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Back to Archives | Back to June 2013 Contents 

Fighting Terrorism: International Models for Law Enforcement

By Nadav Morag, PhD, University Dean of Security Studies, Colorado Technical University

or most U.S. citizens, terrorism became an issue of focus in the wake of the Al Qaeda attacks on September 11, 2001. However, for many countries around the world, terrorism has been an issue that they have been grappling with for many decades. Among the world’s democracies, there is a surprising degree of diversity in approaches—legal, organizational and operational—toward combating this threat. While the United States has developed its own approach, looking at other models may glean some best practices and approaches that can be used to further enhance U.S. law enforcement homeland security and counterterrorism (CT) efforts.

Overall approaches to counterterrorism and a few examples of the manner in which other democracies deal with terrorism in the context of legislation and pre-charge detention—and the role of law enforcement and other agencies in CT—follow.

Overall Approaches to Counterterrorism

Approaches to counterterrorism fall along a continuum. On one end is a war-fighting approach to dealing with terrorism. This approach views terrorism essentially as a military threat that applies a maximum use of force to incapacitate the enemy, thus neutralizing the threat. This approach warrants or justifies destroying terrorist bases, killing terrorists, and using unrestricted intelligence-gathering methods, subject to the Laws of War and, more specifically, the Principle of Proportionality, which holds that the use of violence must be proportional to the threat. On the other end of the continuum is the law enforcement approach to CT. Here, the objective is to incapacitate terrorists via the legal system with minimal force. The tools at this end of the continuum involve criminal investigation (with the provision of legal protection and rights for subjects and restrictions on the intelligence-gathering process that safeguard subjects’ civil liberties) and due process. While the primary goal of the war-fighting approach involves defeating the enemy, the primary goal of the law enforcement approach is enforcing the law and maintaining social order (though this may require the complete dismantlement of terrorist networks through criminal investigation and prosecution of their membership).1

Most democracies employ a law enforcement approach to CT domestically, and a handful, the United States included, adopt the war-fighting perspective with respect to CT operations outside their borders—particularly in failed states or other ungoverned or under-governed regions of the world. Although the United States and other democracies do not employ a war-fighting approach within their respective borders, drilling down into the law enforcement approach unearths a surprising degree of diversity in terms of legal and investigative approaches to dealing with terrorism.

Legal Approaches to CT

In a 2007 report to the British Parliament, then-U.K. independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, Lord Carlile, identified four different legal models practiced by democratic countries for coping with terrorism.2 The first model argues that terrorism offenses are adequately addressed through existing criminal law and that using existing statutes is the best way of guaranteeing civil liberties. A terrorist who carried out an attack that resulted in deaths could be charged with murder, tried, and punished accordingly.

The second model argues that terrorism is a particularly heinous crime that deserves its own definition. This model argues that existing criminal statutes can still be used in prosecuting terrorism crimes, but having a definition of terrorism allows the addition of clauses making terrorism offenses aggravated versions of existing criminal offenses and thus eligible for enhanced terms of punishment.

The third model argues that terrorism constitutes a threat significant enough to warrant not only a legal definition, but also its own category of offenses. That, in order to guarantee civil liberties, terrorism offenses should be narrowly defined and focus only on “core” terrorism activities (such as the immediate planning and execution of terrorist attacks).

Finally, the fourth model argues for a more generalized definition of terrorism and includes a significantly larger number of activities within the umbrella of what is defined as terrorism. This approach allows law enforcement to be more proactive in terms of investigating and prosecuting a range of support activities for terrorism such as recruitment and indoctrination. However, it also potentially restricts civil liberties by outlawing activities that could be defined as the exercise of free speech and free association.

Pre-Charge Detention Powers

Democratic countries differ quite significantly in terms of the powers they have to detain suspects prior to their being charged with a criminal offense. Pre-charge detention can be a useful counterterrorism tool because it prevents terrorist suspects from planning and executing attacks. At the same time, it is highly restrictive to civil liberties, depriving a person of freedom without due process. In Israel, legislation allows the minister of defense to detain a person for up to six months (though the detention order can be renewed for an additional period) provided the detainee is brought before a senior judge within 48 hours of his or her detention. The judge has the authority to release the detainee, approve the detention order, or alter the terms of the detention order.3

In the United Kingdom, the Terrorism Act of 2006 allows authorities to hold individuals suspected of terrorism activities for up to 28 days before charging them, provided detention is authorized by a judge strictly to preserve evidence, question the suspect, or decide whether to charge or deport the individual. Moreover, after a period of 14 days, continued detention requires the approval of a high court judge.4 The British approach differs from the Israeli approach. It is more of a legal process designed to help further investigations whereas in Israel, in addition to allowing a legal case to be built while the detainee is being held, it is also a preventive measure to make it impossible for the detainee to continue to function in support of terrorist activities.

Australia’s approach is based largely on state statutes since much of its criminal law is legislated at the state level. In some Australian states, terrorism suspects can be detained for up to 14 days, but that detention can be carried out only to prevent an imminent terrorist attack and not to further investigations. Consequently, detainees cannot be questioned during the 14 days. If law enforcement agencies want to question an individual with respect to alleged terrorist activities, they can hold him or her only for up to 48 hours prior to arraignment, which is the same procedure for investigating ordinary criminal offenses.5

In France, an individual can be put in pre-charge detention initially for up to six days, in cases of serious threats, including terrorism. After that, a custody judge can extend the period of detention for an additional week and then the case is handed over to an examining magistrate. In France, specialized judges run investigations and that judge has the authority to extend the detention period until the detainee is formally charged (thereby providing law enforcement agencies with the time to build the case).6 As these varied approaches show, there is wide variance in terms of pre-charge detention practices across democracies.

The Role of Law Enforcement and Other Agencies in Counterterrorism

Democracies around the world employ a different mix of agencies to deal with terrorism. Some nations are more law enforcement centric, whereas others are more intelligence or security agency centric. In the United Kingdom, counterterrorism investigations are carried out by the British Security Service (commonly known as MI5). MI5 is an intelligence and security agency and has no law enforcement powers. Since MI5 is small, consisting of only a few thousand personnel, it relies on local police forces to provide most of its intelligence leads and most of the “boots on the ground.” The United Kingdom does not have a national police force but rather local police departments. Each local police department has a Special Branch (SB). SB personnel are vetted and trained by MI5 and effectively act as MI5’s eyes and ears on the ground, developing leads and assisting in intelligence-gathering. MI5’s business is intelligence, not building criminal cases. The police are also involved in building cases through a national investigative agency, the Counterterrorism Command (SO15), which is part of the country’s largest police agency, the London Metropolitan Police (also known as Scotland Yard).7

In Canada, policing activities, including CT operations, are carried out by a national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP acts both as a national police force enforcing federal law and as a force contracted to do policing for all but two of Canada’s provinces and territories. The RCMP also provides local law enforcement services to most of the country’s municipalities. In jurisdictions with provincial police forces or municipal police forces, the RCMP works with those agencies. In all cases, the RCMP also works with the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS), which is roughly modeled on Britain’s MI5.

The Australians also have a similar equivalent to MI5 known as the Australian Security and Intelligence Organization (ASIO). In Australia, policing is primarily a state-level activity, though the Australians also have a specialized national police force known as the Australian Federal Police (AFP), and, consequently, state police forces and the AFP will work with ASIO on CT investigations.

In France and other countries that follow the French judicial model, law enforcement is carried out both by a national police force (Police Nationale) and a military police force (Gendarmerie Nationale). These forces police the civilian population and come under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior, not the Ministry of Defense. In Europe, the Ministry of the Interior (or Home Office in the United Kingdom) is almost always the cabinet department that oversees law enforcement and the fact that the Gendarmes come under its purview means that they are really more of a law enforcement force wearing military uniforms than a military policing force. The French also have several intelligence agencies that engage in CT activities. The most prominent of these is the Central Domestic Intelligence Directorate (DCRI), which is similar in some ways to the FBI in that it both gathers intelligence and conducts investigations to build criminal cases.8


These examples provide a sense of the richness and diversity of the approaches to dealing with terrorism in various democratic countries. U.S. law enforcement agencies can benefit from looking at the statutes, strategies, institutions, and practices employed by international partners in order to determine which elements would be beneficial and are translatable to the United States and specific jurisdictions. Each country’s laws and practices are a product of its history, legal system, institutions, and popular mentality—and the challenges that it faces. No country’s approach can simply be transplanted from one country to another, but international lessons learned and approaches can and should be studied by U.S. law enforcement agencies to improve their policies and procedures, positioning them to better protect the United States from the threat of terrorism.  ♦


1Nadav Morag, Comparative Homeland Security: Global Lessons (New York: Wiley and Sons, 2011), 63-65.
2Lord Carlile, The Definition of Terrorism: A Report by Lord Carlile of Berriew Q.C., Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation (London: Stationery Office, 2007), 19, (accessed May 8, 2013).
3Israel, Emergency Powers (Detention) Law, Section 4(a), 1979.
4United Kingdom, Terrorism Act, 2006, Part 1, Section 8.
5Australia, Anti-Terrorism Act (No. 2), Section 105.42, 2005.
6France, Code of Criminal Procedure, Article 145-2, 2004.
7London Metropolitan Police, “What Is SO15?,” (accessed May 8, 2013).
8Council of Europe, Committee of Experts on Terrorism (CODEXTER), “France,” Profiles on Counter-Terrorist Capacity (Strasbourg, Council of Europe, 2012), 5, (accessed May 8, 2013).

Please cite as:

Nadav Morag, "Fighting Terrorism: International Models for Law Enforcement," The Police Chief 80 (June 2013): 24–26.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 6, June 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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