Responses to Terror: Policing and Countering Terrorism in the Modern Age

Mathieu Deflem
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This is the manuscript version of a chapter in The Handbook of Collective Violence: Current Developments and Understanding, edited by Carol A. Ireland, Michael Lewis, Anthony C. Lopez, and Jane L. Ireland. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2020. 

Final print version available as PDF file.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2020. “Responses to Terror: Policing and Countering Terrorism in the Modern Age.” Pp. 137-148 in The Handbook of Collective Violence: Current Developments and Understanding, edited by Carol A. Ireland, Michael Lewis, Anthony C. Lopez, and Jane L. Ireland. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.


This chapter provides an overview of the most important components and mechanisms of counter-terrorism responses, with a focus on relevant work that is planned and enacted by police agencies and its relation to political, military, and legal activities. With special consideration for developments since the terrorist attacks of September 11, it is shown how these various institutional levels act, interact, and co-exist despite their differing underlying logics in pursuing the fight against terrorism. Attention is particularly paid to global trends and cooperation among nations, in line with the international spread of terrorist collective violence.


In recent years, social scientists interested in the study of violence and its control have been challenged by a host of contemporary issues surrounding the persistence and development of collective violence. Our age has modernised in many ways, not least of all economically but also in terms of the spread of democracy and the globalisation of human rights. But it is also undeniable and intrinsically paradoxical that various forms of collective violence have not only endured but flared up anew as well. Besides inter-ethnic violence and war, special attention must go to the contemporary conditions of terrorism, especially though not exclusively at the international level. While not a completely unprecedented moment in historical time, the events of September 11, 2001 have drastically altered and renewed efforts to combat terrorism at multiple institutional levels, including politics, military, law, and policing or law enforcement.

In this chapter, I will discuss the most important dimensions and components of the police aspects involved in counter-terrorism, with special emphasis on international developments and the involvement of U.S. agencies and international cooperation. These policing practices will be related to relevant governmental policies and their military and legal components. The perspective applied in this chapter is rooted in the sociology of terrorism and counter-terrorism as crime and social control, respectively. This scholarly orientation has the advantage of being theoretically grounded and empirically focused, rather than normatively based or technocratically involved in seeking to either morally critique or practically develop counter-terrorism programs. Adopting a social-science approach to the institutions involved in policing and countering terrorism, conceptualisation and analysis are argued to be important dimensions to build our understanding of terrorism and counter-terrorism, especially in view of the at times very problematic normative implications that are involved.

Terrorism and Counter-terrorism: A Sociological Perspective

It was true on September 11, 2001, and it remains largely true today, that the study of terrorism and counter-terrorism is mostly dominated by political and legal perspectives. A more developed tradition among sociologists and criminologists interested in the analysis of various forms and responses to collective violence, including terrorism, is yet to be formed. The literature on the political dimensions of terrorism and counter-terrorism is arguably the most extensive, but many of these writings tend to be of a normative nature, speculating on the proper role of governments in counter-terrorism and the (largely negative) impact of counter-terrorism policies in modern states (Donohue 2008; Hamilton 2006). Works on the legal dimensions of terrorism and counter-terrorism have been written from the viewpoint of constitutional, criminal, and international law (Heymann and Kayyem 2005; Posner 2006). Legal scholarship is particularly oriented at untangling the various legislative efforts of counter-terrorism and making suggestions on the best possible legislative models within certain legal parameters.

Turning to the role of law enforcement, most existing works on the policing dimensions of counter-terrorism are of a technical nature, written from a management viewpoint to increase the efficiency of relevant police methods (Lowe 2016). However, the policing of terrorism has recently also begun to be a subject of scholarly reflection in sociology and criminology (Deflem 2010). More broadly, the events of September 11 have brought about a distinct upswing in social-scientific studies on the police or law enforcement aspects of counter-terrorism, although much more work still needs to be done. A certain fatigue that may have affected the study for terrorism and counter-terrorism as the tragedy of 9/11 fades from memory needs to be guarded against with all due scholarly attentiveness.

Sociologically, terrorism and counter-terrorism can be approached in terms of the longstanding intellectual traditions of crime and/or deviance and the control thereof (Deflem 2015; Samimian-Darash and Stalcup 2017; Shelley 2014). As such, terrorism is conceptualised as a kind of collective violence and related forms of organised illegal activity that are guided in their motivation by political, religious, or otherwise ideological considerations. Theoretically, such conduct is conceived as a criminal act, as defined by law, or conceptualised as socially deviant on the basis of a broader normative framework (Deflem 2009). Crime-causation theories will consequently focus on terrorism, in a depoliticised manner, as a form of criminal behaviour, the causal developments of which need to be uncovered at an individual or structural level. Crime-construction perspectives, by contrast, will focus on terrorism as a form of deviance that is motivated by its actors, but that is also responded to and framed (or labelled) as criminal within a particular authoritative structure. From the viewpoint of the latter perspective, therefore, the emphasis shifts from terrorism alone to terrorism in connection with counter-terrorism, specifically applicable national and international governance regimes and their respective legal frameworks to combat terrorism.

Turning from these sociological perspectives of terrorism to the study of corresponding notions of counter-terrorism, responses to terrorism can sociologically either be conceived of as attempts at functional reintegration or as powerful definitions with varying degrees of formality and enforcement that can be contested. A such, the policing of terrorism by law enforcement agencies is arguably among the most formal means of counter-terrorism. The reason for the centrality of policing is that the police function has historically developed to be subjected to governmental control, i.e. policing today is mostly conducted by public police institutions that are legitimated within the context of national states. At the same time, in order to avoid a technical criminal justice approach, a meaningful sociological analysis of counter-terrorism policing can only be developed in a broader context of other mechanisms and institutions designed to fight terrorism, especially at the levels of politics, military, and law.

The patterns and dynamics of counter-terrorism and related cooperation practices among police and other relevant institutions can specifically be examined on the basis of their relative degree of bureaucratisation (Deflem 2002, 2010). The general trend, especially in democratic capitalist societies, has been such that police institutions have in the course of their development acquired a high degree of bureaucratic autonomy from their political centres. Because of this independence, police can independently develop the means as well as the objectives of their activities on the basis of professional standards of knowledge and expertise.

From the viewpoint of police institutions in the modern age, therefore, terrorism is treated as a crime irrespective of any political or ideological underpinnings. Simply put, from a law enforcement perspective, terrorists are criminals, and they should be treated as such regardless of their motivations. In the context of democratic governments, modern police agencies accordingly conduct terrorist investigations with all available technical know-how, including cooperation arrangements with other institutions such as police from other nations or jurisdictions, as deemed necessary in pursuit of an efficient handling of the case. The overriding consideration to use the most efficient means in counter-terrorism policing will be pursued to the point of being conducted irrespective of politics and outside law.

Among the most notable implications of the bureaucratic development of policing in matters of terrorism, which I will clarify in various empirical cases in the coming sections, is that the policing of terrorism co-exists, in variably harmonizing and conflicting ways, with other responses to terror. Among these are the policies that governments enact to deal with terrorism (politics), the so-called ‘war on terrorism’ (military), and the formal legal frameworks and mechanisms that are designed to combat terrorism (law). Additionally, these various aspects of counter-terrorism are designed at local, national, international and supranational levels, revealing the whole of counter-terrorism as an essentially multi-dimensional and complex puzzle, which is in need of careful empirical analysis before any justified conclusions can be reached. In what follows, I will apply the bureaucratisation theory to uncover the most important contours of these issues in various national and international contexts. Necessarily selective, I will especially seek to bring out the relatively neglected role of policing, but I will place it in the context of counter-terrorism at the level of politics, including the military, and law.

Politics: The (Global) War on Terror

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 organised coordination of counter-terrorism activities and the organisation of intelligence operations to diplomatic initiatives and military interventions (Deflem 2010; 29-44; Zimmermann and Wenger 2007). National governments have implemented various measures and established specialised institutions that seek to coordinate multiple counter-terrorism functions. In the U.S. Department of State, for example, a specialised Office of the Coordinator for Counter-terrorism provides policy oversight and guidance to the international counter-terrorism activities of various U.S. departments. Nations have at times also developed specialised branches of government, such as the Department of Homeland Security in the USA and Public Safety Canada in the United States’ northern neighbour. Other nations have, especially after 9/11 or in view of local terrorism concerns, not developed a dedicated government branch but instead worked to streamline their various counter-terrorism activities through existing departments. As an example, the Counter-terrorism Strategy (CONTEST) in the British Home Office involves a fourfold approach to terrorism in terms of prevent, pursue, protect, and prepare (Hardy 2015).

Intelligence activities against terrorism are enacted by national governments both at home and abroad (Deflem 2010; 41-42; Guiora 2011). In some nations (such as in the United Kingdom, Australia, and France), domestic intelligence services exist next to foreign intelligence agencies. In other nations (such as in the United States), domestic intelligence functions are not assigned to a specialised agency but part of broader law enforcement responsibilities. In the United States, for example, domestic intelligence activities in terrorism matters are overseen by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), whereas the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is only authorised to work abroad or in cases involving foreign citizens. Foreign intelligence functions may be directed inward, most notably such as when a domestic surveillance program was authorised in 2002 by then U.S. President George W. Bush and subsequently continued by President Barack Obama (Deflem, Silva, and Rogers 2018). Known as the Terrorist Surveillance Program, the National Security Agency was then authorized to engage in the interception of communications within the United States when they involved at least an overseas and a domestic party or at least one party suspected of holding ties to al-Qaeda or an affiliated group. Once discovered, the program was severely criticised in view of its assumed violations of civil liberties.

At the military level, states engage unilaterally in armed interventions against terrorist targets. One method is to conduct direct strikes against certain terrorist groups and their facilities. Another approach is to undertake subversive activities, such as by means of espionage and sabotage, to undermine the potential or reality of terrorism taking hold in certain areas of the world or among certain groups. In 1986, for instance, the U.S. military undertook a bombing on Tripoli, the capital city of Libya, in retaliation for the role attributed to the Libyan government in the terrorist bombing of a discotheque in Berlin, Germany, earlier that year. Similar retaliatory strikes by U.S. forces took place against terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Sudan in August 1998 and against the Afghan Taliban regime in October 2001.

A few days after September 11, President G.W. Bush explicitly introduced the expression ‘war on terror’ to denote the centrality of the military component in the fight against terrorism (Deflem and Chicoine 2013). Shortly after 9/11, in a speech on September 20, 2001, Bush referred to the terrorist incidents of September 11 as “an act of war” against the United States that had to be responded to by a “war on terror” that begins with al-Qaeda, but that should also be extended, when deemed necessary, to other groups (Bush 2001). The term ‘global war on terror’ (GWOT), which has since come into vogue, indicates the essentially international dimension of the terrorist problem from this viewpoint and the need to foster collaboration among nations joined in the fight against a common enemy. Within this framework, it is possible for the military forces of politically aligned national states to engage in cooperation efforts to jointly undertake military missions. Most (in)famously, such coalitions have taken place following the events of September 11 during the invasions of Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in March 2003.

On the basis of the mechanisms of international diplomacy, finally, governments seek to attain counter-terrorism objectives through the peaceful means of negotiation. These efforts can be coordinated among various government representatives of individual national states (ambassadors, ministers of foreign affairs). Similar attempts also take place at meetings organised by international governing bodies, such as the European Union, the Organisation of American States, and the United Nations, in order to develop appropriate policies in the context of international law.

Law: Counter-terrorism Prohibition Regimes

Modern legal systems have responded to terrorism in terms of various aspects of law, especially criminal and constitutional law. Within nations and other relatively delineated jurisdictions, laws have been passed that seek to prevent and respond to terrorism. Legally, terrorism is then defined in some, though not always very specific way, so as to allow for a range of concerns to be addressed without giving up on the protection of constitutional rights. In democracies, most typically, such civil-liberties restrictions are more precise than in non-democratic states where law is more politicised. Many of the implications of antiterrorism laws extend their reach across the boundaries of the jurisdictions in which they are passed to also affect cross-national issues. Among the examples are laws concerning migration, asylum, border control, and transnational financial crimes.

Counter-terrorism legislation within nations has typically developed in piecemeal fashion, from the development of laws on specific issues associated with acts of terrorism towards a more global strategy that focuses on terrorism as such (Beckman 2007; Deflem 2010:29-32; Guiora 2011). In the United States, by example, legislation against terrorism-related activities developed slowly, but steadily, from the 1970s and 1980s onwards. In the 1970s, U.S. laws were passed on terrorism-related issues, such as air transportation security and airplane hijackings. In the 1980s, more comprehensive laws were passed, though typically focusing on terrorism as a foreign problem. In 1984, by example, a federal Act to Combat International Terrorism was passed to provide monetary awards to people assisting in investigations in terrorism against the United States or U.S. properties on foreign soil. Similarly focusing on terrorism abroad, the 1986 Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act made terrorism against American citizens abroad subject to federal law enforcement.

In the 1990s, following the World Trade Center Bombing in 1993 and, especially, after the Oklahoma City Bombing on April 19, 1995, the U.S. legal response to terrorism became much broader. In 1996, a comprehensive Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act was passed that brought counter-terrorism functions under federal control, particularly in cases involving international terrorist groups. Additionally accelerating the U.S. focus on terrorism were the U.S. embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998 and the al-Qaeda attack against the USS Cole navy ship in Yemen. As no other prior incident, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2011 completed the broadening of antiterrorism legislation in the United States with the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act (the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act), which was signed into law on October 26, 2001.

Although there are variations across national legal cultures (Hamilton 2018), other countries have over the course of their histories developed similar antiterrorism legislation, a process that in many countries has been strengthened and expanded following 9/11. The British Parliament, for example, passed a new Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act in November 2001. The act expanded the provisions of the Terrorism Act of 2000, even though the country had little, if any, direct connection to the al-Qaeda attacks in the United States.

National counter-terrorism laws typically focus on both domestic and international components of terrorist activities and organisations. Comparative legal differences exist in terms of the speed and ease with which counter-terrorism laws in nations became comprehensive, rather than remained narrowly focused (Deflem 2010: 89-109). Mostly related to a combination of local historical conditions of terrorism as well as the centralised and more or less democratic nature of political regimes, some nations (such as Turkey, Spain, and Israel) have a long history of broadly defined counter-terrorism laws. Other nations (such as the Netherlands and Canada) have instituted laws against terrorism much more recently. Recent changes typically happened after 9/11 to show a political will to collaborate internationally as well as to take advantage of expanded powers nationally should the need arise.

Further differentiating the nations of the world in legal matters of counter-terrorism is the manner in which a balance is struck between the need for security, on the one hand, and the protection of rights and freedoms, on the other. In liberal democracies, civil liberties and constitutional protections can restrict the scope of counter-terrorism activities, or at least subject them to criticisms when they are thought to threaten basic rights (Cherney and Hartley 2017; Innes, Roberts, and Lowe 2017). In nations that are politically more autocratic, by contrast, counter-terrorism strategies can be highly repressive and ruthlessly enacted.

Extradition treaties between nations and agreements concerning the international rendition of fugitives from justice in cases of terrorism and other international crimes are among the most important cooperative instruments that nations have developed at a bilateral level (Mitsilegas 2003). More broadly, multilateral legal efforts against terrorism engage a larger number of nations. Such initiatives can be regionally confined to certain conglomerates of neighbouring or otherwise aligned nations and supranational entities, such as the Organisation of American States, the League of Arab States, and the European Union. Among the examples of such international counter-terrorism laws at the regional level, an Arab Convention on the Suppression of Terrorism was adopted by the members of the Arab League in 1998 (Deflem 2010: 101). This convention confirmed and enhanced national legal provisions against terrorism that already existed within Arab nations. On the American continent, a similar approach has been taken by the Organization of American States, which passed an Inter-American Convention Against Terrorism in June 2002.

At the global level, finally, important counter-terrorism efforts have been undertaken by the United Nations. Similar to national counter-terrorism legislation, international conventions against terrorism have developed in a piecemeal fashion (Deflem 2010: 13-14; Romaniuk 2010). The League of Nations had already adopted a convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism as early as 1937, but the convention was not ratified by national governments, except by India. In the 1970s, with various terrorist incidents taking place across the world, the United Nations General Assembly initially adopted specific conventions on terrorism-related activities, such as the International Convention against the Taking of Hostages in 1979. A more comprehensive supranational framework gradually developed during the 1990s and was resolutely pursued following the events of 9/11. In 2006, the United Nations adopted a Global Counter-terrorism Strategy that sought nations across the world to unify their counter-terrorism measures. Despite such multi-nation supranational efforts, however, international terrorism nonetheless often remains a contested issue in international relations.

Policing Terrorism: Counter-terrorism as Crime Control

The world of policing and related security functions has developed an ever-expanding role among the modern institutions of counter-terrorism. This increasingly important role of police still needs special mention to become more publicly recognised, even among scholars, as most discussions and analyses on counter-terrorism remain concerned with political, military, and legal issues. In most nation-states and on an international level as well, however, terrorism is treated as a matter of criminal law and crime control and is consequently subject to a host of public police activities.

Historically, the policing of terrorism can be traced back to developments in 19th-century Europe when the governments of autocratic states directed police institutions to track down the international movement of political opponents (Deflem 2002). The policing of terrorism developed out of such political efforts from which it gradually would become more independent. Specifically, autocratic European states were during the 19th century involved in seeking to disrupt what were considered extremist political ideas, such as social democracy and anarchism, and directed their police accordingly.

As policing activities became more professionally defined in terms of crime control, police institutions would gradually abandon political goals in favour of criminal enforcement objectives and, on the basis thereof, find common ground across national states. In 1898, for instance, the International Conference of Rome for the Social Defence Against Anarchists led to the signing of an intergovernmental agreement that failed to be ratified at the level of the participating national states. A separate meeting of police professionals at the conference, however, did bring about effective cooperation on related criminal enforcement concerns. In other words, from political efforts against ideologically motivated actions developed enforcement efforts to police the criminal aspects of collective violence as well as other non-political criminal violations. These professionally defined policing practices have remained in existence, in considerably expanded form, until this day.

In some nations, developments in the policing of terrorism especially accelerated from the 1970s and 1980s onwards, mostly depending on local conditions concerning the evolving terrorist threat (Deflem and Chicoine 2019). In many European countries, for example, terrorism functions have been taken up by specialised divisions in police forces since the 1970s, in the wake of several high-profile terrorist attacks by separatist and radical groups. In other nations, the police functions of counter-terrorism similarly expanded as the terrorism threat grew. In the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has been involved in counter-terrorism investigations since the 1980s, when terrorism became a U.S. concern. Not surprisingly, the Bureau expanded its activities during the 1990s and, especially, following the events of September 11.

The events of 9/11 served as a catalyst for the expansion of the police powers in counter-terrorism matters in many countries across the globe. In some countries, this development was closely related to the terrorist threat coming from al-Qaeda and related groups. In other countries, however, September 11 served a symbolic function to step up criminal law enforcement and other counter-terrorism functions.

Despite variations, several shared characteristics in the contemporary dynamics of counter-terrorism policing can be noted (Deflem and Chicoine 2019). Most striking is that police institutions focus on terrorism as a crime that needs to be addressed in terms of professional considerations of efficient law enforcement. For that reason, specialised counter-terrorism units are established within police agencies. For example, in the United Kingdom, the Metropolitan Police Service oversees a specialised Counter Terrorism Command that is part of a Specialist Operations division. In the case of the FBI, the lead federal agency on terrorism in the United States, the Bureau operates a Terrorist Screening Center, a Counterterrorism Division, a Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Directorate, and a Terrorism Financing Operations Section (Deflem 2010: 45-48). As its most important investigative tool, the FBI oversees some 100 Joint Terrorism Task Forces, each of them made up of Bureau agents along with personnel from other security and police agencies at the local and federal level. Intelligence capacities by the FBI, including most contentiously those focused on Muslims in the United States, are developed as well (Kamali 2017).

A likewise characteristic development since 9/11 is the expansion of counter-terrorism policing and security in functional terms, specifically the establishment of specialised agencies involved with border control, illegal immigration, and financial crimes. The multifarious nature of counter-terrorism security at multiple levels exists in many nations, sometimes with additional activities against terrorism undertaken by domestic intelligence agencies as well as various civilian and, at times even, military institutions. As a result, the need for inter-agency cooperation becomes an important consideration.

In the United States, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was set up in 2003 specifically in view of a coordination of a range of counter-terrorism activities. DHS presently oversees some two dozen offices and agencies involved with a host of activities, ranging from security (e.g., Customs and Border Protection; Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to safety (e.g., Federal Emergency Management Agency) and administration (e.g., U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services). Despite the attempt at coordination in DHS, other major players in U.S. counter-terrorism are under the supervision of other branches of the government. Most importantly, the Justice Department oversees the FBI, the lead agency in U.S. counter-terrorism. Additional counter-terrorism policing functions exist at the level of cities and other smaller localities within nations (Nussbaum 2007), where cooperation among police from adjacent jurisdictions is relatively routinely applied (Sedgwick and Hawdon 2019).

The many cooperative efforts police agencies have developed, both among themselves as well as with other counter-terrorism agencies in the world of intelligence and security, tend to be functionally defined and based on investigative needs. Within nations and other delineated jurisdictions, for instance, police will cooperate with emergency responders specialised in health and safety in the case of a terrorist incident.

Looking at the international aspects of counter-terrorism policing, international practices comprise unilateral, bilateral, and multilateral forms. Unilaterally, police agencies station officers abroad, while bilateral cooperation between the police of two nations is based on specific needs in concrete cases, such as to ensure the rendition of a fugitive from justice or a particular terrorism investigation involving two countries (e.g., McKenzie 2018). Multilateral police cooperation takes on a more structured form with the establishment of a permanent organisation with wide international representation. Such multilateral police organisations are established at a regional level, as in the case of Europol, or take on global proportions, most specifically in the case of Interpol. Globally, since September 11, important changes in the policing of terrorism have occurred, not only in the United States and other countries more or less directly affected, but on a much wider scale as well. These developments have accelerated the expansion of counter-terrorist policing efforts that are distinctly oriented across the boundaries of national states and have additionally shaped the organisation and functions of international police organisations.

Europol and Interpol serve as interesting case-studies in the organisation of counter-terrorism by international police organisations (Deflem 2010: 111-140; Deflem and Chicoine 2019; Jansson 2018). The establishment of the European Police Office (Europol) was agreed upon in 1992 in the Treaty on European Union. Europol first took on its activities in 1999 as an international cooperative network to coordinate international policing activities in the various European Union states through a central headquarters in The Hague, The Netherlands. Following the events of 9/11, a specialised unit, the Counterterrorism Task Force, was established at the Europol headquarters. Initially integrated into a more general serious crime unit, the Task Force was revived after the terrorist train bombings in Madrid in March 2004. Besides analysing relevant information and assisting national police in the various EU states, Europol also cooperates in terrorism matters with other international police organisations, such as the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG) and Interpol, thereby effectively broadening the scope of its activities beyond its otherwise strictly defined jurisdictional boundaries.

Originally formed in 1923, the International Criminal Police Organisation (Interpol) is a non-governmental international network of police that presently comprises agencies from 194 nations. Interpol facilitates international police cooperation among its member agencies through a central headquarters that is located in Lyon, France. Since the 1970s, Interpol has focused on international terrorism by passing various resolutions aimed at enhancing cooperation in terrorism-related crimes, such as the taking of hostages. Since the 1990s, the organisation broadened its scope to more comprehensively focus on terrorism as an international crime. Since the events of September 11, the Interpol headquarters have additionally set up various new counter-terrorism instruments, specifically an Interpol Terrorism Watch List and an internet-based Global Communications System.

The Dynamics of Counter-terrorism

It is clear that terrorism has been, and will continue to be, an important concern for many nations across the world and the responsible institutions that approach this often contentious, but always problematic, form of collective violence from different angles. Governments and their military, legal policies, and police agencies are among the most important counter-terrorism instruments to form an essentially multi-dimensional constellation. Other components are relevant as well, such as private business involvement related to the financing of terrorist groups, the activities of civil liberties and human rights groups to preserve rights and democratic ideals in view of expanded security measures, and the preventive measures that are undertaken at political and economic levels to thwart the development of social conditions where terrorism is more likely. The complexity of counter-terrorism is additionally exacerbated by its local, national, and international dimensions.

Focused on the policing of terrorism in the context of politics and law, the need to develop efficient cooperation strategies stands out as one of the most challenging aspects of counter-terrorism. The need for inter-agency cooperation is high, but the prospects thereof are not always favourable as agencies tend to guard their respective activities. Even within one country, police and security institutions are not always keen on sharing information and, instead, seek to shield their work from that of other, rival organisations. In the United States, by example, the FBI in the Justice Department is not only notoriously an uneasy partner with the CIA, it is increasingly also placed in a position of competition with the rapidly expanding powers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the Department of Homeland Security.

Within the world of counter-terrorism institutions, frictions can exist, even within nations and among allies. Policing and intelligence activities in terrorism matters may be at odds with one another, because the law enforcement orientation of police agencies, which focuses on the investigation of terrorism as a depoliticised criminal matter, clashes with the activities of intelligence agencies, which more routinely collect information based on given political and social conditions, even in the absence of a criminal case. Arguably most problematic in terms of an efficient cooperation in counter-terrorism is the co-existence of police and military functions. By and large, police and military functions in the modern age are separated. Yet, the nature of terrorism as a form of collective violence that is positioned in between crime and war brings the law enforcement aspects of counter-terrorism sometimes closer to what is literally, not just metaphorically, a war on terror. This development is remarkable because police institutions historically moved away from the powers of the military, at least in modern democracies, while an unproblematic co-existence of military and police functions is typical of autocratic regimes. However, the terrorist threat, especially since 9/11, is politically often phrased in terms of national security interests that would seek to (re-)align police with military and intelligence.

Among other problems associated with the war on terror, a militarisation of counter-terrorism operates on a relatively antiquated model that originated during the days of the Cold War, when external threats came from nations rather than non-state actors that operate transnationally. Moreover, what attempts at a militarisation of counter-terrorism overlook is that military professionals are simply not trained nor equipped to deal with law enforcement problems. A striking example in this respect was the failure to establish a peace in Iraq after the invasion and the overthrow of the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein. The tragic consequences of this failure, most notably the development of ISIS and the spread of other jihadist groups, last until today (Kaiser and Hagan 2018).

Conversely, police institutions have several key advantages in terms of counter-terrorism objectives, such as the investigative capabilities related to local knowledge and their higher degree of international cooperation on the basis of a common ‘culture of the badge’ (Bayer 2010). Cooperation at the level of police can and does often take place, even when nations are politically hostile towards one another. By example, police of Western democracies cooperate on terrorism matters with police of autocratic regimes in the Arab world. Cooperation, for instance, has been established between U.S. law enforcement and Syrian security forces, despite the fact that Syria is designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. Department of State (Deflem and Chicoine 2019: 241).

It is almost trivial to acknowledge that terrorism is a world problem in which many nations of the world are involved and on which they need to cooperate. But it is still far from trivial to find appropriate methods by which the required international cooperation can be effectively accomplished. An international police organisation such as Interpol may pride itself on its wide representation of police from almost all nations of the world, but the organisation’s infrastructure is severely under-used, especially by police from the world’s leading powers. Much like it has been argued that the global counter-terrorism role of the United Nations might undermine the organisation’s legitimacy precisely when its role in such matters is effective (Karlsrud 2017), Interpol’s activities on terrorism and other international crimes are of secondary importance at best and rendered rather insignificant in scope and impact by the unilaterally conducted international police work that is done by police agencies from various states.

Finally, the many cooperative arrangements that exist on counter-terrorism are relatively independent of each other, even though and when they are linked (Bensahel 2006). Ideological differences among different political regimes as well as internal organisational dynamics tend to prevent counter-terrorism to develop on the unified global scale it might ideally require. Despite the lip service that is often voiced in support of international cooperation, local and national interests are often seen to direct counter-terrorism work in terms of regionally confined dimensions of various terrorist threats.


This chapter has shown that the institutions engaged in policing and countering terrorism include political bodies and their intelligence and military means, legal institutions at various jurisdictional levels, and Law enforcement agencies in the world of professional policing. The forms of counter-terrorism cooperation range from unilaterally enacted international initiatives to bilateral and broader multilateral collaborative efforts. Most all forms of both local as well as international counter-terrorism have expanded at various institutional levels. Importantly, however, there is no harmonisation or standardisation of structures and practices across the various institutional domains and the many forms that are involved.

From a scholarly perspective focused on an analysis of the patterns and dynamics of counter-terrorism, it is striking to observe the relative independence of the many involved institutional components. Indeed, while the developments in politics, military, law, and police are related, they are nonetheless seen to be distinct in terms of their focus and direction. Under special circumstances, such as the events of September 11, there can be attempts to re-politicise police work against terrorism and other concerns that are reframed as national security interests. As police institutions have developed to an unprecedented level of professionalisation and bureaucratic independence, however, they can today also better resist such attempts to remain involved in the fight against terrorism on the basis of acquired standards of efficiency and expertise.

This overview may contribute to develop a proper understanding of the complex constellation of counter-terrorism in all of its manifold dimensions, which may also be useful for the future as problems of terrorism will likely remain of great concern. The multi-faceted nature of counter-terrorism begs for precise and relatively modest analyses of the role played by each of its participating institutions. From such careful studies, a more comprehensive perspective can later be developed. Only then will any well-founded, rather than just a well-meaning, reflection informing counter-terrorism policy become possible.


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Deflem, M., and Chicoine, S. (2013) ‘War on terror’, in L.M. Salinger (ed.) Encyclopedia of White-Collar and Corporate Crime, 2nd edn, pp. 987-90, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Deflem, M., and Chicoine, S. (2019) ‘Policing terrorism’, in M. Deflem (ed.) The Handbook of Social Control, pp. 235-248. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

Donohue, L.K. (2008) The Cost of Counterterrorism: Power, Politics, and Liberty, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Guiora, A.N. (2011) Global Perspectives on Counterterrorism, 2nd edn, New York: Aspen Publishers.

Hamilton, C. (2018) ‘The European Union: Sword or shield? Comparing counterterrorism law in the EU and the USA after 9/11’, Theoretical Criminology, 22: 206-25.

Hamilton, D.S. (ed.) (2006) Terrorism and International Relations. Washington, DC: Center for Transatlantic Relations.

Hardy, K. (2015) ‘Resilience in UK counter-terrorism’, Theoretical Criminology, 19: 77-94.

Heymann, P.B., and Kayyem, J.N. (2005) Protecting Liberty in an Age of Terror, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Innes, M., Roberts, C., and Lowe, T. (2017) ‘A disruptive influence? “Preventing” problems and countering violent extremism policy in practice’, Law & Society Review, 51: 252-81.

Jansson, J. (2018) ‘Building resilience, demolishing accountability? The role of Europol in counter-terrorism’. Policing & Society, 28: 432-47.

Kaiser, J., and Hagan, J. (2018) ‘Crimes of terror, counter-terrorism, and the unanticipated consequences of a militarized incapacitation strategy in Iraq (2018)’, Social Forces, 91: 309-346.

Kamali, S. (2017) ‘Informants, provocateurs, and entrapment: Examining the histories of the FBI's PATCON and the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program’, Surveillance & Society, 1: 68-78.

Karlsrud, J. (2017) ‘Towards UN counter-terrorism operations?’ Third World Quarterly, 38: 1215-31.

Lowe, D. (2016) Policing Terrorism: Research Studies into Police Counterterrorism Investigations, Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

McKenzie, M. (2018) Common Enemies: Crime, Policy, and Politics in Australia-Indonesian Relations, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mitsilegas, V. (2003) ‘The new EU-USA cooperation on extradition, mutual legal assistance and the exchange of police data.’ European Foreign Affairs Review, 8: 515-36.

Nussbaum, B. (2007). ‘Protecting Global Cities: New York, London and the Internationalization of Municipal Policing for Counter Terrorism’, Global Crime, 8: 213-32.

Posner, R.A. (2006) Not a Suicide Pact: The Constitution in a Time of National Emergency, New York: Oxford University Press.

Romaniuk, P. (2010) Multilateral Counter-Terrorism, New York: Routledge.

Samimian-Darash, L., and Stalcup, M. (2017) ‘Anthropology of security and security in anthropology: Cases of counterterrorism in the United States’, Anthropological Theory, 17: 60-87.

Sedgwick, D., and Hawdon, J. (2019) ‘Interagency cooperation in the era of homeland policing: Are agencies answering the call?’, American Journal of Criminal Justice, 44: 167-90.

Shelley, L.I. (2014) Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime, and Terrorism, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zimmermann, D., and Wenger, A. (eds.) (2007) How States Fight Terrorism: Policy Dynamics in the West, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

See related writings on terrorism and policing.