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date: 20 March 2018

International Organization and Terrorism

Summary and Keywords

Before 9/11, the literature on terrorism and international organizations (IOs) was largely event driven. That is to say, the modest nature of the debate reflected a modest empirical record of IO engagement in responding to terrorism. Moreover, this period saw a correlation between the way states acted against terrorism through IOs and the nature of subsequent debates. Famously, states were (and remain) unable to agree on a definition of “terrorism,” precluding broad-based action through IOs. The findings presented in this literature were furthermore often quite bleak. The immediate post-9/11 period, however, was much more optimistic. This period saw an unprecedented increase in action against terrorism in IOs, primarily through the Security Council resolution 1373. Resolution 1373 elaborates a broad—and mandatory—agenda for counterterrorism cooperation. This resolution has had significant and ongoing consequences for the ways IOs are utilized in the effort to suppress terrorism. Furthermore, this and other IO engagements with terrorism brought about an increase in scholarly interest in the area, even giving rise to a sense of optimism in the literature. Thus, from the pre- to the post-9/11 period, there are elements of both continuity and change in the way scholars have discussed terrorism in the context of IOs.

Keywords: terrorism, international organizations, 9/11, counterterrorism, IO responses to terrorism, Resolution 1373


The period since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11), has seen an unprecedented increase in scholarly interest in terrorism, with mixed results (Silke 2007). Amid the rush to publish, only a few books, volumes, and articles address terrorism in the context of international organizations (IOs). Nonetheless, this represents an increase on the pre-9/11 period, and contemporary scholars often begin their analyses by reflecting upon the lack of attention to the topic in both the IOs literature and in the broader literature on terrorism (e.g., Boulden and Weiss 2004b:5–10; Luck 2004a:79; Cortright and Lopez 2007:3). Regarding the latter, researchers within the field of “terrorism studies” cite a gap in knowledge on counterterrorism in general (e.g., Ranstorp 2007:16) and, both before and after 9/11, have identified the involvement of IOs as an area where further research is needed (United Nations Terrorism Prevention Branch 2000; Crelinsten 2007; Jongman 2007). Searches of relevant terrorism bibliographies confirm that IOs have entered the debate about terrorism and counterterrorism at the margins only (see Forest 2006; Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism Library n.d.).

Given this record, my task in this review essay is to reconstruct our knowledge of terrorism and IOs. I do so by tracing elements of continuity and change in debates from the pre- to the post-9/11 periods. Before 9/11, the literature on terrorism and IOs was largely event driven. That is to say, the modest nature of the debate reflected a modest empirical record of IO engagement in responding to terrorism. Moreover, we can observe in this period a correlation between the way states acted against terrorism through IOs and the nature of subsequent debates. Famously, states were (and remain) unable to agree on a definition of “terrorism,” precluding broad-based action through IOs. Therefore, cooperation reflected a “piecemeal approach,” wherein particular terroristic acts (hijacking, hostage taking, etc.) formed the basis for cooperation. In turn, we can point to a series of “piecemeal debates” that emerged, on aviation security, maritime security, hostage taking, extradition law and policy, police cooperation, and so on. It follows that much of the knowledge generated about terrorism and IOs was descriptive. While most contributors had a disciplinary background in political science or international law, there were few efforts to integrate theory into their analyses, or to make explanatory claims. Methodologically, most research consisted of qualitative, single-case analyses in response to empirical developments. Attempts to synthesize trends across cases were less common, as the debate proceeded through articles and chapters in edited volumes, with few single-authored books or monographs. Looking back, what is striking is not the substance of the discussions (although they are useful historical references), nor the theories or methods deployed. Rather, one is most struck by the tone of the findings, and the often bleak prognoses delivered, concerning the place of IOs in responding to terrorism. Beyond assembling facts, a key (and sometimes overlooked) contribution of the pre-9/11 literature was a sobering series of “lessons learned” regarding cooperation against terrorism.

Many of the attributes of the pre-9/11 period persist in the post-9/11 debate. The literature remains event-driven, in that scholars have become more active as IOs have taken on more prominent roles in the “global war on terror.” The fact that there is more discussion than before reflects the fact that counterterrorism today is more institutionalized than at any time previously – a result of assertive and far-reaching US-led action in the UN Security Council in the immediate post-9/11 period. With more to talk about, the empirical scope of the debate has deepened and diversified. As a sign of vitality, the topic of international cooperation against terrorism now boasts its own research and policy institute, the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation (, with offices in Washington, DC, and New York City. But much of the literature maintains a focus on description, often analyzing discrete issues within a broader pattern of activity, and without drawing upon theory systematically. In these ways, today’s observers build on past contributions, which provide the historical backdrop to contemporary developments.

However, as the volume of activity has grown, there are signs that the debate is moving beyond description and policy critique. The most recent scholarship addresses research questions that arise from patterns or trends in IO involvement in counterterrorism, for example, by looking at variation across different time periods, by studying state responses to IO-led initiatives, by comparing the responses of different IOs, or by comparing IO responses to terrorism with action in other domains. This entails a more self-consciously theoretical approach and a stronger focus on comparative methods. In effect, these studies begin to “bring terrorism in” to the mainstream research agenda on IOs. Here, it is interesting that in many cases the preliminary findings of this research are broadly consistent with the tone of the pre-9/11 debate, emphasizing that IOs are fora for competition and influence, as much as cooperation, regarding terrorism. With that said, a final point of continuity with the past is that, for the most part, IOs remain a secondary interest for scholars of terrorism and counterterrorism. As an empirical matter, these analysts continue to view measures pursued through IOs as little more than a useful complement to the core tasks of counterterrorism, i.e., the intelligence and law enforcement actions that tend to be undertaken outside of formal, large-membership fora. On this view, despite the uptick in multilateral activity, the role of IOs remains circumscribed.

The next two sections of the essay address the pre- and post-9/11 debates about terrorism and IOs, in turn. As indicated, my focus is less on the substance of the debates (which, in any case, would require a more exhaustive treatment than can be presented here) than it is on the findings of the various contributors, whether their goal has been to describe or explain developments. While the literature has varied with events, a theme of the scholarship over time has been to underscore the constraints on action against terrorism through IOs. In concluding, I reflect on the consequences of this for future research.

Before proceeding, it is apt to note that, although this review essay focuses on IOs in the context of counterterrorism, there are other ways in which the topics “IO” and “terrorism” intersect. Most notably, IOs themselves have been targets of terrorism on several occasions. In this regard, the UN was mentioned specifically by Osama bin Laden in his 1996 fatwa. He characterized the “iniquitous” UN as being beholden to the US, and presumably intended that it be included in his general call for violence against the “Zionist-Crusader alliance and their collaborators” (bin Laden 1996). A series of recent attacks fulfill this grisly command. In August 2003, a suicide bomber detonated at the UN Headquarters in Baghdad, killing 22 people. In December 2007, 17 UN staff were killed in an attack on UN offices in Algiers. In October 2008, the UN Development Program compound in Hargeysa, Somalia, was attacked by a suicide bomber, killing two staff members. Previously, in 2004, the World Bank and IMF were identified as possible targets of a plot to strike against financial institutions. These cases are shocking. They give rise to policy and research questions concerning the physical security of IO staff and facilities, and the selection of targets by terrorist groups. While related questions are the subject of ongoing debates (e.g., on targeting, see Libicki et al. 2007), they are beyond the scope of this review.

Scholarship on Terrorism and International Organizations before 9/11

As noted above, contemporary scholars are often underwhelmed by the antecedent literature on terrorism and IOs. This finding is understandable, in that the topic did not attract a significant amount of attention. But neither was it completely ignored and it merits our consideration for two reasons.

First, today’s researchers interested in tracing developments on terrorism-related issues in IOs will find research from this period to be valuable as a secondary source, as well as a useful reference in identifying primary sources. This is borne out by surveying the leading edited volumes that appeared over the period. For example, the chapters in volumes such as Bassiouni (1975b; 1988), Alexander (1976), and Higgins (1997) provide detailed descriptions of how cooperation against terrorism proceeded in the absence of agreement on the definition of terrorism. Such contributions, and others in this vein (e.g., Dugard 1974; Franck and Lockwood 1974; Murphy 1975; 1986; 1990; Finger 1976; Franck 1978; Rubin 1990; Bailey 1993; Schmid 2000), relate the causes and consequences of the dispute over the definition of terrorism, which emerged in the UN General Assembly in the early 1970s. At that time, a broad coalition of third world and communist states sought to preserve the legitimacy of “national liberation movements,” arguing that certain ends could justify the use of violence, thereby giving rise to the cliché that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This triggered a wide-ranging debate among scholars themselves as to the definition of terrorism (with little by way of consensus, see Schmid 2004) as well as descriptive treatments of states’ disagreements (now subsumed by Saul’s [2006] comprehensive account).

In this period, too, the “piecemeal approach” to acting against terrorism emerged, with states concluding 12 international instruments prior to 9/11, covering different acts considered to be “terrorism” (these are summarized at To some extent, the treaties themselves reflect the evolution of terrorist violence, i.e., aviation security was an emphasis in the 1960s and 1970s, hostage taking in the 1980s, maritime security became a concern after the Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985, action on plastic explosives followed the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, and so on. As a result, through the sources mentioned above, and in a series of more specialized articles and books, we can trace the role of IOs in regulating aviation security (where the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) took the lead; see Fitzgerald 1987; Alexander and Sochor 1990; Wallis 1998), maritime security (where the International Maritime Organization (IMO) was active, see Parritt 1986; Ronzitti 1990), hostage taking (Aston 1981; Verwey 1981), as well as other aspects of counterterrorism. Moreover, although there was a failure to define terrorism at the global level, scholars noted a spillover effect, such that regional-level organizations (including the Organization of American States and the European Community) and other multilateral groupings (including the G7 and NATO) were prompted to take action on terrorism (e.g., Murphy 1986; Crenshaw 1989: ch. 3). While there were several cross-cutting themes in these debates – including discussion of the “extradite or prosecute” principle, which appeared in several of the UN conventions (Bassiouni and Wise 1995) – they very much reflected the “piecemeal” nature of states’ response to terrorism through IOs.

A second, and perhaps less noticed, contribution of the pre-9/11 literature on terrorism and IOs concerns the findings that the various analysts made about the prospects for IO action against terrorism. In addition to describing contemporary events, it is notable that scholars in this period converged around the view that the role of IOs in responding to terrorism is limited on account of the contentious politics surrounding the issue. This skepticism accompanied the earliest involvement of formal IOs in responding to terrorism. The 1937 League of Nations Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of Terrorism offered a comprehensive (as opposed to “piecemeal”) approach to the issue and, unlike any convention since, included a definition of “terrorism.” It attracted scant attention from scholars of the day, although at least one commentator doubted its importance. Concerning its provisions on police cooperation, J.G. Starke observed: “Cooperation of police forces is already, to a large extent, effective without the existence of any international treaty obligation […] Indeed, it may be surmised that for the prevention of terrorist outrages such cooperation is likely to be more effective than the stiffening of the law” (Starke 1938:215).

This idea – that legal norms add little value compared to operational cooperation – recurs over time. More generally, scholars gave an unapologetically blunt assessment of the political divisions that stymied IO action, especially in the 1970s (e.g., Dugard 1974; Hoveyda 1977). For example, writing on the UN response to the hostage crisis and subsequent killing of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Murphy (1975:504) reflected that

[a] primary problem under present circumstances is that Arab states are ambivalent about the legitimacy of actions such as the killings at Munich. Although they may deplore the loss of innocent life involved, their fervent support of the cause espoused by the terrorists, and their hatred of Israel, make them reluctant to prosecute the terrorists. Unless and until this attitude changes, no international convention on terrorism will be effective, even if adopted by many states, because a large area of sanctuary will remain.

Several scholars greeted political stalemate by ratcheting down expectations of what could be achieved by IOs, and by counseling pragmatism. Finger captured this idea in acknowledging that, “[a]ll political institutions are responsive to political forces, and an organization composed of sovereign states cannot move against the strong opposition of a substantial group of them. It is therefore more realistic to assess the organization as it is and, in that light, make the best feasible use of it” (1976:343).

As a result, the scholarly debate tended to waver between the question of how to define terrorism and whether or not the effort should be made to do so. Some viewed a consensus definition as a necessary basis for action, offering pragmatic definitions themselves (e.g., Badey 1998). Others argued that, in light of the roadblocks, the “piecemeal approach” presented a rational alternative (e.g., Bassiouni 1975a; Hoveyda 1977; Franck 1978; Roberts 1986; Rubin 1990), especially if complemented by bilateral and regional-level action (Corves 1978). Even then, scholars emphasized the barriers to the conclusion of treaties. For example, in commenting on the relative success in negotiating the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons – concluded in 1973, at the height of the considerable fallout from Munich – Finger noted the precipitous confluence of events that undergirded its passage. The treaty, he recalled, had been drafted prior to Munich, with third world buy-in assured as a result of the 1971 murder of the Yugoslav Ambassador to Sweden. He went on to suggest that future attempts to act against terrorism should “enlist the support of one or more Third World countries,” and target “offences so grave and crimes so serious that all states, or at least the preponderant majority […] are prepared to legislate against such acts” (1976:344–5). Further still, scholars were frank about the shortcomings of the conventions (e.g., Reisman 1999). Rates of ratification were observed to be low, and implementation was found to be wanting, especially concerning the states that were associated with support or sympathy for terrorism (Murphy 1986; 1990). This included the aviation security-related conventions (the oldest of the UN instruments), and scholars were unsurprised that efforts to bolster them in the early 1970s were unsuccessful (Franck and Lockwood 1974:70–1).

Most remarkably, several scholars suggested jettisoning the term “terrorism” altogether, arguing that it is an “historically misleading and politically loaded term which invites conceptual and ideological dissonance” (Franck and Lockwood 1974:89). Murphy surmised that “[t]he term has served as a label that government officials and others pin on their adversaries. Hopelessly imprecise, vague, emotionally laden and legally inoperative, the term ‘terrorism’ has proven to be a major barrier to efforts to combat the actions subsumed under the term” (1986:89). On this view, a virtue of the “piecemeal approach” is that “the term ‘terrorism’ need not be brought into play” (Franck and Lockwood 1974:89; see also Finger 1976:345). Roberts put the point pragmatically, observing: “There is not necessarily anything wrong with calling [certain acts] ‘terrorism’. However, there should be no illusions that such nomenclature will be widely – let alone universally – accepted, or that it will aid our understanding of the causes of this disturbing phenomenon, or enable us to oppose it effectively” (1986:15–16). This claim – that the term itself is more harmful than useful and should be retired – does not appear in the scholarly discussion today (but note Tilly’s related intervention [2004]).

Of course, it is not the case that all contributors viewed IO activity against terrorism so bleakly all the time. Rather, there were moments of optimism in the mid-1980s, as the tone of the debate changed, away from the view that certain ends could justify the killing of innocents (Murphy 1986; 1990). As the Cold War began to thaw, and then ended, the promise of more effective cooperation loomed (e.g., Beliaev and Marks 1991). This anticipation was fulfilled to some extent in the 1990s as states concluded several new terrorism-related conventions, began a formal debate on a “comprehensive convention on international terrorism” (Corell 2000; Perera 2000), and, through the Security Council, imposed sanctions against supporters of terrorism (Corell 2000; Cortright and Lopez 2000: ch. 6). But it is not surprising that the few scholars that did venture more theoretically informed accounts of counterterrorism cooperation took a realist approach. For example, Crenshaw borrowed from realism and game theory to identify four conditions that would lead to better cooperation: (1) the rules of cooperative behavior must be defined; (2) the mutual benefits of cooperation must be clear; (3) the distinction between cooperation and noncooperation must be clear and; (4) the penalties for not cooperating must be recognized (Crenshaw 1989:38). More stridently, Wilkinson (2001:200) pointed to the security dilemma to explain IOs’ record in responding to terrorism:

In our essentially anarchical international system there is no universal agreement as to what constitutes the legitimate use of violence […] Each state jealously guards its own national sovereignty, especially on sensitive issues of national security. And each national government inevitably places the pursuit of its own national interest above all other considerations, including even general international declarations about common responsibilities to combat terrorism.

In his book, initially released prior to 9/11, former CIA counterterrorism analyst Paul Pillar contended that “[m]uch multilateral diplomacy is essentially mood music [to other instruments of counterterrorism], but even mood music can be helpful in reaching more specific goals” (2003:77). Multilateralism, he claimed, was useful for three reasons: to provide a “formal structure for making demands and implementing responses”; to help build international norms against terrorism; and to facilitate the development of common standards (e.g., for aviation security, or the marking of explosives) that help prevent terrorism (2003:73–9). On this view, the nature of IOs limits their capacity to play more than a bit-part in responding to terrorism. As the tone of the pre-9/11 literature suggests, almost every analyst that studied the topic drew a similar conclusion.

Scholarship on Terrorism and International Organizations after 9/11

The immediate post-9/11 period saw an unprecedented increase in action against terrorism in IOs. The primary vehicle for this was Security Council resolution 1373, passed on September 28, 2001. Issued under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, resolution 1373 elaborates a broad – and mandatory – agenda for counterterrorism cooperation. For example, 1373 requires that states implement a wide range of counterterrorism measures in such areas as financial regulation, migration and customs controls, and arms transfers, while calling for cooperation in law enforcement and extradition. To facilitate the implementation of these measures, the resolution created a “Counterterrorism Committee” (CTC), to whom states are required to report.

This resolution has had significant and ongoing consequences for the ways IOs are utilized in the effort to suppress terrorism. Over time, 1373 has been complemented and qualified by subsequent developments, including successive resolutions of the Security Council and, in 2006, a “Global Counterterrorism Strategy” passed by the General Assembly. Today, counterterrorism affects more IOs than ever before, and the “Counterterrorism Implementation Taskforce” (CTITF), established in the Office of the UN Secretary General in July 2005, now endeavors to coordinate the activities of some two dozen entities within the UN system alone. Instructively, the February 2009 organogram released by the CTITF positions the task force as though it were a sun in the center of a solar system of UN bodies (see, accessed Apr. 2, 2009). The broader universe here includes regional and subregional organizations, as well as specialized bodies outside of the UN system.

This uptick in IO engagement on terrorism is remarkable, both in terms of the volume of activity and the effort to consolidate the “piecemeal” responses of the past. As a result, the post-9/11 period has seen an increase in scholarly interest in the area. Here, the passage of 1373 and the initial record of the CTC (which was more successful than past subsidiary organs of the Security Council in eliciting reports from states) gave rise to a sense of optimism. Ward argued that the response to 9/11 “set in motion a new paradigm for the international community to combat terrorism” (2003:289). But despite such claims, the tone of subsequent scholarship has been more mixed, resulting in a debate that shows elements of both continuity and change with the past.

An initial point of continuity lies in the way that scholars have built on the “piecemeal” nature of past debates. Scholars have tracked the broader impact of 9/11 on those organizations that dealt with terrorism before the attacks. This has meant new analyses of developments in IOs concerning aviation security (Wilkinson and Jenkins 2007; Harrison 2009), maritime security (Hesse 2003; Nincic 2005), and police cooperation (Deflem 2006; 2007). Similarly, scholars of IOs have maintained a focus on the definition of terrorism (Schmid 2004; Hmoud 2006; Saul 2006), the law and politics of extradition (Joyner 2002–3), and the use of sanctions to suppress terrorism (Cortright and Lopez 2002: ch. 7). The evolving roles of regional organizations, especially the European Union (Rees 2006), as well as institutions such as NATO (Bensahel 2003) and the G8 (Belelieu 2002), have been the subject of ongoing analysis. Partly as a consequence of the broader conceptualization of counterterrorism since 9/11, we can add to these debates several issues of more recent scholarly interest. The topic of terrorist financing, including the nature of international cooperation to suppress it, is now a lively subfield (Clunan 2006; Biersteker et al. 2007). Security Council action against WMD proliferation has renewed interest in the links between those weapons and terrorism, with IOs engaged in developing responses (Bosch and van Ham 2007). The role of the Security Council in passing 1373 – perceived by some to resemble a legislative act – has sharpened attention on the nature of the Council’s authority (Szasz 2002; Rosand 2005). The human rights implications of counterterrorism, wherein IOs are conceived as possible offenders, as well as fora for relief, are being researched with vigor (Human Rights Watch 2003; Hoffman 2004; Joyner 2004; Schmid 2005; Donohue 2008; Amnesty International 2008). International cooperation to impede the ability of terrorists to travel has engaged both IOs and scholars (Koslowski 2004; Ginsburg 2006). These and other topics are discussed in several edited volumes on counterterrorism cooperation and IOs that have appeared since 9/11 (Boulden and Weiss 2004a; Ramraj et al. 2005; Nesi 2006; Cortright and Lopez 2007; Durmaz et al. 2007).

As noted above, the emergence of the Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation attests to the policy relevance of these discussions. The work of the Center (available at covers many of the dimensions of counterterrorism mentioned here and comprises an excellent resource for researchers and students. Funded by grants from foundations and governments, the Center’s publications often go beyond description and policy analysis, introducing an element of advocacy into the debate. For example, Center co-directors Alistair Millar and Eric Rosand (2006) have argued that, in light of the surge in multilateral activity since 9/11, a new IO should be created, to better coordinate the efforts of the international community. This proposal received a lukewarm response in the discussions that comprised the “International Process on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation,” funded by Costa Rica, Japan, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Turkey, and coordinated by the Center (see Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation 2008). Most recently, the Center has called for the incoming Obama Administration to renew the commitment of the US to multilateral action against terrorism, especially in its engagement of UN bodies, the G8 and the Financial Action Task Force (a 34-member body with a focus on anti–money laundering and counterterrorist financing) (Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation 2009).

A further break with the past is that scholars have begun to take a more systematic approach to generating knowledge about terrorism and IOs. They have done this by utilizing concepts and theories from scholarly international relations (IR) more consistently, by asking research questions drawn from the broader research agenda on IOs, and by adopting comparative methods. Indeed, given the nature of the empirical record – with a sharp increase in multilateral action after 9/11 – Keohane recognized in 2002 that the response to 9/11 would “pose a fruitful test for institutionalist theory” (2002:36). Similarly, Stiles observes that this pattern represents something of a natural experiment to assess competing theories about causes and consequences of international cooperation (2006:38). Scholars have begun to substantiate these claims, with analyses built around four trends that have emerged from states’ engagement of IOs.

First, scholars are now asking questions about variation in the response of IOs to terrorism over time. For example, Luck (2006) notes that the initial period of optimism concerning the UN response to 9/11 subsided, with several procedural and political difficulties confronting the CTC. He asks why UN action on terrorism remains plagued by ambivalence, even after 9/11. To explain this return to the norm, he points to “geopolitics, US leadership, and ambivalence about American power” (2006:336–7). Luck ventures a similar explanation to account for the role of the Security Council over time, suggesting that the Council is constrained by the structure of international politics: “The Security Council must avoid becoming a prisoner of animosities and geopolitical dynamics largely beyond its control. It can neither correct global imbalances in military assets nor resolve the underlying tensions of the Middle East. But it can make a conscious effort to act as a constructive and reliable broker in both equations” (2004b:97). This approach leads Luck to reflect that past patterns of interaction continue in the post-9/11 period. If the dynamics of cooperation are so immutable over time, he argues, “[t]he challenge for the UN is to do the best it can within a circumscribed sphere of action, one that is bound to be more normative than operational” (2006:351–2).

Other scholars have analyzed variation over time by utilizing the concept of regimes, mostly focusing on the dynamics of regime formation. Both Biersteker et al. (2007) and Clunan (2006) show that cooperation on terrorist financing now constitutes a regime. Nincic (2005) makes a similar claim in the domain of maritime security, while Koslowski (2004) argues that the same cannot be said for measures to impede the movement of terrorists. Sasikumar (in press) generalizes more broadly in observing a “counter-terrorism regime” per se, arguing that its emergence reflects interactions between and among states and IOs. With that said, the role of powerful states, and the US in particular, is often noted, suggesting that the roots of any such regimes lie in hegemonic influence (Romaniuk in press(a); Whitaker 2007; in press). On the role of the US in this process, Luck (2004a) argues that, despite claims of “unilateralism,” Washington’s approach to IOs since 9/11 has been consistent with its pre-9/11 record. Others note that, as in the past, multilateralism remains a useful tool for advancing US interests on terrorism (Boulden and Weiss 2004c; Kramer and Yetiv 2007).

A further approach to analyzing variation over time can be found in a series of recent articles that utilize concepts such as learning and adaptation to explain the evolving role of the Security Council and its subsidiary organs. Heupel argues that the Council’s actions do indeed manifest adaptation (2007) and that, in doing so, it has utilized different modes of governance (both “hierarchical” and “soft”) (Heupel 2008). Most recently, she explains the evolution of the Council’s sanctions against terrorists by analyzing the interaction of different actors, including courts, powerful states, and civil society groups (Heupel 2009). A related claim is made by Foot (2007), who finds that corrective measures – to better integrate due process concerns into Council procedures for listing those subject to sanctions (on this, see Biersteker and Eckert 2006) – reveal the embedded nature of human rights norms among key actors and within institutions. In line with the broader literature on IOs, these findings reflect a stronger appreciation of IOs as agents in their own right (e.g., both Foot 2007 and Heupel 2007 cite Barnett and Finnemore 2004). In contrast to Luck, they suggest that the volume of IO activity on terrorism since 9/11 has resulted in a qualitative change in institutional dynamics.

A second approach among scholars today is to treat IOs as the independent variable, to explain their effects on states. One conceptual frame for doing so is that of “compliance.” In this regard, Stiles and Thayne use both qualitative and quantitative methods in their discussion of compliance with resolution 1373. They find that

there is significant variation in the degree of compliance with international rules, even when these rules are “legislative” in form, receive unanimous approval, address problems of obvious urgency and importance, require little in the way of tangible resources for implementation (except political will and capacity to implement policy decisions), and carry with them strong multilateral enforcement provisions. This, in turn, implies that any global effort to enhance international rule compliance should take into account the likelihood that even where the international community has reached a resolute commitment, implementation will not naturally follow. (2006:167)

This general finding ought to be qualified when looking at specific cases, as scholars have found that a range of factors – including interactions with powerful states and domestic politics – can influence degrees of compliance with counterterrorism measures (Sasikumar in press; Whitaker in press). In some domains, such as terrorist financing, where standards (and methods for their evaluation) are elaborated in precise terms, discussions of compliance can take on a more technical hue (Targeting Terrorist Finances Project 2004; Giraldo and Trinkunas 2007; Johnson 2008). But research shows that both rationalist and constructivist theories of IR can be drawn upon to explain variation in national-level responses in such cases (Romaniuk in press(b)).

A third theme in the recent scholarship concerns the diversity of institutional fora that have acted against terrorism. In light of this, researchers ask, why has action proceeded further in some IOs than in others? In tackling such a question, Stiles (2006) points to the importance of institutional procedures, which make some fora more appealing for states. In particular, he argues that the Security Council provided “more procedural levers” for the US in seeking action after 9/11 (2006:48). For Stiles, an implication of this argument is that we ought to pay more attention to the idea of “forum shopping,” as states will seek the most favorable institution through which to advance their interests. After 9/11, “The United States clearly knew that it might obtain a more favorable outcome by using the Security Council […] than by going to the General Assembly” (Stiles 2006:52). Taken to its extreme, such behavior would lead to a “‘natural selection’ of [IOs] and their agendas and a gradual convergence around a central core of acceptable values and procedures” (Stiles 2006:52). Romaniuk (in press(a)) takes up the argument on “forum shopping.” He argues that multilateral counterterrorism since 9/11 reveals that states use institutions as “swords” (to assert their interests) or “shields” (to defend them). Using this framework, he portrays the General Assembly Strategy as a response to the assertiveness of the Security Council, and argues that similar dynamics have been at work in the elaboration of rules and norms on maritime security and terrorist financing in the post-9/11 period. On some occasions, IOs facilitate the influence of powerful states (terrorist financing). In other domains they help weaker states resist such influence (the UN General Assembly). In still other cases (maritime security), outcomes are mixed, as IOs have a moderating effect on attempts at influence and resistance.

Bensahel (2006), too, notes that multiple fora are engaged in international cooperation against terrorism. For this reason, she argues that the term “coalition against terrorism” is misguided, suggesting that it is more accurate to observe a “coalition of coalitions”: “There are at least five different counter-terror coalitions, each addressing a different functional area [i.e., military, financial, law enforcement, intelligence, and reconstruction], and they are all tied together in a complex web of inter-connected relationships that often involve complex tradeoffs and policy choices” (Bensahel 2006:36). IOs play different roles across these different coalitions, but “are only likely to make substantial contributions to the financial and reconstruction coalitions” (2006:44). Indeed, Bensahel, unlike Stiles and Romaniuk, mentions the United Nations only in these contexts, reflecting a more operational understanding of counterterrorism. The emergence of multiple fora in this analysis derives from functional and pragmatic considerations, but has implications for policy makers managing relationships with partners.

A final theme in current scholarly debates is that IO action on terrorism has begun to be contrasted with IO action in other domains. In other words, rather than being a single case only, the response of IOs to terrorism is now seen as an example of several broader phenomena. For example, to pick up on the point just made, Forman and Segaar (2006) argue that the multilateral response to terrorism manifests an important contemporary trend, namely, that “governments increasingly opt to act through diverse intergovernmental arrangements, operating alongside or outside the traditional intergovernmental institutions on a wide set of inter-related issues” (2006:209). They use the term “alternative intergovernmental arrangements” to capture the rising diversity of cooperative mechanisms, noting the range of actors that are engaged in the effort to suppress terrorist financing (i.e., several UN bodies, the G8, regional organizations, the Financial Action Task Force on Money Laundering (FATF), the World Bank and IMF, the Egmont Group (of national financial intelligence units), the G20 finance ministers, as well as private sector actors) (2006:210). While the use of such alternative intergovernmental arrangements may yield dividends in terms of efficacy, Forman and Segaar foresee that questions of legitimacy and sustainability may emerge as problems.

A similar approach, albeit with contrasting findings, is taken by Thakur and Weiss (2009). They ask whether the UN can be said to possess “policies” on particular issues, using terrorism as a case to illustrate this understudied aspect of IOs as actors. They do indeed identify a UN policy on terrorism, bringing together as it does the work of multiple bodies within the organization. It is the unique attributes of the UN – especially its universal membership and the sense of legitimacy that it confers – that have yielded a prominent role for IOs in this area:

The [UN] has become the forum of choice for regime negotiation and norm promotion in countering international terrorism, one of the most contested policy issues. Indeed, the establishment of a regime through an interlocking collection of treaties and conventions is one of the more powerful achievements of the UN system over the past decade. To be sure, it lacks enforcement capacity, but it can promulgate and promote the normative and legal framework of a counter-terrorism regime. It can also be the coordinating forum for counter-terrorism efforts by states, regional organizations and technical agencies. (2009:26)

A related line of argument asks whether the post-9/11 experience within the UN offers lessons for current or future UN action in domains other than terrorism. Research to date suggests that relevant lessons can be found to inform future sanctions debates (Ward 2005), as well as action on the exploitation of natural resources in conflict settings (Eckert 2005) and WMD proliferation (Biersteker 2005). Regarding the latter, Biersteker notes that the UN response to terrorism entails “policy innovation, adaptation and institutional learning” (2005:39). If the similarly bold Security Council response to WMD proliferation (contained in resolution 1540 [2004]) is to succeed, then the missteps made by the CTC ought to be studied, and measures to address certain procedural issues (such as the duplication of reporting requirements) ought to be considered.

As I’ve described them here, these recent developments in the literature on terrorism and IOs are promising. The use of concepts and theories from IR, and the shift to thinking more comparatively, aids our understanding of the topic and enables us to go beyond simply describing and critiquing events. The kinds of research questions asked are familiar to scholars of IOs and, in this way, indicate that terrorism is becoming less of a boutique topic and more part of the mainstream for scholars of international cooperation. For three reasons, however, the advances made in these recent studies should not be oversold for the time being. First, we are not yet talking about a “literature” per se, but rather a (growing) handful of articles and chapters. At the time of writing, there is no single-authored scholarly book on the topic in the post-9/11 period (but see Romaniuk in press(c)). Several observers share the view that international cooperation against terrorism remains “fragile” (e.g., Pillar 2004:106–8). If the past is any indication, scholarly interest in terrorism and IOs may decline again if cooperation tapers off. Still, the institutionalization of counterterrorism mechanisms after 9/11 seems to suggest that there will be something substantial to study in the short and medium term. That may motivate the future work in the area that is necessary to consolidate recent advances.

Second, and relatedly, despite the conceptual, theoretical, and methodological break with the past, there is a sense of déjà vu about the preliminary findings that have been ventured in the post-9/11 debate. For example, Luck’s emphasis on geopolitical considerations leads him to observe continuity from the pre- to the post-9/11 period, and he remains skeptical about the ability of the UN to transcend the politics of terrorism (2004a; 2004b; 2006). Stiles and Thayne (2006) relate a modest record in terms of actual compliance with post-9/11 initiatives. Stiles’s (2006) and Romaniuk’s (in press(a)) claims regarding “forum shopping” recall the spillover effect from the pre-9/11 period, when states sought action through regional and other fora, given the blockage at the UN. The observation of hegemonic influence (Whitaker 2007; in press; Romaniuk in press(a)), is reminiscent of Crenshaw’s (1989) and Wilkinson’s (2001) use of realism to explain patterns of interaction before 9/11. With that said, the emphasis on regimes, adaptation, and learning hints at trends that seem to diverge from past experience. Even if the immediate post-9/11 optimism cannot be maintained, these trends may offer fertile ground for future researchers. However, if we find that the underlying dynamics of IO action on terrorism in the present really are like those in the past, then it becomes less likely that a compelling research agenda can be sustained.

A third reason to qualify any claims regarding recent discussions of terrorism and IOs is that, even if terrorism has been brought into the study of IOs, it cannot yet be said that IOs have been brought into “terrorism studies.” To be clear, although the latter is a contested term (see Gunning 2007), I use it as convenient shorthand to refer to the interdisciplinary field that is developed by, and addressed to, scholars and practitioners whose primary interest is defined empirically and covers terrorism and counterterrorism. Here, the treatment of IOs is much more varied. The above-mentioned debates have taken place mostly in journals and volumes that reflect the disciplinary orientation of the contributors, i.e., political scientists and international lawyers with a specialization in IOs. Not surprisingly, such scholars are biased towards those aspects of counterterrorism that involve international cooperation, especially counterterrorism diplomacy and the development of preventive measures. The reverse effect can be observed within terrorism studies. As noted earlier, counterterrorism in general has attracted relatively little attention in the past (Ranstorp 2007) and the role of IOs in particular has been identified as a topic warranting further research (United Nations Terrorism Prevention Branch 2000; Crelinsten 2007; Jongman 2007). Consistent with this claim, the two leading journals in the field – Terrorism and Political Violence and Studies in Conflict and Terrorism – have published only a few articles since 9/11 on the UN, IOs, multilateralism, or international cooperation (but see Dhanapala 2005; Graham 2005; Schmid 2005). For the most part, articles on counterterrorism in those fora tend to address national- or regional-level developments, although these, too, have appeared only occasionally. In addition, the conceptualization of counterterrorism tends to be more operational, devoting less attention to diplomacy and preventive measures (Bensahel 2006). Several book-length treatments of counterterrorism (e.g., Ganor 2005; Byman 2007) set out a very limited role for IOs. Similarly, in his sweeping review of alliances (broadly defined) in light of the demands of counterterrorism, Byman contends that the “most important cooperation is done on a bilateral basis, while [IOs] and informal regimes can play a valuable [role]. Multilateral structures, however, are far less important for counter-terrorism” (2006:801). This assessment recalls Pillar’s pre-9/11 observation that multilateralism is merely the “mood music” to counterterrorism.

With that said, other works within the purview of terrorism studies do elaborate a more detailed account of counterterrorism and IOs. Chandler and Gunaratna (2007) (the former of whom was a counterterrorism official with the UN) give more space to IOs in their book, while Cronin and Ludes’s volume (2004) treats “diplomacy” alongside other tools of counterterrorism. Sheehan’s chapter therein recalls the benefits of action through IOs and argues that “diplomacy is the cornerstone of a comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy that seeks to politically discredit, operationally disrupt, and eventually defeat the most violent groups” (2004:98). Among the recent volumes that compare national counterterrorism policies, Art and Richardson (2007) and Zimmerman and Wenger (2007) note the importance of international cooperation, at both the global and regional levels. Most ambitiously, Crelinsten reconceives counterterrorism as global governance, contending that a broad range of measures are required to suppress terrorism. These include the ratification of international conventions, participation in regimes, and the deployment of “soft power” to address the “root causes of political, social and religious grievances” (Crelinsten 2007:232). Still, despite these contributions, we cannot say that IOs have penetrated the field of terrorism studies much beyond pre-9/11 levels, and there remains a sense of wariness that cooperation may well subside (Dibb 2002; Pillar 2004).

Continuity, Change, and Future Research

From the pre- to the post-9/11 period, there are elements of both continuity and change in the way scholars have discussed terrorism in the context of IOs. An important change has been the recent effort among scholars of IOs to integrate responses to terrorism into their research agenda. But an important point of continuity concerns the broadly skeptical view of the role of IOs in countering terrorism that emerges from both descriptive and explanatory accounts within the IO literature, and from scholars of terrorism and counterterrorism. On the whole, the former remain more interested than the latter in the IO action against terrorism. Moving forward, there are opportunities for both sets of scholars to advance our knowledge about terrorism and IOs. Three themes come to mind.

First, for scholars of IOs, terrorism is likely to remain a fruitful case to develop and test claims about the working of institutions. In doing so, several recent developments in the study of international cooperation may be considered. For example, the cluster of activity that now makes up counterterrorism cooperation may be usefully conceived in line with Raustiala and Victor’s idea of a “regime complex,” that is, “an array of partially overlapping and nonhierarchical institutions governing a particular issue area” (2004:279). They argue that regime complexes yield distinctive dynamics of cooperation, including an emphasis on “forum shopping.” This concept has been picked up by others, who analyze developments across a series of issue domains (see Alter and Meunier 2009). In reflecting on these contributions, Drezner (2009) wonders whether the proliferation of rules, norms, and cooperative mechanisms in a particular domain will enhance or constrain the ability of powerful actors to influence outcomes. Recalling Keohane (2002) and Stiles (2006), the record of IO responses to terrorism provides a unique opportunity to test such claims.

A second theme addresses researchers in the field of terrorism studies, who have consistently argued that, as an empirical matter, the scope for IO action against terrorism is circumscribed. Today, the importance of gaining a better understanding of counterterrorism is acknowledged. In doing so, future research might aim to clarify the contribution of IOs with greater precision, for example, by analyzing the origins of counterterrorism policy, or by assessing the effectiveness of different counterterrorism tools. Further, action through IOs may be considered in examining the little-understood relationship between terrorism and counterterrorism. Of course, the results of such studies may qualify or strengthen the historical skepticism towards the use of IOs as a tool of counterterrorism. But only further research can reinforce or moderate our views in this regard.

A final theme is that researchers from the two fields would do well to study each other’s work more closely. IO scholars would benefit from contextualizing the role of IOs in counterterrorism policy. Terrorism researchers would benefit by considering how action through IOs affects perceptions of counterterrorism more broadly. This seems more important than ever. Recent research (Sageman 2008) suggests that the “root causes” of terrorist radicalization today lie in a vicarious sense of moral outrage at injustice against Muslims, which resonates with the personal experiences of certain individuals. In turn, they become mobilized through decentralized small groups and networks, such that terrorism is a “bottom up” rather than a “top down” phenomenon. The evolving nature of terrorist violence has reinvigorated the debate on how to reduce the appeal of extremism to would-be terrorists (Aldis and Herd 2006; Bjørgo and Horgan 2008), and how to utilize “soft power” more effectively in dissuading them (Lennon 2003). Intuitively, IOs offer useful fora through which such initiatives can be advanced. It is no small irony that the UN General Assembly – once the preferred forum to defend the use of violence by “national liberation movements” – has come closer than other IOs to acting on this idea. The Assembly’s Counterterrorism Strategy commits states to take action to address “conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism.” On the one hand, this looks like progress. On the other, this is politics as usual, as it ought to be seen as an effort to qualify earlier Security Council measures and, in any case, is unlikely to be implemented widely. On balance, our knowledge of terrorism and IOs commends the latter interpretation.


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Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation. At, accessed Aug. 5, 2009. Research and policy institute devoted to the study of multilateral counterterrorism. Research projects and publications cover a wide range of issues, including regional-level analyses of the implementation of the UN General Assembly Counterterrorism Strategy, human rights concerns, and the role of the United States.

UN Action to Counter Terrorism. At, accessed Aug. 5, 2009. Comprehensive treatment of the UN’s response to terrorism. Includes descriptions of the key organs, bodies, and specialized agencies involved, as well as links to legal instruments, documents, and press releases. Note in particular the “UN Counterterrorism Online Handbook,” which provides a detailed summary of how the different parts of the UN system have responded.