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We’re in a new era of international cooperation against terrorism. Is that good or bad?

- March 31, 2016
Belgian soldiers guard a memorial site at the Place de la Bourse in Brussels on Sunday. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP)

After recent terrorist attacks in Europe, countries have moved to cooperate more on policing than they did in the past. But more isn’t necessarily better.

International security cooperation may develop without regard for privacy, transparency and accountability. And cooperating on policing and intelligence may not be enough without also trying to fix the conditions that foster extremism in the first place.

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A brief history of terrorism in Europe

European cooperation against terrorism began in the late 19th century, as anarchists began killing heads of state and other government officials, including — between 1881 and 1897 — a Russian czar, a French president, a Spanish prime minister and an Austrian empress.

In response to what prominent anarchists called “propaganda by the deed,” European nations in 1898 started an anti-anarchist conference to consider how to work together on policing. From that grew a number of efforts. For instance, extradition treaties began incorporating clauses stipulating that an attack against a head of state is not an ordinary “political crime” but grounds for extradition. In 1904 a small group of European countries signed onto the St. Petersburg Accords, encouraging nations to centralize their national law enforcement and to cooperate with one another.

But this anti-terrorist solidarity didn’t survive the wars and upheaval of the early 20th century.

A new era of international cooperation against terrorism

Since Sept. 11, 2001, another era of international cooperation against terrorism has arose. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world — especially within the West — have stepped up cooperation and shared more information after every significant terrorist attack. Sometimes that involves more cooperation under existing laws and international agreements. Sometimes that means new laws and agreements that allow deeper cooperation between states’ agencies.

The effect is always the same: Law enforcement and intelligence officials around the globe work more closely together. The changes are often incremental, but over time, new laws, agreements and international organizations have grown into an international counterterrorism regime.

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This web of cooperation is unlikely to unravel. In part because no war among Europe’s great powers looms, Europe — and the West more broadly — direct their fear at terrorism. To address nefarious militants and extremists, they keep building more elaborate collaborations. For example, shortly after the January 2015 attacks against Charlie Hebdo employees, and just months before the subsequent harrowing attacks in Paris, the European Commission released its “European Agenda on Security” which recommended, among other things, a European Counter-Terrorism Center to pool resources and integrate existing law enforcement structures.

But is that cooperation good or bad?

So is increasing international counterterrorism cooperation promising or problematic? The answer depends on your point of view.

On the one hand, terrorist attacks against the West are unlikely to stop any time soon. The Islamic State will almost certainly continue attacking, inspiring loners to join in. Al-Qaeda or another group could attack as well. It’s easy to target civilians in Europe and in liberal democracies elsewhere in the world, given those nations’ commitments to personal freedoms and open civic life, even if complex plots (like those against the London subways and buses) are getting harder to pull off.

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On the other, Western states have a near zero tolerance for terrorism. Even minor attacks are treated as requiring new bold action. For example, after the 2014 attack in Ottawa, which may have been carried out by someone mentally ill rather than by an avowed terrorist, and which killed one person, Canada passed legislation strengthening the Canadian intelligence service and enhancing its ability to share information with foreign governments.

But what happens if, each time there’s an attack, governments demand tougher security measures at home and more counterterrorism cooperation abroad? Over time, states will gain more power to observe and control their citizens’ lives and movements – not just at home but internationally, as governments’ security and intelligence apparatuses intertwine.

And who then will watch the watchers? Who will have the power to investigate and demand answers from an increasingly consolidated international security regime, ensuring that the process is accountable and transparent to the populations affected by it? These concerns reflect what International Relations scholars call the “democratic deficit” in international affairs.

An international security apparatus is already in place 

A thin version of this international security effort already exists. Aided by various agreements with other countries, the United States collects terrorism-related information in a central database — TIDE — at the National Counterterrorism Center. The United Nations also maintains a list of al-Qaeda and Islamic State members that states must sanction; it passed a significant resolution requiring states to enact counterterrorism measures. Both efforts have been met with some resistance — the sanctions list in particular — precisely because the U.N. measures are in tension with states’ sovereign authority over their own citizens.

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Calls for more cooperation in the aftermath of terrorist attacks typically focus on stopping extremists from planning and executing attacks. But that’s just the very end of the terrorism lifecycle. The rest of that cycle — a group’s initial decision to embrace violence, its efforts to recruit and its organizational dynamics — requires attention as well.

Governments know this, of course. However, crafting policies that prevent terrorism requires more than beefing up law enforcement and security cooperation. Although it’s harder to diagnose and isolate the forces that spawn and nurture extremist violence, much less act to reduce them, the wellsprings of extremism need attention.

Where does that leave us? We are faced with the twin challenge of crafting an international response that effectively diminishes terrorism across its life cycle and also reflects important democratic values.

This is by no means hopeless. Governments can leverage one part of the problem to address the other. Transparency and accountability can help ensure that international counterterrorism cooperation doesn’t outpace people’s ability to place checks on those efforts. Likewise, an open and honest deliberation about the nature of the terrorist threat to the West will help ensure that counterterrorism efforts remain commensurate with that threat.

Jason Keiber is a visiting assistant professor at Otterbein University in Ohio. You can find him on Twitter @crackademic.