Policing Terrorism After Boston
© 2013 FrontLine Security (Vol 8, No 2)


The policing of terrorism involving the practices initiated by criminal law enforcement agencies in the fight against terrorism, both at home and abroad, has been a traditionally neglected area of investigation among scholars, policy analysts, and the general public alike. This situation has not changed substantially since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, despite the fact that, since then, police organizations have been even more involved in counterterrorism than they had in the years and decades prior to the worst terrorist incident to hit the United States. This relative neglect of the police dimension of counterterrorism, how- ever, was suddenly and rather dramatically altered more recently, on 19 April 2013, when American television audiences and, by implication of today's global spread of internet-based communications technologies, people across the world could witness in “real time” the work done by police and security officers from multiple agencies in pursuit of one of two perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombings. That night, many of us were glued to our TV sets and hand-held or desktop electronic devices to witness the very real impact of the rather enormous counterterrorism apparatus that is now at the disposal of the security and law enforcement community. This sudden and fairly intense popular acknowledgment of the police role in counterterrorism in the Boston case needs to be viewed more broadly in the context of changing patterns and dynamics of counterterrorism policing over the past years, so that the public at large, as well as students and scholars of relevant policies, might appreciate fully the role of police institutions in fighting terrorism.

Globally, the policing of terrorism is an uneven phenomenon that has been affected by various factors related to both police organization, on the one hand, and crime and terrorism, on the other (seeDeflem 2010 below). Obviously, the policing of terrorism is affected by the occurrence of terrorist incidents and the relatively stable or, conversely, sporadic presence of terrorism in various national contexts. Police and security forces in countries where terrorism is of long-standing concern have a greater known history of developing counterterrorism capabilities than police from countries that have largely been spared from terrorist attacks. For instance, it can be observed that police and intelligence agencies in many European nations had already expanded their counterterrorism role during the 1970s, when several politically motivated terrorist groups were active on the continent, rather than in the United States, where the homeland has long been free from activities described as terrorist. U.S. involvement in counterterrorism was initially more focused on and affected by developments abroad, specifically attacks perpetrated against Americans and/or oriented at American interests on foreign soil. Traditionally in the United States, terrorism was perceived as a “foreign” problem.

The situation of counterterrorism policing in the United States was altered primarily by two events. First, the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995 clearly showed that terrorism can also hit at home, even in the heartland of America, and can be perpetrated, even more shockingly, by a U.S. citizen for reasons distinctly related to the American context. Second, the events of 9/11, like no other incident before and since and, even more remarkably, like no other incident anywhere else in the world, has shaped counterterrorism policing in the U.S. as well as in many other parts of the world. September 11 was and remains the major catalyst of counterterrorism policing, a security function which has expanded and intensified greatly following those tragic events.

It must be carefully noted, however, that 9/11 is not to be seen as a singular moment but instead must be viewed as one instance evolving from a broader pattern of development, since police and other security agencies had already begun to improve counterterrorism practices well before the fall of 2001. More remarkable still is that the elaboration of counterterrorism policing since September 11 is completely in line with the developments that had already been set in motion during preceding years and decades on the basis of acquired police expertise and professionalization. These principles of professional policing involved both the means and the objectives of counterterrorism that police agencies develop and apply.

With respect to the means of counterterrorism, police institutions rely on the central principle of employing the most efficient methods to fight terrorism. The emphasis on high efficiency standards is reflected in the premium that is placed on technological advances in fighting terrorist groups and individuals. Efforts and resources are focused to ensure swift and direct methods of information exchange among police agencies of different jurisdictions, both domestically as well as across national borders. Also recognized as instrumental for effective counterterrorism policing are systems of cooperation among police and related security agencies rooted in the informal networks that exist among police rather than blind reliance on legal regulations or formal policies established by governments (see Bayer 2010 below). In addition, the use of various technologically advanced instruments of crime detection in counterterrorist investigations are deemed important. These range from the tracking of cell phone communications and the uncovering of money-laundering schemes to the use of officers with special linguistic and other culturally appropriate skills of human intelligence who can complement machinebased technologies.

With respect to the objectives of counterterrorism, it is most important that police agencies define terrorism as a crime and approach terrorists as criminal suspects. Thus, terrorism is de-politicized, despite the often political and/or more broadly ideological motives associated with terrorist acts. The key is in understanding that terrorism itself is not necessarily linked to national security interests. Instead, terrorism is defined by police as a criminal act that, irrespective of the motives of the perpetrators, involves the illegitimate use of violence and other acts punishable by criminal law. As a result, terrorism can, for police, be both domestic or foreign in nature, and attention from police agencies indeed goes to both of these forms of terrorism, irrespective of the relative difference in emphasis that can typically be attributed to them at the political level of governments.

Importantly, the police approach to terrorism as a crime impels police agencies to view their counterterrorism activities as other than a 'war on terror', in the strictest sense. Police have no role in warfare, which is a function delegated to military forces. Unlike soldiers engaged in war with the obligation to kill or capture enemies, police officers conceive of terrorists as criminal suspects that have to be arrested and brought to trial for a determination of guilt or innocence. Strikingly, the lines between the “war on terror” as a military function, and “counterterrorism” as a civilian task have too often been blurred in recent years. Delicate situations, such as in the case of the apprehended terrorists held at Guantanamo Bay and, on a more permanent basis, in post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan, have placed a special burden on the military to take on police duties, while also pressuring civilian police to adopt a quasi-military role.

The spectacular chase of the suspects of the Boston Marathon bombings made instantly visible, almost literally, for “all of the world” to witness how important is the role of criminal law enforcement agencies in the fight against terrorism. That high-profile event, arguably the most prolific on U.S. soil since the events of 9/11, clearly illustrated the vital importance of cooperation among various security agencies at the local, state, and federal level, as well as among functionally specialized organizations such as police, firefighters, medical teams, and other emergency responders. The Boston events also sadly revealed the very real dangers involved in counterterrorism policing, most distinctly so when an officer of the MIT university police was killed by one of the perpetrators of the bombings.

What the Boston events, hopefully, will also bring about is an increased and more lasting awareness of the important role of police agencies in counterterrorism. For, it must be clear, especially now that the war in Iraq has ended and the U.S. involvement in the invasion of Afghanistan is nearing its end, terrorism is a problem that must be expected to continue to remain present in our increasingly global age. To the extent that at least the risk of terrorism is a real concern affecting multiple nations today and tomorrow, the role of a permanent force of police in securing citizens from the harm of terrorism must be recognized, understood, appreciated, and supported now, more than ever before.

Mathieu Deflem is Professor of Sociology at the University of South Carolina. His specialty areas include law, policing, popular culture, and theory. Visit his website at: www.mathieudeflem.net
© FrontLine Security 2013