A Better Way to Combat Terrorism

"Transgovernmental networks offer a means by which states can grasp the nettle of global counterterrorism cooperation."

If we have learned one thing about fighting terrorism over the past decade or so, it is that sustained international coordination is necessary to effectively confront transnational terrorist groups. For instance, Operation Mont Blanc, which resulted in the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and other top Al Qaeda operatives, involved close coordination between intelligence and law-enforcement officials from more than twelve countries over the course of almost two years. Without sustained multilateral cooperation to collect intelligence, capture terrorists, disrupt funding, and wage military actions, counterterrorism efforts will take longer and be less effective. Does that mean states should turn to international organizations (IOs) to lead their counterterrorism efforts? After all, IOs are well-suited to assist states in cooperating on a wide range of issues including economic crises, wars, famines and epidemics. It seemingly follows that states should turn to IOs to help coordinate counterterrorism efforts.

Surprisingly, such a conclusion is wrong. Despite the fact that IOs have been used to overcome problems that frustrate international cooperation, they are ill equipped to address terrorism. In part, this is because despite shared interests in fighting the phenomenon of terrorism, states often do not share an interest in fighting specific terrorist groups. Even when state interests do align, serious obstacles remain for the use of IOs in counterterrorism. States have better options, such as embracing transgovernmental networks, than going it alone or relying on IOs to foster counterterrorism cooperation. Networks allow governmental agencies to work directly with their counterparts in other countries, rather than relying on high-level political contacts to create cooperation. For example, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement pairs with its foreign counterparts to track and inhibit terrorist movements worldwide. Similar opportunities exist for the FBI, CIA, NSA, Treasury Department and U.S. military.

Before making the case for networks, it is important to understand why IOs fail to significantly enhance counterterrorism efforts. As I have argued elsewhere, they do so for three distinct reasons:

First, IOs have failed to enhance law-enforcement efforts. Effectively confronting terrorist groups through international law has proven impossible, as IOs have been unable to even agree upon a definition of terrorism. Furthermore, most IOs, such as the United Nations or Interpol, lack the capacity or authority to apprehend terrorists, while the International Criminal Court is expressly banned from prosecuting suspected terrorists. Efforts to enhance these powers have gone nowhere, leaving it to individual states to pursue legal remedies against terrorist groups.

Second, IOs have proven unable to significantly aid efforts to stanch the flow of terrorist financing. While the International Monetary Fund and World Bank have some initiatives in this area, they lack the ability to pass binding laws on their member states and states regularly fall well short of the organizations’ recommended best practices. Furthermore, states are often reluctant to publicly admit they monitor private financial transactions and have temporarily backed off their counterterrorism efforts when disclosures, such as the revelation that European banks were cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies, have occurred. Given that coordination through IOs would raise the profile of such efforts, states are unlikely to want to bring IOs into the mix.

Third, IOs cannot aid in intelligence gathering and dissemination. Partially this is because IOs lack independent intelligence capabilities, but the main obstacle is that states closely guard their intelligence secrets. While states certainly coordinate counterterrorism intelligence efforts and share what they glean with allies, they are very unlikely to risk exposing their methods or sources by passing actionable intelligence through IOs.