The Declining Significance of Interpol: Policing International Terrorism after 9/11

The Declining Significance of Interpol: Policing International Terrorism after 9/11

Mathieu Deflem
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This is a copy of a publication in International Criminal Justice Review, March 2024.
(First published online November 8, 2022.) DOI: 10.1177/10575677221136175

Also available online from the publisher and as PDF 

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2024. “The Declining Significance of Interpol: Policing International Terrorism after 9/11.” International Criminal Justice Review 34(1):5-19.


This paper discusses the current policies and strategies developed by Interpol to organize international police cooperation in matters of terrorism. While the role of police in international counterterrorism cannot be denied and can only be assumed to be more important today than ever before, evidence shows that Interpol has in recent years no longer placed a premium on terrorism among its objectives. Relying on the bureaucratization perspective of policing, Interpol’s relative decline in attention to terrorism is argued to have been brought about by factors both external and internal to the organization. Externally, police of many nations, especially those with well-developed law enforcement organizations, prefer to work unilaterally or on the basis of smaller, temporary forms of international collaboration. Internally, moreover, Interpol has grown considerably in terms of membership but in a manner that might threaten its central objective to fight international crime by efficient means of cooperation. Related problems involve abuse of Interpol’s notices system as well as political and legal problems concerning the organization’s leadership. As a result, among the most striking aspects of Interpol’s development in recent years has been a relative but distinct decline in its once central focus on terrorism.

Keywords: international police cooperation, Interpol, counterterrorism, September 11, terrorism 


In this paper, I examine the development of the policing of international terrorism by Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, especially as its policies and strategies have evolved over the period in the two decades following the terrorist attacks of September 11. Relying on official documents and policies publicly presented by Interpol, I show that the general trend has been for the international police organization to no longer focus on (international) terrorism as one of its central missions, in stark contrast to the counterterrorism policies and instruments that were implemented in the period leading up to, and especially in the immediate period following, the events of 9/11. Guided by the theory of police bureaucratization and its application to the policing of international terrorism (Deflem, 2002, 2010), the emphasis in this analysis is on the organization of counterterrorism and the development of counterterrorist policies and methods in international police work by Interpol rather than on specific investigative efforts. Although this methodology presents a limitation in terms of the applicability of its findings towards concrete efforts of counterterrorist police work, it does reveal an important organizational dimension of self-presentation. Policies and documents of relevant activities by Interpol in matters of counterterrorism, further, will frame how any practical cooperative work can be conducted. Analyzing relevant patterns and dynamics, this research builds on, and offers an update to, prior work on the conditions of international police cooperation in matters of counterterrorism (Deflem, 2006, 2010; Deflem & Maybin, 2005) and is additionally positioned in the recent scholarship on Interpol (Calcara, 2020, 2021; Gardeazabal & Sandler, 2015; Lemon, 2019; Safjański, 2015; San, 2022).

Charting both constants and changes in the policing of international terrorism, my analysis will reveal a general decline in the counterterrorism role of Interpol within the global constellation of the policing of international terrorism. Building on policies instituted from the 1970s onwards, Interpol made international terrorism its primary area of cooperation in the immediate days and years following the events of September 2001. Since then, however, as this paper will show, the role of terrorism has relatively faded in the international police organization. Despite the widely acknowledged global nature of the terrorism problem, the role of Interpol in matters of counterterrorism presently pales in comparison to the counterterrorism strategies devised by individual police agencies within nations. A qualitative shift in international policing methods is also revealed, as police prefer to engage in unilateral measures against international terrorism or engage in cooperation efforts on a more limited scale, typically in an ad hoc fashion in view of specific incidents, as well as in other multilateral initiatives, such as Europol (see, e.g., Christensen, 2021; Heyer, 2022; Jansson, 2018; San, 2020).

The changing dynamics in the policing of international terrorism, revealing that the counterterrorism role of Interpol has relatively declined, I will argue, also betray an underlying constant in the principles of counterterrorism policing in terms of efficiency and professional expertise. To the extent that police of different nations avoid working with Interpol on counterterrorism cases, it can be attributed not to a lack of unity on terrorism as a global problems nor for any political reasons, but because police prefer methods that are judged to be more efficient in the fight against terrorism as a critical crime problem (external pull conditions). Moreover, within Interpol a number of problems have recently emerged that have caused suspicion among participating police in the international organization, which has been overly focused on the size of the organization, attracting ever more members, rather than its original mission as an effective instrument in the fight against international forms of crime (internal push conditions). Recent developments in Interpol itself have challenged the original objectives of the organization, which, I argue, constitute an ironic by-product of the organization’s drive towards increasing membership. Interpol’s notices system has also been abused and its leadership has been tainted, leading to avoid cooperation in the organization. Because Interpol remains at times poorly understood, I will begin by briefly situating the role of terrorism as an enforcement objective in the international organization in the context of its structure as a cooperative organization of criminal law enforcement.

Interpol: History and Structure

The organization today known as Interpol was originally created at an international police meeting in Vienna in 1923 as the International Criminal Police Commission (Deflem, 2002). After several earlier efforts to establish an international police organization had failed, most notably the First Congress of International Criminal Police in Monaco in 1914 and the International Police Conference in New York in 1922, conditions for the creation of an international police organization were favorable in Europe after World War I. Not only were there increased concerns over an increase in international crime in the chaotic years after the end of the war, the criminal police of several European nations also recognized the need to organize international police cooperation by instituting new and efficient means of crime control. In this context, police chiefs of major nations, under the direction of Viennese Police President Johannes Schober, held an international meeting in the Austrian capitol of Vienna and formally created the International Criminal Police Commission (Deflem, 2002). Arranged independently by police as a practical matter (without the need for a formal legal treaty signed by governments), the organization instituted a central headquarters, located with the criminal police in Vienna, through which information could be directly routed by police from different nations. Various expert systems of policing were introduced as well, such as divisions on passports, fingerprints, and currencies, and cooperation was facilitated by means of publications, regular meetings, and a radio network. Thus, the Commission was established (and Interpol today still operates) as a cooperative international network of police from various nations, not as a supranational police force.

From the start, the International Criminal Police Commission focused exclusively on international (non-political) criminal offenses. Yet, the Commission (and Interpol thereafter) could not always shield itself from the political turmoil that Europe and the rest of the world experienced in the years before and after World War II (Deflem, 2002). Most tragically, the organization was taken over by the police and intelligence forces of Nazi Germany before and during World War II. After the war, however, the organization was re-established at a police convention in Brussels in 1946 as the International Criminal Police Organization (ICPO). The headquarters were moved to France, initially in Paris and since 1989 in Lyon, where they remain until this day. The addition of the term Interpol to the organization’s complete official name occurred in 1956, since when the organization is commonly referred to as Interpol.

Interpol’s criminal enforcement role has remained a constant in the organization. Formally adopted in 1956, Article 3 of the organization’s constitution explicitly prohibits any activities of a political, military, religious or racial character (Calcara, 2020). Yet, Interpol has over the years not always been able to prevent political conditions from intruding upon its work, most distinctly by the abuse of the Interpol communications systems for political purposes by police from authoritarian regimes and the organization’s lack of accountability in operating without much oversight (Calcara, 2021; Masters, 2011). Despite these problems, Interpol’s membership has steadily increased to presently include agencies from 195 countries. Of note, there is some disagreement on the ambiguous status of Interpol as a (non-)governmental organization as the organization was initially organized among police agencies (rather than countries) but has gradually acquired some recognition at the inter-governmental level (Calcara, 2020; Fooner, 1989; Martha, 2010).

From an organizational viewpoint, the structure of Interpol has remained collaborative, not supranational, specifically in the form of National Central Bureaus in countries cooperating with the General Secretariat at the Lyon headquarters as well as through seven regional offices located in various parts of the world (Interpol, n.d., National Central Bureaus). The main organizational objective to establish direct systems of international police communication and information exchange has remained unchanged as well. Among the methods to accomplish cooperation are various color-coded notices, including most famously the Red Notices (to locate and provisionally arrest, for extradition purposes, a suspect wanted for prosecution or to serve a sentence) and the Blue Notices (to request information about a person’s identity, location, or activities in connection with a criminal investigation) (Interpol, n.d., About Notices). 

Interpol and Counterterrorism: Origins and Development

Interpol is inherently focused on crimes of an international nature, including transnational crimes (i.e., violations of criminal law that involve a cross-national component) as well as violations of international law. The organization can therefore only be involved in the fight against terrorist activities by internationally organized groups or step in when domestic terrorists cross national borders as fugitives from justice. Interpol has indeed focused on terrorism in this way and, significantly, already developed several policies and strategies since well before the events of September 11, 2001. As such, Interpol followed the same pattern that many police organizations across the world reveal, namely a focus on (international) terrorism as an (international) crime that is driven by police concerns rather than any ideological or political considerations. It is therefore also not surprising that Interpol further strengthened this counterterrorism focus in the immediate years after the events of 9/11, as the following review will show (on the basis of earlier published work [Deflem, 2006, 2010; Deflem & Maybin, 2005] and additional sources).

From the 1970s onwards, when acts of international terrorism had become more common, Interpol’s focus on terrorism mirrored that of many national law enforcement agencies by developing its counterterrorism focus in a gradual and piecemeal but nonetheless steady fashion. Throughout the 1970s, Interpol passed resolutions that focused on crimes associated with terrorism, rather than terrorism itself, for instance regarding crimes against international civil aviation and hostage-taking and crime that, while at times ideologically motivated, involved criminal acts, such as murder, kidnapping, arson, and bombing. Terrorism itself was initially not considered by Interpol because it was believed to inherently be at odds with the prohibition of Article 3 of the Interpol constitution prohibiting activities against crimes of a political nature. As usefully discussed by James Sheptycki (2004, p. 132), this position of an “appearance of political neutrality” by Interpol could only be sustained as long as international terrorist incidents would not interfere with the image of Interpol as an effective international police organization, for which there was a need. Thus, as acts of international terrorism increased, Interpol would have to change course and re-interpret Article 3 for fear of becoming irrelevant.

In 1984, Interpol took an important move towards focusing on terrorism, despite Article 3, by passing a resolution on ‘Violent Crime Commonly Referred to as Terrorism’ that sought to encourage police cooperation on crimes that may (or may not) be political or ideological in nature but always constitute criminal offenses regardless (Anderson, 1997). As such, Interpol (as did and do many other police organizations) de-politicized terrorism as a crime. Following this strategic decision, Interpol’s counterterrorism instruments greatly expanded, to include a dedicated sub-directorate on ‘Public Safety and Terrorism’ in 1985 and a ‘Guide for Combating International Terrorism’ in 1986. As various acts of international terrorism took place over the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, Interpol took an even more explicit and resolute turn towards the terrorism as a general enforcement objective in 1998, when the General Assembly in Cairo, Egypt adopted a ‘Declaration Against Terrorism’ to condemn all (international) acts of terrorism, regardless of ideological motivation, because of their serious effects in terms of security and order. A year later, at the Interpol General Assembly meeting in Seoul, South Korea, terrorism was affirmed as one of Interpol’s main enforcement objectives.

The terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda against the United States on September 11, 2001 greatly affected relevant police actions, intra-nationally as well as internationally. The primary mechanisms for the policing of terrorism involve both the appropriate objectives and means (Deflem, 2010). In terms of objectives, counterterrorism by police agencies (at both the intra-national and international level) involves a de-politicized focus on terrorism as a crime (and terrorists as criminal suspects), while in terms of means, it involves a focus on those means of crime control that are judged to be the most efficient. To attain such efficiency, an emphasis is placed on technical expertise in the handling of counterterrorism investigations, including a focus on the financing of terrorism and multi-agency cooperation, regardless of political, ideological, and even legal concerns.

Much like was the case for police organizations in many countries, Interpol intensified the approach that had already been developed in prior years. Discussions at the 2001 General Assembly meeting in Budapest, Hungary, held from September 24 to 28 that year, radically towards terrorism. In October 2001, a dedicated meeting was held, in the form of Interpol’s 16th Annual Symposium on Terrorism. Soon after September 11, some 55 Red Notices were reportedly issued in connection with investigations into the attacks. A Red Notice for Usama bin Laden, it is to be noted, had already been issued several years prior by request of police from Libya (Brisard & Dasquie, 2002). In the immediate years following 9/11, the centrality of Interpol’s terrorism mission was confirmed in the form of several resolutions as well as structural changes to the organization’s modus operandi. Affirming the organization’s earlier policies in the light of Article 3, Interpol clarified its manner of focusing on terrorism despite the organization’s prohibition on political offenses by stipulating a policy to disentangle the criminal components of any terrorist activities. The organization also broadened terrorism-related wanted notices routed through the Interpol headquarters by allowing, since 2003, membership in a terrorist organization (and not only actual involvement in a terrorist attack) as sufficient cause for such a request. Interpol further devoted efforts to concentrate on the financing of international terrorist groups and expanded liaisons with other international entities, such as Europol.

Arguably the most important impact of the events of September 11 on Interpol were the various structural changes to the organization that were instituted under direction of its enterprising Secretary General, former U.S. Treasury officer Ronald Noble, who served in that capacity for nearly three five-year terms, from 2000 until 2014 (when he was succeeded by former German federal police officer Jürgen Stock, who is presently serving his second five-year term) (Interpol, n.d., Secretary General). Within days of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, on September 14, 2001, Noble announced the formation of an ‘11 September Task Force’ at the Interpol headquarters in order to coordinate any communications concerning the attacks. Further established were a General Secretariat Command and Coordination Centre to be operational 24/7, a specialized Financial and High Tech Crimes Sub-Directorate, regional offices around the world, a Public Safety and Terrorism Sub-Directorate, and an Interpol Terrorism Watch List. At the Interpol General Assembly meeting of 2002 in Yaoundé, Cameroon, a new Global Communications System (‘I-24/7’) was announced for Interpol members to transmit information via an encrypted private internet network. Until that time, most Interpol communications still took place by regular mail. 

Interpol and Terrorism Today

Many modern police organizations had already developed counterterrorism measures well before the events of September 11, especially following the proliferation of terrorism in many parts of the world in the 1980s and 1990s, additionally fueled by locally variable conditions of terrorist activities within nations (Deflem, 2010). Interpol followed the same pattern of development of a steady elaboration of counterterrorism capabilities, the events of September 11 serving as an important catalyst to further strengthen this process. In most recent years, however, Interpol has gradually, albeit it relatively, withdrawn from its counterterrorism mission. At present, terrorism is still among the crimes Interpol is focused on, but, as I will explain in the following pages, it no longer takes up a central position and is relegated to a concern of lower priority, as one among other crimes of an international scope.

The relative decline of an attention to terrorism at Interpol can evidently not be accounted for by any developments in terrorism on an international scale. Terrorist attacks in many international and domestic forms have continued and, if anything, proliferated since the events of September 11 and have also continued to occupy the attention of law enforcement agencies, intelligence services, and political and legal institutions in many parts of the world (Deflem, 2020). It will be insightful to chart the most important aspects of Interpol’s recent (non)attention to terrorism before offering elements towards an explanation of this peculiar development. As this analysis is primarily interested in the organization of Interpol’s counterterrorism (rather than its enactment by the various member agencies), I rely on publicly available primary sources in the form of documents posted on the official Interpol website. Usefully revealing the organization’s self-presentation with respect to its objectives and structure, these sources specifically include General Assembly programs, annual reports, and other official records (Interpol, n.d., Documents).

International Crime and Terrorism

What is readily striking from the materials posted on the Interpol website is that the organization no longer positions itself as having a primary role in the fight against terrorism as it did in the immediate post-9/11 years. Instead, the organization presents itself primarily as being relevant towards a global audience of citizens interested in (international) crime from a victimization viewpoint, even including a “What You Can Do” category as well as various achievements in terms of international law enforcement operations, typically with a technological angle such as activities in the area of forensics and social-engineering scams (Interpol, n.d., Social Engineering Scams). The various categories of the Interpol website are presented in the organization’s four official languages of English, French, Spanish, and Arabic, although posted materials are not always available in all four languages. English tends to be the predominant language, while sources in Arabic tend to be missing the most among available translations. In the immediate years following September 11, Arabic-language versions of documents were, when available, strikingly always listed first on the Interpol webpages (Deflem & Maybin, 2005). The thematic webpages of the website offer an overview of Interpol’s general structure and governance. Besides information on such general categories as “News”, “Who We Are”, and “Wanted Persons”, the Interpol website offers an overview of the organization’s mission and modus operandi in a “Crimes” and “How We Work” section. As to the substantive focus of its efforts, Interpol lists a variety of crimes of an international nature, particularly those that rely on technology (such as cybercrime, financial crime, and vehicle crime) and have a strong human impact (most notably crimes against children, human trafficking, and people smuggling). The 17 listed crime categories are presented in alphabetical order without giving primacy or justification to any ranking, thus placing “Terrorism” as merely one among other crimes Interpol is engaged with (Interpol, n.d., Terrorism).

With respect to the recommended means to combat terrorism, Interpol’s current approach does show formal continuity with earlier developments. Besides identifying and tracing terrorist suspects, the organization is concerned with preventing terrorist travel and analyzing relevant law enforcement aspects of terrorist acts. In line with Interpol’s history in tackling international terrorism, the organization eschews any mention of the ideological, religious, or political orientation of terrorist groups and individuals and, instead, devotes special attention to the technological dimensions of terrorism, specifically chemical and explosives terrorism, bioterrorism, and radiological and nuclear terrorism (Interpol, n.d., Terrorism). Technical considerations are also what drive the primary methods of Interpol’s counterterrorism activities, such as in the form of an attention to biometric data to help identify terrorist suspects and through a database of stolen travel documents and passports (Interpol, n.d., HOTSPOT).

Counterterrorism and International Cooperation

Additionally in line with its historical involvement in counterterrorism (and similar to police institutions across the world, more generally), an emphasis is placed at Interpol on cooperation efforts and partnerships with other organizations (Interpol website, Partnerships). In matters of counterterrorism cooperation, most notably, Interpol engages in a partnership with the United Nations trough that political organization’s Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate. Relatedly, the government organizations of a number of individual countries also formally collaborate with Interpol, including branches of government (such as the US Department of Homeland Security and Global Affairs Canada) as well as law enforcement agencies (including the FBI and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police). Recognizing that international terrorism is a multidimensional concern, Interpol has further set up a program called Mi-Lex to enable military-to-police information exchange (Interpol, n.d., Identifying Terrorist Suspects). Intended to exchange relevant information in conflict zones in view of police investigations and prosecution, it is unclear to what extent, or even if, this ambitious program is put into practice.

Not coincidentally, in view of the events of September 11 and enduring related concerns, special mention is made of Interpol’s interest in terrorism from Al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups (including an Interpol-United Nations Security Council Special Notice that was implemented shortly after 9/11) (Interpol, n.d., About Notices). Interpol therefore engages in cooperation efforts with the League of Arab States and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Additionally, Interpol cooperates with other international police organizations, specifically with Europol (the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, formerly called the European Police Office), Afripol (the African Union Mechanism for Police Cooperation), and Aseanapol (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Chiefs of National Police) (Interpol, n.d., Partnerships Against Terrorism).

Thus, congruent with Interpol’s history dating back to its original founding, the international organization remains, in terms of the means of policing, primarily interested in strengthening and expanding direct cooperation among police of various nations. In the case of counterterrorism, such cooperation centers especially on the methods and financing of international terrorist networks. Interestingly, besides information and intelligence sharing, Interpol also assists in counterterrorism training and providing operational support. It is unclear to which extent the latter two objectives are effectively implemented, but it is nonetheless interesting to note that Interpol has such capabilities in place because they could potentially involve participation in actual law enforcement practices and operations. Traditionally, the international organization has only been concerned with information exchange and cooperation among police from various nations, the member agencies (and other relevant law enforcement agencies within nations) remaining the sole actors in investigative police work.

Interpol presently has several specialized terrorism-related projects in place, but these by and large serve to set up cooperation with, and demonstrate goodwill intent towards, other organizations rather than involving any effective investigative practices (Interpol website, Counter-Terrorism Projects). Among these ongoing initiatives, Project CT-Tech involves a collaborative effort instituted in 2022 (effective until 2024) between Interpol and the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Centre to enhance technical capabilities among members in view of the use of new technologies for terrorist purposes. A similar such project was Project Trace (enacted 2017 through 2021), which focused on capacity building among relevant police from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Likewise regional in scope were Project Sharaka (focusing on countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa), Project Scorpius (for South and Southeast Asia), and G5 Sahel (that focuses on regional cooperation among Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger).

The concrete impact on law enforcement operations of these projects is difficult to estimate but, even on the basis of data provided by Interpol, appears to be minimal at best. An Interpol project called HOTSPOT, for example, in order to track biometric data (fingerprints and facial images) at border-crossing checkpoints was enacted in 2021 in several countries, including the United Kingdom, Slovenia, and Serbia (Interpol, n.d., HOTSPOT). Over a one-week period, it produced less than 1,000 crosschecks, a number that, while not insignificant, can hardly be said to be impressive given the enormous number of border-crossings of people around the world, even in these (late-)pandemic times. In any case, the objectives of Interpol remain focused on enhancing cooperation, especially in technical aspects of counterterrorism, even including assistance in capacity building, but only within an overall focus on a large group of crimes of an international nature, without placing priority on international terrorism.

Terrorism at the General Assembly

As a matter of the objectives of policing, Interpol’s focus on terrorism as only one among many other criminal enforcement concerns in recent years is confirmed from the themes and discussion points of the organization’s General Assembly meetings and the organization’s annual reports (Interpol website, Documents). In 2005, then Secretary General Ronald Noble at the General Assembly meeting in Berlin, Germany had unambiguously proclaimed that Interpol’s “major focus must be on terrorism” (Noble, 2005). And for several years, indeed, the primary focus of Interpol was on matters of international terrorism, not least of all because of the events of September 11, but also in view of other, more and less directly related (international) terrorist incidents that have plagued many parts of the world since then. Despite the proliferation of international terrorism, however, Interpol has gradually begun to take on a broader focus on a variety of international crimes at the expense of a primacy on terrorism (or any other form of crime of an international nature). The General Assembly in Doha, Qatar in 2010 was the last to explicitly mention terrorism as the organization’s primary mission, albeit it already within a broader context of a multitude of crimes with an international dimension. Under the theme of ‘Challenges to Fighting Crime in the 21st Century,’ the assembly attendees in Qatar were dedicated to build a “global network to counter international crime and terrorism” (Interpol, 2010). Since then, the Interpol General Assembly meetings have been more generically focused on, and homogenous in their presentation of, international crimes of various kind.

Looking at the themes and resolutions passed at the General Assembly meetings over the past ten years, there is indeed considerable continuity in Interpol’s activities being generally oriented at enhancing cooperation on a broad variety of enforcement matters, alongside of which achievements are touted on the organization’s ever-expanding membership (Interpol, n.d., Documents). The same scenario is repeated at all recent meetings since 2011 in touting a wide variety of international crimes of interest to Interpol. Terrorism is thereby mentioned amongst, and in this sense treated as equally significant to, other criminal violations that are international in nature, such as human trafficking, cyberspace security, environmental security, sexual crimes across national borders, and the trade in illicit goods. An emphasis is typically placed on encouraging members to make good use of the tools Interpol has to offer and seeking to establish ways to use the information exchange systems (especially the Red Notices) in ways that are both effective and legitimate. The actual use of Interpol tools, however, can be relatively minimal. The Annual Report of 2014, for instance, mentions that Interpol participated in “42 police operations worldwide during 2014,” involving a “range of serious transnational criminal activity,” including human trafficking, international fugitives, child sexual abuse, cybercrime, and environmental crime, among others (Interpol, 2014). Terrorism is strikingly missing from the otherwise broad range of enforcement matters. 

Interpol and the Dynamics of Counterterrorism Policing

The central finding of this paper, that terrorism no longer occupies a central among Interpol’s objectives, should not lead to the mistaken conclusion that Interpol would not pay any attention to terrorism as an international problem. The opposite is true inasmuch as data show that Interpol is and has, over the years, remained committed to the fight against (international) terrorism, in a manner, moreover, that is in line with earlier developments. As such, Interpol follows the logic of other professional police institutions by focusing on terrorism (as an enforcement objective) in a de-politized way as a crime, not an ideological or political concern. Relatedly, Interpol continues to place emphasis (in the means of policing) on setting up swift and efficiency-based tools of direct communication and cooperation among its member agencies. As such, there is an important continuity to note in the development of Interpol’s counterterrorism programs.

However, what can also be observed is that terrorism no longer occupies the central place among Interpol’s objectives as it was in the years immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11. As in the public’s consciousness, the memories of 9/11 have ostensibly faded to reduce terrorism at Interpol to one among a variety of other international crimes. This process is far from evident in the world of law enforcement, as many police (and intelligence) agencies in many nations can be seen to have maintained and even strengthened their counterterrorism capabilities despite the two decades that have passed since September 11.

Interpol’s relatively decreasing attention to terrorism and, in this sense, the organization’s relatively declining significance in the world of counterterrorism policing can be attributed to both external and internal factors. Externally, law enforcement agencies within nations at various levels of jurisdictional authority (local to national) have over the years, and particularly since 9/11, greatly increased counterterrorism capabilities. As seen from the findings in most recent scholarship (Ahmad & Monaghan, 2022; Alexander, 2019; Chalk, 2022; Kirisci, 2022; Monaghan, 2022; San, 2020), police agencies across many parts of the world have also retained this counterterrorism focus, even when problems of terrorism have not materialized to the extent once feared in the uncertain post-9/11 era. Continuing a long-standing process (Deflem, 2002), internationally oriented activities are thereby preferred to be undertaken unilaterally (without cooperation, typically by stationing agents abroad) or otherwise involve relatively small and temporary cooperation efforts enacted through liaison officers, both within and across countries (e.g., Christensen, 2021; Ghani, 2018; Heyer, 2022; Sausdal, 2021). Thus, by example, within nations, counterterrorism policing is conducted through multi-agency partnerships that act as force-multipliers. Most famous among them, in the United States, are the Joint Terrorism Task Forces that are managed by the FBI but involve agents from various local, state, and federal agencies (Deflem, 2010). Internationally oriented, likewise, are similar efforts enacted by police agencies of many nations on a limited bilateral scale (by example, the Integrated Border Enforcement Teams set up by Customs and Border Protection with counterparts in both Canada and Mexico) and at the level of other international police organizations (such as Europol’s European Counter Terrorism Centre) (Jansson, 2018). The role of Interpol has accordingly been suggested to complement, rather than replace, these efforts (Safjański, 2015).

Unilaterally conducted international police work and limited forms of international cooperation have the advantage of being effective without being more costly by having to establish contacts with all too many players, some of which might not be easily trusted. This situation creates a competitive environment for Interpol, which, as a multilateral organization, is judged too big in view of its global membership and too slow or unpredictable in its outcomes. Interpol has generally indeed been found to be underused by its member agencies (Enders & Sandler, 2011; Gardeazabal & Sandler, 2015; Sandler, Arce, & Enders, 2011). As such, developments in the world of counterterrorism policing at the national and otherwise regional level create conditions for police to be more likely to pull away from participation in Interpol.

Internally, in terms of the organization of counterterrorism in Interpol and the organization’s structure, there are also important concerns and developments that have de facto pushed police away from participation in the international organization. As mentioned, the very success of Interpol as a global organization attracting participation from police of no less than 195 nations (each of which is formally equal to one another) will make it less likely for many a police agency to share information. Such reluctance will in turn create suspicion on the part of others to provide information when requested, lest ways are found to control where the information is going and for which purposes it will be used. These possibilities are not merely theoretical and have in various ways contributed to a decline in Interpol’s standing in the global law enforcement community.

The Interpol leadership has continued to devote a lot of attention to attracting more and more members to the organization, instead of focusing on its fundamental mission to create efficient ways to fight international crime and engage in effective cooperation accordingly. Unlike the early days of Interpol when membership was limited because of practical as well as political constraints, membership in the organization increased steadily from the latter half of the 20th century onwards (Wegrzyn, 2013). Interpol membership is autonomously handled by Interpol, on the basis of Article 4 of its constitution, in the form of a case-by-case handling of all requests for membership to the Secretary General to be followed by an election by the General Assembly. As explained in an Interpol report concerning the history of its membership, this case-by-case strategy has typically brought about a swift acceptance of more and more members into the organization (Interpol, n.d., Membership of Interpol). Interpol membership grew from 100 members in 1967 to 150 in 1989, 181 at the time of 9/11, and 195 today (ibid.; Deflem & Maybin, 2005). In the organization’s presentation of self, Interpol’s size is often mentioned as a prime accomplishment for the self-proclaimed “world’s largest police organization” (Interpol, n.d., Member Countries) and its “world-wide” (Noble, 2008). While no doubt an achievement, the emphasis on membership size can also be argued to have brought about that Interpol may, at least to some extent, have become an organization of members from all over the world who are mostly dedicated to showing goodwill and a cooperative spirit. Historically, however, the organization was precisely not interested in such global discourses of doing right (legally and morally) unless they were matched by concrete measures of (practical) police work to tackle international crime (Deflem, 2002).

Difficulties in Interpol achieving its enforcement objectives are not only an ironic by-product of the organization’s increasing membership, but have additionally been hampered by various scandals that off and on have plagued the organization. Among these, mention must especially be made of alleged abuses of the Red Notice system and problems related to Interpol’s Presidency. Off and on over the course of its history, Interpol has been criticized for allowing some of its members, typically police authorities from non-democratic nations, to abuse the Red Notice system to track down political opponents rather than criminal suspects (Nemets, 2017; Plachta, 2019; San, 2022). Among the countries that have been charged with such abuse are not surprisingly several authoritarian regimes, such as Russia, China, Iran, Bolivia, Venezuela, Turkey, Tajikistan, Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Algeria, Egypt, and Sri Lanka, among others. This abuse takes several forms, ranging from thousands of Red Notice requests by police (even from relative small countries) to arrests of individuals on the basis of an Interpol notice later found to be unjustified (Lemon, 2019; Wandall, Suter, & Ivan-Cucu, 2019). Such politically motivated abuses are not only problematic from a legal and human-rights point of view, they also contradict the very objective of Interpol to foster cooperation in matters of criminal law enforcement.

Additionally influencing Interpol’s standing in the global community have been various tribulations in recent years concerning the position of the organization’s Presidency. Two notable events in this respect occurred in 2018 and 2021. In 2018, a new Interpol President had to be chosen by the organization’s membership following the sudden resignation of President Meng Hongwei of China after, as it was later discovered, he had been arrested in his home country on corruption charges, for which he is presently serving a prison sentence (Leicester, 2021; Lemon, 2019). South Korea’s Kim Jong Yang was then elected as Interpol President, but only after a heated battle over the nomination of Alexander Prokopchuk of Russia, whose candidacy met with criticism for fear it would allow Russia’s political regime under Vladimir Putin to (continue to) misuse Interpol’s communication systems.

Extending and possibly even worsening concerns over the Interpol Presidency, at the General Assembly in Istanbul, Turkey in November 2021 the Interpol membership elected Ahmed Nasser Al-Raisi of the United Arab Emirates as the organization’s new President despite grave concerns over the UAE Major-General’s alleged role in human-rights abuses by security forces under his command in his home country (BBC, 2021). Only a few months following the election, French authorities in March 2022 opened a formal inquiry into torture allegations against Al-Raisi, effectively raising the possibility of his detention for questioning should he enter France, the country of Interpol’s headquarters (Associated Press, 2022). While the position of Interpol’s President is largely symbolic (rather than the practically oriented post of Secretary General), the Presidency is nonetheless important to the (global) standing and functioning of the organization. Concerns over the Interpol Presidency will affect the organization’s legitimacy and, most important from the law enforcement viewpoint, may also influence participation from the member agencies. In the case of counterterrorism objectives, such conditions will only be amplified because of the gravity of (international) terrorism as an (international) crime and its precarious status in world affairs in political and ideological respects, which law enforcement officials precisely seek to avoid. 


Interpol has a long history as an organization aimed at establishing cooperation among police from many parts of the world. As is the case for police institutions within nations, Interpol duly developed counterterrorism tools on the basis of the organization’s standing as a professional organization aimed at the control of crimes of an international nature on the basis of acquired standards of efficiency. Mirroring developments at the (intra-)national level, Interpol was in its counterterrorism mission greatly affected by the tragic events of September 11 and accordingly expanded (and greatly modernized) its tools to focus on international terrorism as a (de-politicized) crime to be approached through the most efficient ways of cooperation, testifying to the organization’s standing as bureaucratized organization. In recent years, however, the primacy of terrorism has been lost at Interpol in favor of a broader perspective on a wide variety of international crimes, without any premium being placed on certain crimes of more or less urgency or gravity. As it stands today, within the broader constellation of counterterrorism policing at the international level, the role of Interpol is not only comparatively small, but also not in line with the organization’s own principles and objectives.

It is likely that both local and national police organizations will continue to prefer to conduct their international and otherwise border-crossing counterterrorism activities unilaterally or on a limited cooperative scale as wider multilateral cooperation can be both costly and inefficient. Inter-agency cooperation is always difficult, especially on a matter as delicate as terrorism, especially on an international level. These conditions, which are external to the declining significance of Interpol’s role in counterterrorism, need not be seen as necessarily problematic, but may allow for a broader variety of police methods, which the multidimensional nature of terrorism (and other international crimes) also warrant.

More problematic, however, are the internal dynamics at play at Interpol that have prevented the organization from developing its ideal role as an international organization serving important police objectives. Abuses of the Red Notice system have impeded the smooth operation of Interpol’s communication and information-exchange systems. It has taken political pressure and criticisms from human rights group to bring these problems to light (Plachta, 2019). In response, however, Interpol addresses any concerns over Red Notices only internally at the General Secretariat and its Executive Committee (Estlund & Bromund, 2021). On the basis of an Interpol document on “Rules on the Processing of Data,” the approach is guided by an assumption that requests from member agencies “are, a priori, considered to be accurate and relevant” (Interpol, 2019, p. 136). A dedicated body (called Commission for the Control of INTERPOL’s Files) was set up to supervise and investigate compliance of the notices system with Interpol’s governing rules. However, as an internal organ working with the General Secretariat, the Commission’s members are elected by the General Assembly, so that its status as a purported “independent, impartial body” can be questioned (Interpol, n.d., Commission).

Problems concerning the Interpol Presidency have additionally done little to dispel the notion that the international organization operates without proper accountability. When the resignation of then Interpol President Meng from China was forwarded to the Interpol headquarters by Chinese authorities, rather than by Meng himself, the General Secretariat simply accepted the communication without much concern for the decision’s politically and legally problematic background (Leicester, 2021). Likewise, the election of Al-Raisi under a cloud of suspicions over serious human-rights allegations went ahead without any concerns being raised by the Interpol leadership and its members (nor any serious opposition from another viable candidate), even though the UAE General is now the subject of a formal judicial investigation.

In view of both the Red Notice abuses and the difficulties surrounding the Interpol Presidency, the fact that Interpol is an international organization that collaboratively facilitates cooperation among police (rather than being a police force that supranationally enforce international criminal codes under jurisdiction of a global governing body) brings about that the organization has a questionable status in terms of international law (Barnett & Coleman, 2005; Sheptycki, 2004, 2017). As a result, Interpol has been criticized to lack accountability and proper oversight (Calcara, 2021; Deflem, 2006), which may also hinder the organization’s effectiveness (Safjański, 2015). Driven by a professional police culture across national borders, international cooperation in Interpol (and in other collaborative police arrangements) relies on technical capabilities from the participating agencies (Al-Rikabi, 2021) as well as on a shared sense of professionalism and inter-personal trust that may even extend, if judged necessary for law enforcement goals, across police from democratic and authoritarian regimes (San, 2022).

The outcome of these external and internal factors influencing Interpol’s role in international police cooperation on matters of terrorism is sharply revealed in how the General Secretariat has over the years changed its perceptions of Interpol’s counterterrorism mission. In 2005, four years after 9/11, then Secretary General Ronald Noble proclaimed at the General Assembly meeting in Berlin that terrorism must be Interpol’s “major focus”, an aspiration the former U.S. Treasury officer had in fact already articulated in 1999 immediately upon his nomination to the international police organization (Noble, 2005). In stark contrast, at the General Assembly meeting in Istanbul, Turkey in November 2021 (postponed from 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic), current Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock mentioned terrorism only once and, instead, devoted most of his time discussing ethical and professional issues involved with the membership’s use of the Red Notice system (Stock, 2021). Observed changes in Interpol’s approach to terrorism indicate that it makes sense to contemplate on the role of Interpol not since, but after September 11, not as a process but in terms of a discontinuity, as the events of that fateful day have gradually faded from the organization’s field of view. Although many challenges exist in the world of international crime, problems of international terrorism cannot be ignored from the police point of view. International police cooperation in matters of counterterrorism remains critically needed. 

I am grateful to Giulio Calcara, Adam Masters, and Serdar San for helpful feedback and to the Editor and three anonymous reviewers of this journal for their evaluations of a previous draft.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests
No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.

The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and publication of this article.

Mathieu Deflem


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