Small Wars Journal

International Impediments: A Counterterrorism Strategy Study

Share this Post

International Impediments: A Counterterrorism Strategy Study

Kyle Mark Amonson

Modern terrorism is a phenomenon that is global in range, constant in presence, and inevitably involves the commission of crime. It is politically motivated, involving violence, or the threat of violence in which the pursuit of publicity plays a significant role. Any national or international mechanism to counter it must be predicated on this understanding (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 220).

To recognize the shift in the challenges of the 21st century, we must recognize that the international community is now marked by a manifesto of globalization. In this modern environment, without cooperation, states may fail to learn of impending attacks as terrorists plot against them from foreign lands, or they may watch as terrorist suspects remain free because of lack of extradition agreements or sharing of evidence (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 279). The international community is opposed by the transnational threat of extremist networks who are increasingly innovative in their capacity to cause chaos worldwide. In this environment, international cooperation is required for effective counterterrorism strategy.

International cooperation is beneficial through the implementation of three primary objectives:

  • Enhance law enforcement efforts by providing a common legal framework, aid in the apprehension of terrorists worldwide, and prosecute suspected terrorists.
  • Lead international cooperative efforts to stanch the flow of terrorist financing.
  • Overcome “free-riding” by coordinated interstate cooperation in intelligence gathering and synthesis, and by synchronizing states’ individual tactical responses to terrorism. (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 280).

This paper will assess international counterterrorism policy efforts, describe impediments to international cooperation against terrorism and evaluate methods in which these impediments can be overcome. This paper will focus on the need to internationally define the threat of terrorism, the enforcement of sanctions and mandates, interagency operations, intelligence sharing, and conclude with an analysis of strategy application.

Defining the Threat

“Despite decades of trying, the UN has yet to agree on a common definition of terrorism. States can then pick and choose which terrorist groups or state sponsors they will act against and which they will not” (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 277).

The aphorism that “terrorists might be praised as freedom fighters in one context…and denounced as terrorists in another” demonstrates the challenge across the international community to agree on a shared definition of, not only terrorism, but who are the terrorists (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 74). Without a definition and specified identification of a threat, the international community cannot begin to solve the issue of terrorism. To create solutions that effectively counter terrorism, we must define the problem in the context of the 21st century and analyze the motives, structure, and general environment that promote and facilitate terrorism. Additionally, international collaboration and cooperation must be underpinned by a legal framework to support operations and law enforcement. States and international organizations cannot establish effective legal authority if they are unable to clearly define their threat and purpose.

Zachary Shirkey, international relations author, states that “it is not at all clear how the UN can impose legal constraints on terrorist activity if it cannot even agree on what it is trying to make illegal or that all terrorist activity is inherently wrong.” He identifies that the failure of this necessary first step in countering terrorism is because each and every state wants to establish international cooperation in the effort to pursue their own personal interests rather than the common good (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 281). This concept is demonstrated in Iran’s rejection of Hezbollah and Hamas as terrorist groups.

For this reason, international organizations have been plagued by the inability to define terrorism since they began to address terrorism as a threat. Additionally, if an international organization disregards opposition and defines an entity as a terrorist organization, the state opposing the definition will simply delegitimize the efforts of the organization or coalition. The UN has attempted to lead the international community in counterterrorism efforts through several approaches. Starting with Resolution 1267 (1999) and 1373 (2001), the UN created the 1273 Committee and Counter-Terrorism Committee respectively. Additionally, in 2006, the UN overhauled their counterterrorism policy and published a consolidated counterterrorism strategy (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 278). However, without the ability to establish official definitions for international terrorist threats, they cannot promote an actual international effort against terrorism. Currently, aside from Al-Qaeda, the UN does not promote the pursuit of any other terrorist organizations or networks.

The “one man’s freedom fighter” conundrum has resulted in the complete inability of larger international organizations to effectively conduct counterterrorism operations. For this reason, to overcome the challenge of defining the threat, states must engage in bilateral or multilateral cooperation with states that share their national objectives and counterterrorism strategy. Domestically, states are unable to engage in this cooperation if they do not first define and prioritize their own definition of terrorism with corresponding organizations.

Enforcing Mandates

The critical issue in establishing international counterterrorism law and enforcing mandates at the cooperative international level is whether the laws are actually effective, or merely just rhetoric that promotes the spirit of the law. As discussed in the previous section, merely applying law without a common definition is only the beginning to a multitude of additional other problems when pursuing international agreements for the cooperative application of terrorism law.

The UN contains the International Court of Justice (ICJ), International Criminal Court (ICC) and Interpol, yet they lack the ability to prosecute and convict terrorists. The International Court of Justice can only prosecute states, which is not applicable in the realm of modern counterterrorism, outside of blatant state sponsored terrorism. Additionally, if the ICJ did prosecute an organization such as Daesh, it would cause more harm than good by further legitimizing Daesh through an adjudicative process that is designed for states. While this idea may seem outlandish, the UN is the same organization that granted the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) “observer” status, equivalent to many actual states in the 1970’s (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 283). In regard to the ICJ, it is entirely ineffective in the pursuit of counterterrorism against the modern terrorist threat.

Resolution 1267 identified Al Qaeda and the Taliban as terrorist organizations, and ruled any state providing them safe haven as violating international law. However, as trends in modern terrorism demonstrate, terrorist networks are always evolving and changing. What was Al Qaeda one year was Jama’at al-Tawhi wa’al-Jihad (JTWJ) the next, Al Qaeda Iraq (AQI) immediately following, and the Islamic State (IS), Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) the next. In a world where an organization like Al Qaeda now has a small core with multiple affiliates, the ability to enforce laws against these terrorists must be responsive to the threat, and not dictated by the semantics of naming conventions.

Another challenge at the UN is that the ICC is not capable of prosecuting terrorists. The US is not a member of the ICC and does not support its ability to prosecute terrorists fearing that “it would not only be ineffective but would reduce states’ legal abilities to prosecute terrorists themselves” (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 284). This demonstrates several very important characteristics about the international community’s trust in overarching international organization coordination. First is that many states do not trust or believe that international organizations can be effective in countering terrorism. Second is that without the support of the US, the legitimacy of any counterterrorism effort is decreased. Third is that because of the lack of support in international efforts, which have demonstrated ineffectiveness, states often would rather take the application of law and prosecution into their own hands. While this is less effective in the fact that operating unilaterally does not share cost or responsibility, it enables states to pursue objectives in line with their own national interests, even if it means doing it themselves. An example of this is the inability of the ICC to pursue Bosnian – Serb war criminals, with the Serb courts eventually conducting trials themselves, having lost faith in international cooperation (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 284).

As far as Interpol is concerned, it has no capabilities to prosecute terrorists or enforce mandates and should instead be regarded as an asset to cooperate in the matrix of international intelligence sharing efforts. Interpol has four main functions: to be a central exchange for police queries; to serve as a library of information for common problems; to promote universal standards and norms; and to provide a forum for meetings (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 284). Lastly, since the UN either cannot, or is ineffective, at enforcing mandates or laws against terrorist organizations, this once again pushes the responsibilities to regional international organizations and individual countries. While international organizations may benefit from the unity of efforts in the application of international law against terrorist centers of gravity, individual countries are burdened with the use of their own law enforcement to prosecute terrorist targets, supported by their national intelligence. National and international laws that apply specific mandates to terrorist activity must be specifically linked to a jurisdiction to enforce, and the ability to prosecute, these laws and mandates through specific domestic or international law enforcement means. However, without cooperation (ensured by organizational leadership) that is beneficial to the states in questions, they will simply just pursue state objectives and enforce laws that align with their national interests.

International Interagency Cooperation

The inability to achieve interagency cooperation is one of the greatest impediments to the effectiveness of national counterterrorism strategy; international counterterrorism strategy is no different. International intergovernmental organizations recognize the threat that terrorism poses to their way of life but struggle to achieve interoperability to accomplish common goals. James Miskal, in his Naval War College article Grand Strategies for Dealing with other States in the New, New World Order, states that “in the international political economy, transnational regimes, new forms of private economic organization, transnational strategic alliances, and the globalization of financial markets are forcing a convergence and homogenization of the rules, procedures, and outcomes of public policy formulation and of implementation across borders” (Miskal, 2005, p. 6). This sheer level of complexity across the international community can either result in increased effectiveness through economy of force and interagency cooperation, or a massive lack of efficiency through mismanaged efforts and overlapping objectives, lacking any and all synchronization.

Without the overlying governance and guidance of the UN, other intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) must to take the lead to unifying efforts and pursue international interagency cooperation. Organizations like the European Union maintain a deliberate action plan that aims to prevent terrorism, protect its citizens from terrorism, pursues extremism where it operates and responds when attacked. However, organizations like the EU have limited committed funds and troop contributions, with minimal ability to enforce meaningful change. Aside from encouraging collaboration across the intelligence community, IGOs need to establish committed resources to counter terrorism, “promoting partnerships” is not enough (The European Union, 2005, p. 4).

Areas where the international community stands to benefit from interagency cooperation is intelligence, special operations, counter terrorism finance/anti-money laundering, law enforcement and developmental/non-governmental organization efforts. For general operations, including counterterrorism, NATO has demonstrated success achieving interoperability. While primarily demonstrated through military operations, interoperability is achieved through joint-nation exercises, liaison teams and constant key-leader-engagement (KLE) paired with deliberate relationship building to develop trust and commonly shared standard operating procedures (SOPs). While varied states may have differences in resources to commit to a given issue, the mere sharing of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) among like entities greatly benefits the international community as a whole.

Intergovernmental organizations also need to seek engagement from nongovernmental organization and transnational corporations. The EU has already put in to place provisions for freezing terrorist assets and transactions through many of the world’s leading financial institutions in concert with the international Financial Action Task Force (FATF) (The European Union, 2005, p. 14). This demonstrates the engagement of international organizations with multinational corporations (MNCs) to achieve a mutually benefitting result. As the layers of complexity further develop in the 21st century, these are the relationships that need to be established to develop a true “multi-faceted” approach to opposing terrorism.

Since the UN is unable to coordinate efforts on an international level to affect regional issues, regional institutions and states need to engage NGOs and MNCs relevant to the area of operations that align with their anti-terrorism and counterterrorism strategies to further leverage the benefits of each organization’s capabilities. An example of this is the International Committee of the Red Cross/Crescent in Afghanistan. Volunteers for the ICRC have been attacked numerous times over the past decade in Afghanistan, causing the ICRC to all but remove their operations from the country. If NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were to further integrate into operations, albeit not formally, of organizations like ICRC, they could further ensure the NGO’s security and success. This mutually benefits military efforts by alleviating the need of providing the type of assistance the ICRC can offer. Examples of mutually benefitting relationships such as this are available across the multitude of counterterrorism operations throughout the international community if organizations take an innovative approach to problem solving. Counterterrorism requires a diplomatic, military and developmental response. Ensuring synchronized international interagency cooperation across state, IGO, NGO and MNCs can maximize these efforts if planned deliberately and applied appropriately.

Information Sharing

The modern terrorist threat engages worldwide targets by studying gaps in national security and patiently engaging where their destruction will have the greatest strategic and symbolic implications. The challenge for international intelligence services to prevent attacks opposed by the decentralized, destruction-seeking and global nature of “new” terrorism is extraordinary (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 24). Additionally, when examining the “worst-case-scenario” of nuclear terrorism, terrorists could potentially execute a nuclear strike with as few operatives as they used to execute 9/11. The evolving nature of terrorism requires collaborative intelligence sharing. To effectively neutralize and defeat the modern terrorist threat we must promoted increased information sharing and intelligence collaboration through both law enforcement and national intelligence services. This requires trust, but minimal funding when compared to other objectives, making this (theoretically) an easier initial objective to achieve than other long-term options. With sufficient trust and redesigned lines of communication to break down bureaucratic barriers, the international community can grease the wheels of anti-terrorism and counterterrorism efforts worldwide.

The international community has developed measurable success in the last decade, creating formal mechanisms to share information to prevent the terrorist prosecution of soft targets such as civil aviation and transportation hubs (The State Department, 2017, p. 12). Additionally, many of our allies now maintain domestic counterterrorism intelligence organizations that have no functional law enforcement requirements, enabling them to focus all of their efforts on information gathering and collaboration (Chalk et al., 2004, p. 69). An example of diplomacy and intelligence at work was following 9/11, when George Bush immediately engaged pro-Western Muslim rulers, gaining critical allies against the war on terror through their sharing of real-time intelligence on threats in the region (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 157). The true litmus test of international counterterrorism strategy in regard to intelligence sharing is whether or not data can be processed and developed fast enough to enable time-sensitive targets (TSTs) to be prosecuted during kinetic combat operations. If intelligence is shared, but no longer actionable, it is merely a gesture of good will between allies, and no longer of any significant use. 

As a whole (with some exceptions), the international intelligence community does not appear to have the capability to share information fast enough in the age of accelerated dynamic terrorism to significantly affect terrorist operations. The general trends in the 2018 State Department Country Reports on Terrorism show that minimal trust, thus minimal sharing exists across the “Global South.” Some of this is attributed to safe haven countries where terrorism thrives, but also has weak government institutions and rampant corruption, raising many potential negative effects for information sharing. This enables terrorist organizations to travel across borders and attack neighboring countries without realistic fear of their operations becoming compromised. Also, while the Global North exhibits greater trust and collaboration, there is minimal benefit in that relationship (for situations outside of homeland security objectives) without including the Global South. The inability of the Global North to establish a measure of trust with countries that host terrorism impedes the total international relationship. Realistically however, unless the safe haven’s government is stable enough to ensure shared critical intelligence will not become compromised, trust will not exist.

To solve this issue, countries must first focus on their domestic intelligence and law enforcement structure. Many state’s organizations are overwhelmed with the responsibility to both collect information and prosecute violations of law. In order to delegate responsibility, resources and ensure a realistic application, states should define who is responsible for domestic vs. national intelligence, and who is responsible for domestic vs. national law enforcement. This may even mean four separate organizations. This is demonstrated in countries like France, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada, that have “…vested domestic counterterrorism intelligence into the hands of dedicated agencies that have no functional law enforcement powers of arrest or detention” (Chalk et al., 2004, p. 43). This has allowed for these agencies to conduct surveillance operations on terrorism suspects long-term to gather data and information about operations and logistical cell activity and allows for long-term surveillance of terrorist suspects (as intelligence services are not concerned with the immediate requirement of criminal prosecutions), which has helped with the disruption of both operation and/or logistical cells (Chalk et al., 2004, p. 43).

Once a state has delegated and defined its own law enforcement and intelligence responsibilities it can engage in meaningful collaboration and cooperation with international entities, with information organizations sharing information horizontally, understanding the end goals with consideration of public policy, law enforcement or military means.


“Combating modern, global terrorism is a worldwide endeavor that can benefit immensely from cooperation with others, and it may be that we collectively have devoted insufficient imagination or attention to the opportunities for increased international collaboration” (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. x).

-- John Negroponte, 1st US Director of National Intelligence           

The lack of shared interests being an obstacle to cooperation is not confined to terrorism, but is apparent in other, though not all, security issues. (Gottlieb et al., 2018, p. 289). Unless states recognize the need for cooperation and understand that an individual state’s grand strategy may need to be out prioritized by the greater needs of the international community, these impediments will remain barriers to international cooperation. As described by Zach Shirley, regardless of advances in the past decade, these issues still pervade international organizations:

The UN and other international organizations remain hamstrung by their inherent shortcomings: failure to create a commonly accepted definition of terrorism and corresponding legal frameworks that states will take seriously; failure to punish noncompliance with IO mandates on priorities such as sanctioning terrorist groups and their financiers; and failure to solve collective action problems on key issues related to terrorism such as intelligence gathering and sharing.

The growing threat of terrorism has resulted in greater recognition of the need for cooperation to oppose its challenges. However, the UN has demonstrated that it is ineffective at facilitating counter terrorism efforts, merely promoting rhetoric that opposes terrorist efforts when it is ensured not to offend any UN members. Its efforts may be considered embarrassing, and only agree with other international organizations after a conclusion is made, such as NATO’s invoking Article V by Tony Blair in 2001 against Al Qaeda, to which only then the UN designated Al Qaeda as their only labeled terrorist threat.

This leaves cooperation as primarily a bilateral and multilateral effort, allowing states to identify and unify priorities with other states with whom they choose to partner based on mutual benefits. Examples of this are specific relationships like the US and Israel, and NATO’s specified International Security and Assistance Force. These efforts allow greater opportunity for progress since countries can align objectives, designate a threat that they are motivated to defeat, and pursue interoperability with the goal of breaking down the barriers of bureaucracy to achieve a unity of efforts.

Galbraith, P. (2006). The end of iraq : How american incompetence created a war without end. New York: Simon & Schuster.References

Chalk, P., Rosenau, W. (2004). Confronting the “enemy within.” RAND Corporation. Retrieved from

Council of the European Union. (2005). The European union counter terrorism strategy. Retrieved from

Gottlieb, S. (2018). Debating terrorism and counterterrorism: Conflicting perspectives on causes, contexts and responses. CQ Press, SAGE Publications. Thousand Oakes, California.

Miskel, J. (2005). Grand strategies for dealing with other states in the new, new world order. Naval War College Review Winter 2005.

The State Department. (2017). Country reports on terrorism 2017. Washington, DC: United States Department of State Publication.

The White House. (2017). National security strategy. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.


About the Author(s)

Kyle Amonson is an active duty Army Captain and graduate student at Norwich University studying international relations and international security. Captain Amonson received his commission from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and has deployed in support of various operations throughout Europe and the Middle East. Opinions expressed in his articles are those of the author's and not those of the U.S. Department of Defense or U.S. Army.