disparate structures and processes of multiple counter-terrorism models in the worlds of politics, law, and policing. As terrorism will surely continue to be a significant force across national societies for many years to come, the counterterrorism role of police agencies will also be likely to continue to develop and remain an area of social control worthy of scholarly research.


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See related writings on terrorism and policing by Deflem.