Role of Police in Counter-terrorism




The Role of Police in Fighting Terrorism

Since the September 11 2001 terrorist attack inside the United States, the role of local police in fighting terrorism has never been that important. Before then, nations expected that military might was enough to protect citizens against terror attack, but the September 11 and subsequent attacks in many countries have exposed how citizens are vulnerable to terror attack without an effective partnership among the national security agencies.  The local police are the fulcrum through which this partnership operates, not least because of their ability to gather important information on possible terror attack, protect vulnerable targets as well as respond in the event of a terror attack (Clarke and Newman 2007, p. 9; Lambert 2011). In addition, the police are positioned to investigate terror attack and follow leads that may help bring perpetrators of terror attacks to the criminal justice system.  The military might be well equipped with planes, naval ships, helicopters, tanks, but an analysis of various attacks shows that effective information gathering, other than the military might, is one of the most effective ways to protect citizens (Jenkins 2013). The military is well equipped to protect a nation from external attacks, but the police are well placed to deal with local threats. Like the U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft observed after the September 11 attack, “the war on terrorism must be fought and won at home as well as abroad” (Ashcroft 2001; Waxman 2009, p. 377). Above all the other factors, information gathering, is the basis through which counterterrorism is won.

There is no doubt that the UK has the military might to crush a terror group in a battle field. As a matter of fact, terror groups are rarely equipped with sophisticated weapons. The challenges in preventing terror attacks come in knowing where and when terrorist will strike. The citizens will rarely understand the elaborate measures put to prevent them or even the number of terror plans that the security system has thwarted. It only becomes painful to them when a terror plan goes through. That is when everyone feels insecure, vulnerable and questions the ability of the national security to protect them. This makes prevention as the most important part in protecting citizens.  However, gathering crucial information becomes difficult owing to the dynamics of terrorism (Deflem 2007). In recent attacks, terrorists have demonstrated the ability to change attack strategy to fit their intended attack.  They have shown that they can hijack planes and ram them into building like in the September 11 attack. They have shown that they can attack transport system (like in the London and Boston train bombing) as well as attack frequently visited areas, like the recent Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Kenya. The terrorist does all these to achieve their goal which is to instil fear and make the security system feel powerless. All these dynamism makes information gathering, a role that can be better played by local police, very crucial in counter-terrorism.


It is now over a decade since the September 11 attack. Several attacks have taken place in different cities of the world. All these attacks have cemented the cold reality that the threat of terrorism is real. This effectively has placed counter-terrorism as one of the most important roles of a national security system (Scheider and Chapman 2003).  One decade down the line is enough to understand the institutions that are best placed to prevent terrorism, and more importantly, which counter-terrorism measures are effective. Through the experiences now gained in preventing terrorism, protecting vulnerable targets and responding to terror attacks, it is also now a ripe time to revise strategies that have failed and appraise those that are working.

 Initially, (more precisely after the September 11 attack) security apparatus adopted a combative approach to the fight against terror. The combative approach can be explained by the “taking out’ the terrorist or “shooting to kill” philosophies that most of the government employed to respond to terror threats. Such notions like “you are with us or against us” became the divide on which the war on terror was fought (Lambert p. 59). The US in particular, backed by some of the western nations, deployed its military might in countries that were seen to be sympathisers of terror groups or rather used as the hideouts. The combative approach was informed by the need to take the war on terror up to the terrorist door steps.  As a result, the US invaded the Afghanistan to dislodge the Taliban government that was sympathetic to Al Qaeda.  Since then, some other more countries, including Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan and dozens of other countries have fallen into the US black book for the suspicion that they are potential refuges for terrorists who want to take revenge on western countries (Young  2006).

The combative approach has not been that successful.  Going out the world mistreating and crashing suspects may satisfy the interest of those who want tough measures taken on terrorist and their sympathisers, but from a strategic point of view it does not achieve much. Targeting some countries, or group of people, risks isolating the people who are likely to be partners in preventing terror. “Taking out” terrorist or the “shooting to kill” approach, whether practiced outside the nation or within the nation only serves to harden criminals (Deflem 2010). Recruiters have a tendency of painting the measures employed by the government to fight terrorism as a western strategy to fight Islam. This is how religious fundamentalism is cemented.  To succeed in preventing terrorism, national security apparatus need to revise their strategies (Frost Greene and lynch 2011, p. 208).

Even on national approach, taking on a combative approach has not been very successful. For instance, there is no evidence to show that the toughest measure, capital punishment, has served to reduce crime. Eliminating criminals by taking them out or shooting them down does not reduce the number of criminals, either. Every day there are young boys and girls indoctrinated with religious extremism who are ready to take away their soul for the sake of religion, revenge or to serve a higher calling.

The appraisal on the combative approach does not mean that there should be no a hard stance on terrorist. It is only meant to show that there can be some other effective counter-terror measure.  Taking out terrorists, especially the leaders of terror groups or masterminds of terror attacks, also have its role in preventing terrorism. When an influential leader of a group, like Osama Bin Laden, is killed, the group may take longer before having another effective leader or even scatter in leadership wrangles. Killing the masterminds of terror attacks can take away some of the brains used to plan successful terror attacks. All these are important steps in the fight against terrorism.

However, all the national approaches employed to prevent terror attacks should not ignore the effective role played by local police. In the UK, as it is in the US and the rest of Europe, there have been remarkable strides towards preventing terror crimes. This success does not result because the US and its western allies have deployed their forces in Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world. In the UK, it has not been successful because the mighty of the UK’s naval base or because of the work of some centralised agencies like the National Crime Agency with its motto to “instil fear”.  Much of the success in preventing terror attacks is owed to the ordinary policing, most of which is carried by the local police. This means that even as much as the UK and most of the nations deploy some of their best security apparatus, including military and national agencies, they should not forget the crucial role played by the local police (Pickering, McCulloch and Neville 2011, p. 11). The local police have three advantages over the other security apparatus: they can easily get access to plans of terrorist and abort terror plans before they are executed through local tip-offs, they are best placed to protect vulnerable targets and they are the first officer to respond to a terror attack.

Gathering Information

Information gathering and analysis is the main concept of intelligence-led policing.  Law enforcement officers have come to realise that there is no sure way of tackling crime more than understanding how and when a crime will occur. Although intelligence –led policing was invented to tackle the traditional crime such as theft, burglary and robbery, there is clear evidence that it can also work effectively in countering terror attack (McGarrell, Freilich and Chermak 2007).  Terrorism is no different from traditional crime, only that the former is executed for a political purpose, while the main drive for the latter crime is commonly personal gain. This justifies the claim that some of the approaches like community policing and information sharing, which have been successful in fighting traditional crime, can as well be applied to fight terrorism.

The role of the local police in intelligence-led policing becomes important owing to the fact that the best intelligence is local, the best crime knowledge is local and the best tip-offs are local. Local police have an unusual relationship and understandings that makes it easier to share credible information that can lead to arresting terrorist, or best of all, foil terrorists’ plans.

Terrorists operate in a clandestine way. Unlike traditional crime, terrorist attacks are well planned, well thought out and masterfully executed. As one of the top-notch organised crime, that has well established networks around the world, the terrorists have learnt the tricks of concealing their activities. Experience also shows that a terror attack is planned for weeks, months or even years before it is executed. In the 2005 London bombing for instance, the attackers must have laid down the plans to attack the underground trains for months, if not a year or so (Turk 2010). In the Nairobi Westgate Shopping Mall attack, it is logical that the attacker had carried out reconnaissance study of the building for months. They must have frequented the mall for several days and established how they were going to attack, familiarised themselves with the building and planned all moves. An unconfirmed report on the attack of the mall indicates that the attackers probably were working in cohort with an insider or more probably the masterminds had rented a stall in the mall where they hid some of their weapons.  The fact that the attackers struck on a Saturday, when the mall is mostly frequented confirms how it was well executed, to cause the greatest damage. The same kind of strategic planning characterises most of the terror attacks around the world.

The clandestine nature of terrorism mean that if the police are going to win the war on terror, they must be in a position to learn the activities of terrorist before they execute their crime (Jones and Libicki 2008). Unlike in the past where the police relied on other security agencies to provide them with the information, intelligence led policing call for the police to be at the forefront to gather information themselves.  Police have to be trained in modern technology of gathering information. Some of the terror activities are planned over the phones or electronic mail exchanges. Although intercepting phone calls or email messages raises ethical issues, police have to learn about how they can intercept terror plans without compromising individual privacy (Newburn 2012). This is where the knowledge on how to balance individual liberties and the need to protect citizens is required.

            Police also have to know how to follow crucial leads and be inquisitive. Like Kelling and Bratton (2006) have suggested, local police can learn some investigative techniques from their Israelis counterparts. In Israel, local police are trained to ask inquisitive questions whenever they meet a suspicious character. Whenever Israeli police meets a suspicious character they ask questions like: why are you in Israel? Where are you staying? How long have you been here? Such are the questions that can throw a suspect off balance (Kelling and Bratton 2006). With adequate police training the behavioural responses of the suspect will indicate whether the police need to follow up or gather more details from the suspect. Signs of nervousness should be a direct sell out.

One of the crucial aspects of the intelligence led policing is the role played by the local community. This is what is known as community policing in traditional crimes. Community policing can work as equally important in fighting terrorism. Members of the community have crucial information that if they are encouraged to share with police, most of the terror activities will be foiled before they happen (White House 2007). It is the members of the community who know their neighbours.  Members of the community understand when their neighbours are shifting flats and when some new neighbours are coming in.

Community policing rely on the local community to report suspicious activities or characters. This aspect of policing works well with the local police because the local community are more likely to trust local police officers than any other officer coming from the central government.  One of the secrets of community policing is for the local police to build rapport with the members of the community to an extent that the community feel free to tip-off the police whenever they notice suspicious activities or characters in their neighborhoods (Waxman 2009). Hundred of terror attacks have been foiled through effective community policing.  In one of London’s estates for instance, a grandmother reported to police that there was a waft smell coming from an adjunct vacant flat. When the police stormed the flat, they discovered the flat had been converted to a makeshift ricingas factory by a terror group (Kelling and Bratton 2006. The grandmother informed the police that she had noted a group of young men frequenting the flat. If this terror plot had not been foiled, the result could have been probably the death hundreds or thousands of residents.

Community policing is not only limited to neighbours alone; it extends even to business men. Due to the tight surveillance on the borders, it has become difficult for terrorists to smuggle their weapon into the country. This leaves them with one option- to assemble their weapon locally. Liaising with business owners is part of community policing. Traders have to understand their roles in preventing terrorism. For instance, if a customer buys large quantities of hydrogen peroxide, the seller should be suspicious and report the incident to the local police for further investigation.  Other business owners like the Taxi drivers should also report to the police when they are hired by suspicious customers.

The information gathering can be enhanced through effective community-police partnership (Lambert, 2011) or through what Clarke and Newman (2007) call collaborating with the immigrant community. Lambert says that treating the community as a partner, rather informant is more productive. Speaking out of experience, Lambert notes that, “although informants were an important source of terrorist intelligence – just as they were for criminal intelligence – our experience suggested that community leaders and representatives were more likely to cooperate with police if they were treated as partners and not as informants” (Lambert 2011, p. 60). Cooperating with communities that have close links with terrorist, especially the Muslim community, rather than alienating them is one of the steps in winning war against terror. It is in some of the immigrant communities that new arrivals find refuge, especially when the foreign terrorist cannot speak the local language.  As it is evidenced by the 9/11 attack and the London underground bombing, areas occupied by the immigrant communities are fertile breeding ground for terror groups. However, this fact is not a blanket condemnation on the immigrant communities. It is important to understand that not all Muslim are sympathiser to terror groups. Terrorism must be understood to be a criminal act and not a religious expression.

Working with immigrant communities and Muslim in particular can help in gathering crucial information that may lead in fighting terror activities. In most cases, terrorist in UK, as it is in most of the western nations camouflage in immigrant inhabitant areas and also utilise immigrant network to solicit for funds to finance terror activities. Police, therefore will have to cultivate a cordial partnership with this group if counter-terrorism measures are going to be effective.

Intelligence led policing, however, has its own setbacks. Some of the leads that police get from the members of the public can sometimes be misleading. It is not uncommon for police to investigate some of the situations for weeks or months without realising any tangible results.  Community policing may also be counterproductive if witch hunt or negative attitudes of some people is allowed to compromise the ideals of the approach. Some of the investigative work of police has ended up in tragic accidents, like in the shooting of Charles De Menezes. Other may result in unnecessary surveillance that may make the police look as if they are intruding on the privacy of the members of the public. Intelligence-led policing may also be counterproductive if some members of the citizens feel that they are wrongly targeted. If for instance, the Muslim community may feel that the police are over-investigating them, they may retreat to isolation and feel unwanted in the society.  Intelligence has to be conducted in a professional and ethical manner. Police also have to learn how to analyse and share the information gathered.


Besides gathering information, police also play an equally important role- protecting vulnerable groups (Clarke and Newman 2007). The passengers in the underground train in London, the shoppers in shopping mall like in Nairobi all look at police for protection. There are areas that are vulnerable to terror attacks. It is the desire for terrorist to strike in areas where the impact will be felt in the breadth and length of a nation. Their main goal of an attack is to instil fear and make the national government look powerless in the eyes of the public. The police have a duty to ensure that citizens are protected, not only from traditional crimes but also from terror attacks. But preventing terrorism, although it is a crime like any other, has its own unique challenges. Even though it is known that terrorist will hit a place where they will cause the greatest impact, knowing with precision when, where, and how the attack will occur is a big challenge to police. As a result, police have adopted the strategy of manning some of the areas that are suspected to be possible targets like airports, underground train, or commonly frequented areas such as shopping malls and storey buildings.

Over the years, terrorist have shown that they are capable of changing attacking tactics and countries tighten their security (Richardson 2006). Smuggling in weapons across the UK body is not easy due to intense surveillance. Neither is hijacking a plane an easy thing, at least from the lesson learnt from September 11.  Immigration officers have also become more careful at all UK point of entries. However, even with these measures, the threat of terrorism remains real. With access to information, some of Britons can as well be radicalised and used by terror groups to attack their own country.  Some of the terrorist have the knowledge and the skills to assemble weapon within the boundary of a state. While in the past it was expected that terrorist would attack in a pack, recently the nation is also faced with lone actors. All these dynamism pose the challenge in protecting citizens from attack.

Police have to learn how to prevent terror attack as well as how to respond to attack when they occur. Since terrorist are in a position of changing tactics, police have to be aware of how to respond to different crimes. Above all strategies, gathering information on terror plans and activities will remain a key strategy in the fight against terrorism. It is also important to identify vulnerable targets and give them adequate protection (Pickering, McCulloch and Neville 2011, p.111). The recent mall attack in Nairobi could be a pointer to the changing nature of terrorism from suicide bombing to a situation where they hold hostages. As first responders, to a crime, police are required to be ready for any tactic. If it come to holding innocent people as hostages, police need to be aware on how they can rescue hostages with minimal casualties as possible. Where a terror attack requires a multi-security operation, the police need to have concrete strategies on how rescue efforts can be coordinated to avoid confusion when precision is needed most.

In a democracy, every criminal is expected to face the due process of law (O’Neill, 2012). Although the law allows the shoot to kill approach in some situation, in most cases, the police will be expected to apprehend terror suspects and subject them to the UK established criminal justice system. This is role that the military cannot play. More importantly, it is the police, other than the military, who are trained to investigate crime and follow leads that may lead to arrest.

Terrorism, although it is a crime like any other, may be said to have added a new role to the police service.  Whereas in the past the police were dealing with crimes that were largely local, terror attacks have placed the police at the centre of national security. As the security agents who are in a position of gathering terror related information, and charged with duty of protecting vulnerable citizens, police have to learn how to fit in the new role.



List of references

Ashcroft, J (2001) Memorandum to all United States Attorneys: Cooperation with State and Local Officials in the Fight against Terrorism. Washington, D.C.: Office of the Attorney General.

Brown R, Clarke R, & Sheptycki J (2004) Tackling Organised Vehicle Crime: the Role of NCIS. London: Home Office.

Clarke, R.V., & Newman, G.R., (2007) Police and the Prevention of terrorism. Policing Vol. 1(1): 9-20

Deflem (2007) Europol and the Policing of International Terrorism: Counter-Terrorism in a Global Perspective. Justice Quarterly Vol. 23(3): 336-359

Deflem M (2004) Social Control and the policing of Terrorism: Foundations for a Sociology of Counterterrorism. American Sociologist Vol. 35(2), p. 75-92

Deflem M (2010) The policing of Terrorism: Organizational and Global Perspectives. London: Routledge

Frost B, Greene J, lynch J (2011) Criminologist on terrorism and Homeland Security. London: Cambridge University Press

Jenkins S (2013) Beating Terrorism means Good Local policing, not a National Crime Agency. [Online] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/07/terrorism-national-crime-agency-british-fbi (Accessed on March 2014)

Jones S & Libicki M (2008) How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qaeda. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation

Kelling, G & Bratton, W (2006) policing Terrorism, Civic Bulletin No. 43

Lambert, R (2011) Countering Al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership. London: Hurst Publishing

McGarrell E, Freilich J & Chermak S (2007) Intelligence-Led policing as a Framework for Responding to Terorism. Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice Vol. 23(2): 142-158

Newburn T (2012) Handbook of Policing. London: Routledge

O’Neill, M (2012) The Evolving EU counter-terrorism legal framework. London: Routledge

Pickering S, McCulloch J, & Neville D (2011) Counter-Terrorism Policing. New York: Springer.

Report of the Official Account of the bombing in London on 7th July 2005

Richardson L (2006) What Terrorist wants: Understanding the Enemy, Containing the Threat. New York: Random house.

Scheider M & Chapman R (2003) Community policing and terrorism. New York: Springer

Turk A (2010) Policing International Terrorism: Options. Police Practice and research Vol. 3(4): 279-286

Waxman, M (2009) Police and National Security: American Local Law Enforcement and Counterterrorism after 9/11. Journal of National Security law & Policy Vol. 3: 377-402

White House (2007) National Strategy for Informational Sharing: Successes and Challenges in Improving Terrorism-Related Information Sharing. [Online] http://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/nsc/ (Accessed on March 26, 2014)

Young K (Sept. 15, 2006) World Bank Lists Falling Nations that can Breed Global Terrorism.  Washington Post. [Online] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/14/AR2006091401859.html (Accessed March 26, 2014)

$ 10 .00


Load more